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The group's intention was to reform art by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach adopted by the Mannerist artists who followed Raphael and Michelangelo. They believed that the Classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael in particular had been a corrupting influence on academic teaching of art. Hence the name "Pre-Raphaelite". In particular they objected to the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the English Royal Academy of Arts. They called him 'Sir Sloshua', believing that his sloppy technique was a formulaic and clichéd form of academic Mannerism. In contrast they wanted to return to the abundant detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of quattrocento Italian and Flemish art.
The Pre-Raphaelites have been considered the first avant-garde movement in art, though they have also been denied that status, because they continued to accept both the concepts of history painting and of 'mimesis', or imitation of nature, as central to the purpose of art. However, the Pre-Raphaelites undoubtedly defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their form of art, and published a periodical, The Germ, to promote their ideas. Their debates were recorded in the "Pre-Raphaelite Journal".
Beginnings of the Brotherhood
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in John Millais' parents' house on Gower Street, London in 1848 At the initial meeting John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt were present. Hunt and Millais were students at the Royal Academy of Arts. They had previously met in another loose association, a sketching society called the Cyclographic club. Rossetti was a pupil of Ford Madox Brown. He had met Hunt after seeing Hunt's painting The Eve of St Agnes, based on Keats' poem. As an aspiring poet Rossetti wished to develop the links between Romantic poetry and art. By Autumn four more members had also joined to form a seven-strong Brotherhood. These were William Michael Rossetti (Dante Gabriel Rossetti's brother), Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens. Ford Madox Brown was invited to join, but preferred to remain independent. He nevertheless remained close to the group. Some other young painters and sculptors were also close associates, including Charles Alston Collins, Thomas Tupper and Alexander Munro. They kept the existence of the Brotherhood secret from members of the Royal Academy.
The Brotherhood's early doctrines were expressed in four declarations: 1. To have genuine ideas to express; 2. To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; 3. To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; 4. And most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
These principles are deliberately undogmatic, since the PRB wished to emphasise the personal responsibility of individual artists to determine their own ideas and method of depiction. Influenced by Romanticism, they thought that freedom and responsibility were inseparable. Nevertheless, they were particularly fascinated by Medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity lost in later eras. This emphasis on Medieval culture was to clash with the realism promoted by the stress on independent observation of nature. In its early stages the PRB believed that the two interests were consistent with one another, but in later years the movement divided in two directions. The realist side was led by Hunt and Millais, while the medievalist side was led by Rossetti and his followers, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. This split was never absolute, since both factions believed that art was essentally spiritual in character, opposing their idealism to the materialist realism associated with Courbet and Impressionism.
In their attempts to revive the brilliance of colour found in quattrocento art, Hunt and Millais developed a technique of painting in thin glazes of pigment over a wet white ground. In this way they hoped that their colours would retain jewel-like transparency and clarity. This emphasis of brilliance of colour was in reaction to the excessive use of bitumen by earlier British artists such as Reynolds, David Wilkie and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Bitumen produces unstable areas of muddy darkness, an effect which the Pre-Raphaelies despised.
The first exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work came in 1849. Both Millais' Isabella (1848-1849) and Holman Hunt's Rienzi (1848-1849) were exhibited at the Royal Academy and Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin was shown at the Free Exhibition on Hyde Park Corner. As agreed all members of the Brotherhood signed works with their name and "PRB". Between January and April 1850 the group published a literary magazine called The Germ. William Rossetti edited the magazine, which published poetry by the Rossettis, Woolner and Collinson, together with essays on art and literature by associates of the Brotherhood, such as Coventry Patmore. As the short runtime implies, the magazine did not manage to achieve a sustained momentum. (Daly 1989)
In 1850 the PRB became controversal after the exhibition of Millais's painting "Christ in the House of His Parents", considered to be blasphemous by many reviewers, notably Charles Dickens. Their medievalism was attacked as backward-looking and their extreme devotion to detail was condemned as ugly and jarring to the eye. According to Dickens, Millais made the Holy Family look like alcoholics and slum-dwellers, adopting contorted and absurd 'medieval' poses. A rival group of older artists, The Clique, also used their influence against the PRB. Their principles were publicly attacked by the President of the Academy, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake.
However, the Brotherhood found support from the critic John Ruskin, who praised their devotion to nature and rejection of conventional methods of composition. He continued to support their work both financially and in his writings.
Following the controversy, Collinson left the Brotherhood. They met to discus whether he should be replaced by Charles Alston Collins or Walter Howell Deverell , but were unable to make a decision. From that point on the group disbanded, though their influence continued to be felt. Artists who had worked in the style still followed these techniques (initially anyway) but they no longer signed works "PRB".
Later developments and influence
Artists who were influenced by the Brotherhood include John Brett , Philip Calderon , Arthur Hughes, Evelyn de Morgan and Frederic Sandys . Ford Madox Brown, who was associated with them from the beginning, is often seen as most closely adopting the Pre-Raphaelite principles.
After 1856 Rossetti, became an inspiration for the medievalising strand of the movement. His work influenced his friend William Morris, in whose firm he became a partner and with whose wife he may have had an affair. Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones also became partners in the firm. Through Morris's company the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood influenced many interior designers and architects, arousing interest in medieval designs, as well as other crafts. The led directly to the Arts and Crafts movement headed by William Morris. Holman Hunt was also involved with this movement to reform design through the Della Robbia Pottery company.
After 1850, both Hunt and Millais moved away from direct imitation of medieval art. Both stressed the realist and scientific aspects of the movement, though Hunt continued to emphasise the spiritual significance of art, seeking to reconcile religion and science by making accurate observations and studies of locations in Egypt and Israel for his paintings on biblical subjects. In contrast, Millais abandoned Pre-Raphaelitism after 1860, adopting a much broader and looser style influenced by Reynolds. This reversal of principles was condemned by William Morris and others.
The movement influenced the work of many later British artists well into the twentieth century. Rossetti later came to be seen as a precursor of the wider European Symbolist movement.
The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has a world-renowned collection of works by Burne-Jones and the PRB; seeing these works strongly influenced the young J.R.R. Tolkien while he was growing up in the city.
In the twentieth century artistic ideals changed and art moved away from representing reality. Since the Pre-Rapaelites were fixed on portraying things with near-photographic precision, though with a distinctive attention to detailed surface-patterns, their work was devalued by many critics. Since the 1970s there has been a resurgence in interest in the movement.
List of artists
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
- John Everett Millais (painter)
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti (painter, poet)
- William Holman Hunt (painter)
- William Michael Rossetti (critic)
- Thomas Woolner (sculptor, poet)
- James Collinson (painter)
- Frederic George Stephens (critic)
Associated Artists and Figures
- Ford Madox Brown (painter, designer)
- Edward Burne-Jones (painter, designer)
- Arthur Hughes (painter)
- Jane Morris (artist's model)
- William Morris (designer, architect)
- Elizabeth Siddal (painter, poet and artist's model)
- John William Waterhouse (painter)
- Thomas Cooper Gotch (painter)
- Daly, Gay (1989). Pre-Raphaelites in love, Ticknor & Fields, New York. ISBN 0899194508
- Gaunt, William. Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy ISBN 0351164189
- Hawksley, Lucinda. (1999) Essential Pre-Raphaelites Paragon, United Kingdom. ISBN 1-84084-524-4
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