How the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Shocked the Art World: 5 Key Paintings

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were the bad boys of Victorian Britain, challenging the art establishment with an exciting new vision. Here are their most radical artworks that forever changed art history.

Mar 11, 2021By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
pre raphaelite brotherhood
The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt, 1853; with Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864–70


One of the best-known art movements of all time, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is world-renowned for its distinctive and instantly recognizable style – flame-haired women, sparkling colors, Arthurian costumes, and wild tangles of countryside painted in microscopic detail. The style is so entrenched in cultural history today that it is hard to imagine just how radical and subversive they once were. But back in Victorian times, they were the bad boys of the British art world, horrifying the public with a brand-new aesthetic that was like nothing anyone had seen before. 


Bored and frustrated with the dominant and derivative classical art all around them, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood reached back into the medieval past for a simpler, more “authentic” way to work. Nature was a driving force, which they sought to reproduce with maximum attention to detail. They also defined a new brand of female beauty, replacing reclining idealized classical nudes with strident and sexually empowered women from the real world, reflecting the changing times in which they were living.


Who Were The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?

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The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434, via The National Gallery, London


The founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood first met as students at London’s Royal Academy in 1848. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais were all equally unimpressed with the entrenched teaching methods at the Academy, which encouraged them to copy classical and Renaissance artworks by rote including the portraiture and genre painting of Raphael. After seeing Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, and Lorenzo Monaco’s San Benedetto Altarpiece, 1407-9 on display at The National Gallery in London, they developed a particular taste instead for medieval and early Renaissance art made pre, or before Raphael, which focused on working from direct observation with dazzling, sparkling colors and incredible attention to detail.


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The Leaping Horse by John Constable, 1825, via the Royal Academy of Arts, London


Finding truth in nature was a fundamental concept in Pre-Raphaelite art, an idea that was informed partly by the simple honesty of medieval art, and also by the writing of eminent art theorist John Ruskin, who actively encouraged artists to “go to nature” to find the real meaning of art. The Romanticist painters John Constable and JMW Turner also had a powerful influence on the Pre-Raphaelites, with their celebration in the sublime awe and wonder of nature. 

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With these ideas planted firmly in place, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in secret in London by Millais, Rossetti, and Hunt in 1848, and over the years their small group would attract a larger circle of avid followers including Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones. In their founding manifesto, they described their goals: “to have genuine ideas to express, to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them, 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, and most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.” This statement summed up their deliberate rebellion against the staunch traditions of the Royal Academy that dominated Victorian British art, an attitude that would forever change the course of art history. Let’s take a closer look through the most influential paintings that stirred up a storm, and made the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood the household names we know today.


1. John Everett Millais, Christ In The House Of His Parents, 1849

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Christ in the House of his Parents by John Everett Millais, 1849, via Tate, London


Though it might seem surprising today, Millais caused widespread shock and horror when he unveiled this painting at the Royal Academy in 1850. What so repelled gallery goers was the stark, gritty realism of the work, which portrayed the Virgin Mary and Jesus as real, ordinary people with dirty fingernails, worn-out clothes, and wrinkled skin rather than the established norm for idealizing holy figures. Millais went to extreme lengths to portray such vivid realism, basing his setting on a real carpenter’s workshop and using sheep heads from a butcher’s shop as models for the sheep in the background. 


One of the most prominent critics of this work was the writer Charles Dickens, who condemned Millais’ portrayal of Mary as “so horrible in her ugliness that she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster…” The work demonstrated the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s deliberately provocative and confrontational attitude towards the Royal Academy, rejecting all forms of idealized classicism in favor of the cold, harsh truth.


2. John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851

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Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1851, via Tate, London


One of the most iconic paintings of all time, Millais’ Ophelia has often become the poster image for the entire Pre-Raphaelite movement. Millais captures Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet having just drowned in a stream, painting the model and surrounding wilderness with startling, near-photographic levels of realism. Shakespearian subjects were popular amongst artists of this period, but never before had they been painted with such lifelike accuracy, or with such dazzlingly vivid colors, which critics described as “shrill,” accusing Millais of stealing attention away from the works hung around it. 


