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Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English artists, including writers, painters, and critics, who were founded in 1848.

The group was started by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and four other men. The seven-member group was modeled after the Nazarene movement, a group of German Romantic painters who sought to revive spirituality in art. While these seven men are those most closely associated with the movement, their ideas were shared by many others, some of whom are mentioned below. 

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood pronunciation: pre-rah-fee-uhl-ite bruh-thur-hood


Definition and Explanation of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

In their early doctrines, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was defined by four statements. They were as follows: 

  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; and
  4. The most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues

These statements, which were put forward by William Michael Rossetti are meant to leave artists and writers with as much room as possible for personal responsibility. The Brotherhood believed in the latter and ensuring that everyone could choose their own ways to depict their subject matter. The Brotherhood believed that medieval culture had creative integrity that had been lost in the subsequent generations of artists and writers. 

Eventually, the movement divided and two separate groups emerged. Those who followed Rossetti were considered Medievalist while those who followed Hunt and Millais were the Realists. Both groups were influenced by nature and in their work sought to use nature to their advantage.


Examples of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Poetry 

The Woodspurge by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In this expressive poem, the poet writes in quatrains and uses natural imagery the Brotherhood was fond of. Here are a few lines: 

The wind flapp’d loose, the wind was still, 

Shaken out dead from tree and hill: 

I had walk’d on at the wind’s will,— 

I sat now, for the wind was still. 

The language in these lines, and the others that make up the poem, is straightforward and forceful. They clearly depict a moment the speaker was experiencing intensely. 


Dream Land by Christina Rossetti

In this short poem, which is often cited as a good example of a piece inspired by the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the poet describes a woman’s escape from the pain of the real world. She enters into a meditative state of peace. The woman goes on a quest to find a place that allows her to separate herself from the rest of the world. This new existence flourishes in a place that’s heaven-like and not dissimilar to death. Here are a few lines: 

Where sunless rivers weep

Their waves into the deep,

She sleeps a charmèd sleep:

Awake her not.

Led by a single star,

She came from very far

To seek where shadows are

Her pleasant lot.


The Haystack in the Floods by William Morris 

Although one of the lesser-known of the Pre-Raphaelite poets, William Morris was an important member of the group. In this fairly long poem, the poet demonstrates some of the characteristics of the movement, including a focus on nature, clear and evocative imagery, and beauty. Here are a few lines from the start of the poem: 

Had she come all the way for this,

To part at last without a kiss?

Yea, had she borne the dirt and rain

That her own eyes might see him slain

Beside the haystack in the floods?


Famous Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Writers 

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was drive, as Oscar Wilde put it, by ‘three things the English public never forgives: youth, power, and enthusiasm.’ The most important writers of the period were often also painters. They took a great deal of their inspiration from medieval romances, Ovid, Chaucer, and Arthurian legends. 

In 1850 the group published a journal, The Germ, that reflected their passion for modernist writing. It contained original poetry, essays, and images. There were also reviews, something that the Brotherhood later become well-known for. Their writing was marked by an interest in the ballad form, lyric poetry, and dramatic monologues. The magazine had only four issues. 

The well-loved writer Christina Rossetti was close to the group, but also a critic of it. Her poems ‘In the Artist’s Studio’ is often cited as a depiction of the Brotherhood’s treatment of female subjects while ‘Dream-Land’ was included in one of the four issues of The Germ. 


Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Art 

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood wanted to return to a time in which artists focused on color and complex compositions. They were especially influenced by Quattrocento Italian art, a period ranging from 1400 to 1499, which incorporated classic forms developed by Roman and Greek artists. The artists were very interested in nature and using it within their paintings. This meant choosing bright colors and sharp techniques on a white canvas. Hunt and Millais were especially well-known for their ability to paint with thin glazes of pigment on a wet ground. 

Their art was characterized by flat perspective, sharp outlines, and close attention to detail, in addition to bright colors and classical conventions in regard to proportion. 

Some of the best-known artists (many of whom were also writers) of the movement were: 


Importance of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The movement was short-lived, but it had a profound influence on the course of literature and art during the Victorian period. The Brotherhood rejected the British Royal Academy’s preferences and teaching methods, instead of supporting the importance of experience and truth rather than rote learning. Their desire to depict nature, and remain loyal to its appearance, even to the point of ugliness, was also extremely influential.  Their influence extends to the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins and W.B. Yeats as well as the inception of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements in design. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Transcendentalism: focus on nature and opposition to the destruction of the individual that came with industrialism.
  • Ballad: a verse form, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.
  • Lyric Poem: a musically inclined, short verse that speaks on poignant and powerful emotions.
  • Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.


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