Pre-Raphaelites: Truth to Nature

  Bocca Baciata by Rossetti (model: Fanny Cornforth)

 William Hunt’s, Awakening Conscience


  Millais, Eve of St. Agnes

In 1848, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  By autumn, they were joined by William Michael Rossetti, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson, and Frederic George Stephens.  Believing that the  methods taught by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of The English Royal Academy of Arts, were too formulaic and frivilous, they wished to return art to the lofty “truth to nature.”  They turned their attentions away from Raphael (whose work they considered too theatrical) and back to the artists who came before him- appreciating the more simplistic, yet detail-riched,  and vibrant colors of  the past.

They declared their main goals were:

  • To have genuine ideas to express;
  • To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
  • To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote;
  • And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
  •   Rossetti’s, Lady Lilith

     Rossetti’s, Damozel


      Rossetti’s, Bower Meadow

    The Pre-Raphaelitess were also influenced by Romanticism which emphasized that individual freedom and responsibility were inseparable, and  aimed to only paint earnest subjects.   Their style was remarkably focused as they insisted on painting from direct observation.  Therefore, while many of their subjects came from poetry, legends, and plays, they were drawn in an intensely realistic manner. 

    The painters went through great lengths to achieve this photographic realism.  (as did their models)  One famous example of this is the painting, Ophelia, by Millais.  For four months, he painted the wildflowers and vegetation on one exact spot  in Surrey, England.  He then returned to London to paint his model, Elizabeth Siddal, posing in a bath full of water,  to capture the doomed woman’s demise as accurately as possible.

    In 1872,  Dante Rossetti also used Siddal  in his painting, Beata Beatrix.  In it, he depicted Elizabeth as the Beatrice of Dante Alighieri’s poem, La Vita Nuova, at her moment of death.   Dante Rossetti had to paint Elizabeth Siddal from old drawings he had of her.   For his favorite  model (and his wife) had been dead, herself, for ten years.


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    28 CommentsLeave a comment

    1. Wow I wrote about the brotherhood today, Although I think you did better. Well done

    2. Of these artists, I think I am most familiar with DG Rossetti. I like the one you have pictured by Millais, St. Agnes Eve, I’ve never seen that one before. I love the Pre-Raphaelites, so romantic!

    3. Hi Chastiser,

      Nice to meet you- and thank you! I’ll be over to read your article on the brotherhood, later. 🙂

    4. Hey DD,

      The St. Agnes painting is on the cover of my copy of Wilkie Collin’s, “Armadale”. (that’s where I first saw it)

      Regarding Rossetti- I’ve always loved his rich hues.

    5. Wonderful post, Tasha.

      “To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote”

      –I think we could use a little of that in modern publishing, sometimes. 🙂

    6. Thanks, Amy!

      And I agree with that quote, too. 🙂

    7. Both my writer partner and myself have long been huge fans of the PRB. I am longing to see Johnny Depp play Gabriel as he was such a charismatic man and artist. We were fortunate to visit Siddal’s grave at Highgate and also Gabriel’s grave as well to pay respects in Birchington-on-Sea. It was very emotional to see both their graves after reading about them for so long. I took flowers to Gabriel and became very choked up. Long live the PRB! xx

    8. Hi Josephine,

      The PRB is my favorite art movement, and Rossetti, my favorite artist. That’s a fantastic casting idea in regards to Depp. Maybe one day it will come true. 🙂

    9. Great post! The Pre-Raphaelitess are some of my favorite artists and have also been very inspirational for my writing.

    10. Hey Jenna,

      Thanks! And that’s cool to hear that they’ve inspired some of your writing. Is there a specific way that they did, or in general?

    11. I’ve always liked that “Ophelia” painting. Maybe you can answer this question for me.

      There is a painting of a woman on horseback and a knight standing by the horse. The woman is leaning over the knight and the knight is I think on one knee and leaning a little bit backwards. I’ve seen this painting paired with the poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci”. Is this a pre-Raphealite painting?

    12. Hi Lyra,

      Thanks for stopping by my blog!

      I think this is the painting you mean, by Frank Dicksee?

      From what I’ve read, Dicksee is considered a Pre-Raphaelite painter, or at least influenced by the movement.

      I’m not an expert by any means, but that painting definitely looks Pre-Raphaelitish to me.

    13. That is the painting. I’ve always liked it. My husband has a print of it hanging in his living room.

    14. Thought I’d add my take on Dicksee.

      Although he was never part of the brotherhood, he in fact was heavily influenced by them and shared the same style. He was affiliated with the Royal Academy and became president (1924–1928).

      Just thought I’ll add a quick art history lession 😛

    15. Thank you for that info, Chastiser! 🙂

      I hadn’t known he’d become president of the Academy.

    16. No Problem, I was happy to provide the info. I’ve awoken some kind of monster and I need to gather all this info about Art History and Culture. So if I have the information I’m happy to share or you can read about it in my blog at some point 😛

    17. Heh, it’s a nice monster to awaken. 😉

      I’m looking forward to reading future posts on your blog.

    18. I started off trying to write a post a day, but there is way too much research required to do that, but I’m trying to update regularly. I do have lots to ponder and I probably get some things wrong, but that’s part of the fun of discovery.

    19. Great post, and great pictures! I’ve always marvelled at how Millais, Rossetti and Hunt differ so greatly in their work despite starting out from the same PRB principles. By coincidence I blogged on Rossetti only today. He’s quite a character isn’t he?

    20. Regarding the inspiration for my writing, I would say the fact that so many of the paintings tell stories and the expressions on the faces of the subjects in the paintings often express a world of inner feeling and experience that compels me to wonder what’s going on inside.

    21. Hi David,

      Thanks for stopping over at my blog. And thank you- glad that you liked the post. I’ll be over to your blog to check out your post on Rossetti. 🙂

    22. Jenna,

      I’ve often wonder about the same thing when I gaze at the paintings. I think that’s why I prefer portraits to landscapes. I can make up stories. 🙂

    23. Wonderful reading & viewing material…I adore the PRB & Rossetti. Look firward to reading more of your words…have an inspiring day!

    24. Thank you so very much! 🙂

    25. Taught American and world history high school 33 years so love this post. Administrators are so whack. They would not let me teach Af/Am history because I was not black, no Women’s history because i am male and no Hispanic history for like reasons. I tried to introduce art history into curriculum for AP exams but they said we have no one to teach it. Go figure.

    26. Hi Carl,

      Thanks! And glad you stopped over at my blog. (yours is a ton of fun)

      Ugh…seriously? Sadly, I’m not that suprised, but your experience does anger me greatly. Am so tired of “caucasion male” being this default setting and everyone else considered this strange other thing. No one blinks an eye if a female teacher is teaching “regular history”, but it would be a big deal if a male is teaching about all the female contribution that’s swept under the rug? Ugh. Just ugh.

    27. Ah, the lushly colored beauty of these old paintings!

    28. Hi Christine,

      Thaks for stopping over at my blog. And glad you like the paintings. 🙂

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