The Pre–Raphaelite movement began as the Pre–Raphaelite Brotherhood in 19th–century England — seven young artists protesting against the confining ideals of High Victorian art, as well as the strict, rote methods of painting they were required to learn at London's Royal Academy. They disparaged all Academic art as "slosh" and referred to the head of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, as "Sir Sloshua." These young men longed to paint as they imagined the early Italian artists (pre–Raphael) had painted: with freedom and simplicity. (For a closer look at the history and stories of the Pre–Raphaelites, see the column on the Pre–Raphaelites in the Writing Room archives.)
Of the seven original members of the PRB, three went on to lasting fame: John Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Of these, it is Rossetti who we most associate with Pre–Raphaelite art today. His paintings of sultry ladies with long white necks and masses of flowing hair have come to define the Pre–Raphaelite style: one rich in romanticism, symbolism, mythic imagery, and deep nostalgia for an ideal medieval world that never was. Rossetti, of Italian ancestry, was deeply influenced by the works of Dante, the great Florentine poet who wrote The Inferno and The Divine Comedy.
The legend of Dante's life–long love for Beatrice, married to another man, lay at the core of Rossetti's romanticism, in his art and his life. Rossetti's paintings portray Beatrice and other idealized, mythologized women surrounded by allegorical symbols of Love — love lost, love won, love broken and betrayed. "One face looks out from all his canvasses," the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti wrote in a poem about her famous brother. In Dante Gabriel Rossetti's youth that face was the enigmatic Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, a working girl and model whom he would marry. . .and who would then die young, which haunted the man for the rest of his life. Later, a dark–haired "stunner" appears in his paintings, over and over again — the great love of his later years, Jane Morris, the wife of another man.
William Morris and Edward Burne–Jones, both some years younger than their idol, Rossetti, were part of the "second wave" of Pre–Raphaelitism. They shared with Rossetti a passion for myths, antiquities, and Arthurian legends, and together they created a world of dreams — not only in paintings and poetry, but in the houses they created for each other, stuffed with medieval fabrics, Japanese screens and old Dutch pottery, furniture built in medieval style and painted with Romantic themes. (All gorgeous to look at and horridly uncomfortable, according to the novelist Angela Thirkell, Burne–Jones' granddaughter.) Morris created (among many other things) a company to design, build and market the handcrafted, medievalesque Pre–Raphaelite "look." His wallpapers and fabric designs, although they look quaintly old–fashioned now, captured the flavor of old tapestries in a manner bold, simplified and modern to the Victorian eye, transforming a high–Victorian decor was that fussy, cluttered and dark.
The young Burne–Jones went on to become a great painter; his pictures have a magical air, infused with myth and golden light, owing as much to Italian Renaissance art as to the influence of the PRB. Burne–Jones loved all things Arthurian, from Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur to the modern poems of Tennyson; he was particularly intrigued by the figure of Merlin, the great magician of Arthur's court. In his famous painting of Merlin entrapped by his lust and love for Nimue, the female model is the painter's own fairy enchantress: the flamboyant Anglo–Greek sculptor Maria Zambaco, who nearly destroyed his marriage.
It was Burne–Jones' work, more than Rossetti's, which was the major influence on the next generation of Pre–Raphaelites — the artists dubbed "The Last Romantics" by art historian John Christian (in the catalog to an extensive show mounted in 1985 at London's Barbicon Gallery). Rather than coming from a single London circle, like the PRB, the artists who fall under this heading came from several different schools and parts of the British Isles. In Birmingham (Burne–Jones' native city), the movement called "Arts & Crafts" brought Romantic imagery to ceramics, jewelry, stained glass work, metal–work and book design, as well as to canvas — artists such as tempera painter Joseph Southall, husband–and–wife design team Arthur and Georgie Gaskin, stained glass artist Henry Arthur Payne, and the mystical painter Maxwell Armfield.
In Scotland, too, a distinct Pre–Raphaelite influence ran through the Arts & Crafts movement in the paintings of the Celtic mystic John Duncan, the decorative work of Margaret Macdonald and her husband, Charles Rennie Macintosh, the murals of Phoebe Traquair and others in the "Celtic Revival." In London, the romantic and artistic partnership of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon produced Vale Press, specializing in gorgeously illustrated hand–press books influenced by Morris's Kelmscott Press. The work of the talented, perverse Aubrey Beardsley, on other hand, satirized the Kelmscott editions (particularly Beardsley's Le Morte D'Arthur), albeit in gorgeous Romantic style often mistaken for genuine Pre–Raphaelitism.
Although the PRB had begun in reaction against the Royal Academy, over time Millais, Burne–Jones and others joined that prestigious establishment, which then fostered a number of second and third generation Romantic artists. The very best of these was John William Waterhouse, the son of a minor English painter who'd spent his early years in Italy. His paintings combined the influence of Pre–Raphaelite art with an almost Impressionistic use of color, light, and bold strokes of the brush. Waterhouse's numerous paintings — inspired by Greek myth, Shakespeare and other narrative imagery — stand alongside the work of Burne–Jones for sheer painterly quality, and his art continues to exert an important influence over fantasy illustration today. Other notable Romantic artists to come out of the Academic tradition (and Waterhouse's St. John's Wood circle in London) include J.M. Strudwick, Byam Shaw, Robert Bateman, T.C. Gotch, Eleanor Fortescue–Brickdale, Noel Laura Nesbit, and the American painter Edwin Austin Abbey.
Although it is popularly believed that women existed in Pre–Raphaelite circles as silent Muses, famed only for their long flowing hair, in fact the women of the circle were active, vocal, and artists themselves. Elizabeth Siddal was a watercolorist, Jane Morris and Georgiana Burne–Jones were highly skilled at embroidery and other so–called "women's arts" — working long hours side–by–side with the men to create the distinctive Pre–Raphaelite "look."
With the second and third waves of Pre–Raphaelitism we see an increasing number of women in leading art schools and galleries: women like Evelyn de Morgan, wife of the potter William de Morgan and an important symbolist painter of her day; Maria Spartali Stillman, who gained her skills in the studio of Ford Maddox Brown; Kate Bunce, a leading Birmingham painter and one of the founders of the City Art Gallery; tempera painter Marianne Stokes who favored scenes from medieval romance; muralist Dorothy Webster Hawksley; the illustrators Margaret Tarrant, Florence Harrison, and Jessie M. King; and many others — particularly in the Arts & Crafts movement which valued crafts often trivialized as "women's work."
Art: "Laus Veneris" by Edward Burne–Jones, 1875, "Persephone" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,1877, "Merlin beguiled" by Edward Burne–Jones, "Melody Musica" by Kate Bunce,1895, "The Lady of Shallott" by John William Waterhouse, 1888