Art Over Science

Lesson 7: Rejecting The Academy: The Original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelit Brotherhood was a school of British artists who came together in the middle of the nineteenth century and who rejected the currently accepted style of portraiture that was typified by the paintings of Reynolds and the Royal Academy. They were active between 1848 and 1853.

The first Pre-Raphaelites were John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They believed that the art schools had turned the High Renaissance style of Raphael into a stale formula and they sought to break free of the rigid mannerism (as they saw it) of the academy by seeking inspiration in the art of an age which preceded Raphael, which is why they came to call themselves the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood".

As part of the rejection of the academic style, the Pre-Raphaelites developed a different approach to the problems of depicting light. Consequentially, they rejected the use of bitumen and the use heavy shading. Instead, they preferred to set down a white ground over which they painted in thin glazes of often brilliant colour. Their paintings are often relatively evenly lit, with little shading, in defiance of the conventional "rules" that had fixed the proportion of light to shade firmly in the favour of the latter.

In this regard it is interesting to compare the British Pre-Raphaelites to the French Impressionists who were also experimenting with techniques of depicting light in opposition to the prevailing style of the French art academies. Artists in both schools also painted some of their works out of doors. In the case of the Pre-Raphaelites, much of the detail of Hun's "Hireling Shepherd" was done "plein-air".

Both schools were also reacting to the invention of photography. However, whereas the Impressionists had began with a form of realism and gradually moved away from representation in reaction to the advent of the camera, the Pre-Raphaelites, with their fondness for representing medieval, religious and romantic themes, developed a keenness for photographic representation of intricate details.

The Pre-Raphaelites first exhibited their paintings in 1849. Among the exhibits shown at the Royal Academy were Hunt's "Rienzi", Rossetti's "Girlhood of Virgin Mary", and Millais' "Christ in the Carpenter's Shop". The paintings all bore the initials "PRB", the meaning of which (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) was only revealed the following year. The markedly different style and interests of the paintings caused them to be met with considerable hostility. Among other things the paintings were criticized for crudity of design, blasphemy and for their Romish tendencies. Charles Dickens was found among the critics, John Ruskin among the admirers of the new style.

After 1850 the members of the original brotherhood began to move apart as they developed their own particular interests. Rossetti, together with William Morris, continued to draw inspiration from the medieval world.

Hunt, who had a deep religious conversion experience while painting the "Light of the World" travelled to the Holy Land where he sought to express a synthesis of scientific observation and spiritual truth through a continuing dedication to the original principles but often realized through a broader technique.

Millais, perhaps most famous for his depiction of the drowned Ophelia, moved away from the rigours of the Pre-Raphaelite style in favour of paintings of children and Old Master style paintings that drew on the works of Velasquez and Hals. His later portraits were also influenced by the old bete-noire of the Pre-Raphaelites, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

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