Millais painted the background first, working en plein air on a stretch of river in Surrey for months on end to capture the minute detail of plant life. The female model added in later was Elizabeth Siddall, one of the group’s most popular muses who came to typify the Pre-Raphaelite woman with her pale skin and flaming red hair, and later married Rossetti. Millais persuaded her to pose in a bath of water for long stretches of time so he could paint in every last detail from life, such as the glossy sheen of her eyes and the texture of her wet hair, but the grueling process led Siddall to contract a severe case of pneumonia, a story which adds greater emotional intensity to the painting.


3. Ford Madox Brown, Pretty Baa Lambs, 1851

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Pretty Baa Lambs by Ford Madox Brown, 1851, in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, via Art UK


Judging by today’s standards this painting might look like an idyllic portrayal of rural life, but in Victorian society, it was considered one of the most outrageous and scandalous paintings ever made. What made it so shocking was its starkly lit realism and brilliantly bold colors, which Brown achieved by painting the entire scene out of doors with real-life models. The painting made a sharp break away from the idealized, imaginary scenes of fantasy and escape that typified the art of the time, connecting art back in with the cold truth of normal, ordinary life. Looking back, the painting is now recognized as an important precursor to the en plein air painting of the Realists and Impressionists that would follow, as the 19th-century art critic RAM Stevenson observed: “The whole history of modern art begins with that picture.” 


4. William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853

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The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt, 1853, via Tate, London


This mysterious interior scene is loaded with hidden drama and subtexts – what might at first appear to be a married couple alone in a private space is in fact a much more complex arrangement. Studying the work in more detail reveals how the young woman here is in a state of partial undress and is not wearing a wedding ring, suggesting she is either a mistress or a prostitute. A fallen glove on the floor implies the man’s careless disregard of this young woman, but this is counteracted by the strange, enlightened expression on the woman’s face and her tensely detached body language.  


Seen together, these references suggest she has suddenly seen the path to redemption, while the light-filled garden in the distance points towards a new kind of freedom and salvation. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were well aware of the changing status faced by working-class women in Victorian times, who were gaining greater autonomy through rising employment in the wake of the industrial revolution. In this tall, confident young woman Hunt points towards a brighter future of social mobility, independence, and equal opportunities. 


5. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1864–70

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Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864–70, via Tate, London


The inspiration for this ghostly, ethereal portrait came from the medieval poet Dante’s text La Vita Nuova (The New Life), in which Dante writes of his grief at the loss of his lover Beatrice. But Rossetti models the Beatrice in this painting on his wife, Elizabeth Siddall who had died of a laudanum overdose two years earlier. The painting, therefore, acts as a powerful memorial to Siddall, portraying her as a melancholy spirit whose red hair is surrounded by a halo of light. In the foreground a red dove is a sinister carrier of death, dropping a yellow flower onto the model’s lap. Her expression is one of transcendence, as she shuts her eyes and points her head towards heaven as if anticipating the coming of death and the afterlife. 


The tragedy of this work typifies a Victorian obsession with melancholia and death, but it also carries within it a message of hope – in many of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s paintings women who were either dying or dead symbolized the death of old-fashioned female stereotypes and the rebirth of awakening freedom, sexuality and female power.


Legacy Of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

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Poplars on the Epte by Claude Monet, 1891, via Tate, London


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood undoubtedly shaped the course of art history, paving the way for a whole secession of art movements to follow. The Arts & Crafts movement further developed the Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on medieval rustication and a deep connection with nature, while the Aesthetic movement of the later 19th century was a natural progression from the Pre-Raphaelites, with poets, artists, and writers focussing on aesthetic values over socio-political themes. Many have also argued the Pre-Raphaelites led the way for the French Impressionists by encouraging en plein air painting techniques to capture the dramatic lighting effects of the great outdoors. In popular culture, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood have shaped much of the visual imagery around us, from J.R.R. Tolkein’s novels to the distinctive styling of singer Florence Welch and the floaty, ethereal fashion of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and The Vampire’s Wife, proving how enduring and appealing their style continues to be.


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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.