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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Pre-Raphaelism, a basic description

Founded in 1848 by the English Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood brought up to date the influence of the Italian primitives, the predecessors of Raphael. All three advocate the return to a sincere art, expunged from mannerism and foreign to English academism. In the context of the industrial revolution in England, the Pre-Raphaelite movement, in search of morality, also draws its inspiration from national literature as well as from the art of the Middle Ages. The movement was recognized in France, from the Universal Exhibition of 1855, then was at the origin of the Arts & Crafts movement, which sought to reconnect with a noble and virtuous craft that irrigates all aspects of life.

History of movement

The Pre-Raphaelite movement gave a new impetus to English art in the half of the XIXth century. Although we speak of movement, each artist has cultivated very personal traits: Millais is as meticulous as a Flemish primitive, in love with Raphael although he claims the opposite; Hunt, also neo-gothic, gives free rein to his Italian, medieval, literary inspiration. As for Rossetti, in love with Dante's poetry, he cultivates a melancholy and strange iconography populated by red-haired women, half heroines of legends, half fatal beauties. The models of these painters, like Elizabeth Siddal or Jane Burden, are muses but also often artists themselves.

Renowned as an eccentric art in Victorian England, Pre-Raphaelism reacted to academicism. It is also a poetic and sensitive expression, steeped in worry. Far from being a synthetic art, it defends the return to an individual genius. This seems contradictory with the desire of these artists to be united in a brotherhood, united by laws and aesthetic precepts. Pre-Raphaelism is an art of paradox, which is expressed most clearly in his love/rejection of the art of Raphael, genius, and briber. Those they hate are Raphael's followers, not the master himself.

Pre-Raphaeliteism is a quest for ideal and perfection, but which is far from the conventional canons. The model of the three painters is medieval art and the First Renaissance, two periods which seem to them more sincere in the representation of nature. However, it should not be concluded that the Pre-Raphaelites were backward-looking. On the contrary, by leaving classical academism, they wanted to register their movement in modernity. Attaching great importance to plant representation, they did not hesitate to leave the workshop to paint outdoors.

Relatively well accepted by the public in 1849, the group nevertheless dissolved three years later. It then reformed into an enlarged configuration, including other painters, in particular, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. These new actors move away from the naturalism of the beginnings to develop a more decorative taste. This stage is at the origin of an important movement in England, Arts & Crafts, devoted to the decorative arts.


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