Dramatic narratives from the Bible, classical mythology, literature or world history had dominated European art since the establishment of artistic academies in the seventeenth century. The Pre-Raphaelites developed modern forms of this genre in painting and sculpture by using a realist style, emphasising accuracy of dress and accoutrements in subjects from the writings of Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri, original stories and medieval tales. They rejected narratives of military heroism or idealised Greco-Roman scenes inhabited by languid nudes. They also abandoned classical history and its attendant ideas of exemplary virtue, military might and monarchical achievement, focusing instead on intimate relationships that stood for broader currents of human experience. The results defied convention, provoked critics and entranced audiences, while appealing to new industrial and commercial patrons in the Victorian era.
In the mid-1850s, Rossetti, who had abandoned making exhibition pictures in oils, and Elizabeth Siddall used watercolour to create intensely coloured, intricate compositions loosely rooted in the tradition of medieval illumination and exploring themes of chivalric love. By the end of the decade, Rossetti’s younger followers Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris would begin their transformation of Victorian design, making furniture, textiles, stained glass and wallpaper in broadly similar schemes, often employing medieval subjects.