This exhibition presents the Pre-Raphaelites as an avant-garde movement, a group with a self-conscious, radical project of overturning artistic orthodoxies. Boldly original in style and conception, the Pre-Raphaelites made a profound contribution to the history of modern art.
The movement coincided almost exactly with the long reign of Queen Victoria (ruled 1837–1901). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was founded in 1848, a year of revolution across Europe, in a recognisably modern world. Steamships plied the globe. Railway networks linked expanding cities. Science challenged traditional beliefs. Photography offered new ways of seeing. Pre-Raphaelite art distilled the energy of the world’s first industrial society into striking new forms.
The leading members of the PRB were the young painters John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. Their older friend and mentor Ford Madox Brown never formally joined the group.
They believed that art had become decadent, and rejected their teachers’ belief that the Italian artist Raphael (1483–1520) represented the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement. They looked to earlier art whose bright colours, flat surfaces and truth to nature they admired.
But rather than imitate the early masters, they espoused a rule-breaking originality. Whether painting subjects from Shakespeare, the Bible, landscapes of the Alps or the view from a window, the Pre-Raphaelites brought a new beauty and intensity of vision to British art.