John Everett Millais - Ophelia (c. 1851)

Art History: The Pre-Raphaelites (the Mid-19th Century)

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement that flourished in the mid-19th century, sought to revolutionize the art world by returning to the aesthetics and techniques that existed before the High Renaissance. This artistic rebellion, characterized by its intricate attention to detail, vibrant colors, and focus on nature, produced some of the most captivating and influential artworks in art history. In this article, we will delve into the main art styles of the Pre-Raphaelites, explore the lives and works of five famous painters, and highlight two renowned paintings from each artist.

Art Styles of the Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, aimed to reject the conventions of their time. They sought inspiration from medieval art and early Italian Renaissance, before the time of Raphael, hence the name "Pre-Raphaelites." Their work was characterized by:

  • Nature's Detail: Pre-Raphaelite artists meticulously rendered intricate details of nature, often with jewel-like precision.
  • Vivid Colors: A departure from the muted palettes of their contemporaries, Pre-Raphaelites embraced bold and vibrant colors.
  • Symbolism: Many works contained symbolic elements that conveyed deeper meanings, often related to mythology, literature, and spirituality.

The Renowned Painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founding member of the Brotherhood, was a poet and painter known for his lush and romantic style. Two of his notable paintings are:

  • "Beata Beatrix" (1864): This painting is a homage to his deceased wife, Elizabeth Siddal. It depicts her in a trance-like state, inspired by Dante's "Vita Nuova," surrounded by symbolic imagery.
  • "The Day Dream" (1880): Rossetti's fascination with medieval themes is evident in this piece, which portrays a woman lost in a daydream amidst a lush garden, combining natural beauty with dreamlike qualities.

2. John Everett Millais (1829–1896)

Another founding member, Millais, was celebrated for his technical prowess and emotionally charged works. Notable paintings by him include:

  • "Christ in the House of His Parents" (1850): This controversial painting caused a stir due to its unidealized portrayal of the Holy Family. Millais aimed for biblical realism, which sparked debates about sacrilege and artistic license.
  • "Ophelia" (c. 1851): Millais' attention to detail shines in this depiction of Shakespeare's Ophelia. The lush rendering of flora and the poignant portrayal of Ophelia's tragic fate make this a Pre-Raphaelite hallmark.

3. William Holman Hunt (1827–1910)

Hunt, the third founding member, was known for his commitment to meticulous realism and moral themes. His significant works include:

  • "The Hireling Shepherd" (1851): This painting critiques the neglect of duty by a shepherd who prioritizes his own pleasures over the well-being of his flock, using symbolism to convey ethical concerns.
  • "The Light of the World" (1853–1854): One of Hunt's most famous works, it represents Christ knocking on a door, suggesting the need for spiritual awakening. The detailed rendering of light adds to the painting's impact.

4. Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893)

Though not a founding member, Brown became associated with the Brotherhood and shared their artistic principles. Notable works include:

  • "Work" (1852–1865): This intricate painting showcases laborers from different walks of life, highlighting the challenges and societal disparities of the Victorian era.
  • "The Last of England" (1855): Depicting a family departing for a new life in Australia, this painting captures the mixed emotions of hope and sorrow during a time of emigration.

5. Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898)

Edward Burne-Jones, strongly influenced by medieval art and mythology, brought a dreamlike quality to his works. Notable pieces include:

  • "The Golden Stairs" (1880): This painting, characterized by its ethereal, elongated figures and ornamental patterns, exemplifies Burne-Jones' style and fascination with beauty and aesthetics.
  • "The Beguiling of Merlin" (1874–1877): A complex narrative piece depicting the sorceress Vivien entrapping the legendary wizard Merlin, this painting showcases Burne-Jones' skill in storytelling through visual art.


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ignited a fervor for artistic revival in the 19th century. Through their meticulous attention to detail, vibrant color palettes, and symbolic themes, they forged a new path in art history. The legacy of these painters and their innovative works continues to captivate and inspire art enthusiasts and creators to this day.


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