Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde: Room 3

William Holman Hunt, ‘The Awakening Conscience’ 1853
William Holman Hunt
The Awakening Conscience 1853


Pre-Raphaelite responses to nature constitute a dramatically original aspect of the movement in terms of both artistic theory and style. Partly inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, the artists successfully developed their own novel and precise method of transcribing the natural world in oil paint, based on close looking and sustained engagement with the motif.

Vivid natural imagery appears in Pre-Raphaelite subjects from Shakespeare, and in imagined scenes of the past reconfigured in the present. Other works placed unfamiliar aspects of contemporary labour in landscape settings and engaged with modernity as represented in the increasingly compromised natural environment around London.

The Pre-Raphaelite process of intense looking resulted in a new, distinctively modern, style. Critics claimed that these highly detailed paintings were copied from photographs. In fact, the artists rarely used photography, but their paintings nevertheless reveal that they absorbed photography’s precision of focus, flattening of forms, composition and radical cropping of the visual field.

Pre-Raphaelite landscape paintings engage with developments in the natural sciences, geology, botany, meteorology and even astronomy. Debates about evolution and the history of the earth raged in the years before and after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). The Pre-Raphaelites were acutely aware that the claims of science and religion were increasingly at odds.

See also

Press Release

Ruskin, Turner and The Pre-Raphaelites

7 Jan 2000
Ruskin, Turner and The Pre-Raphaelites: Press release related to past exhibition.

Turner Whistler Monet Ruskin v Whistler

Turner Whistler Monet exhibition at Tate Britain: Ruskin v Whistler

John Ruskin and the beauty of leaves

''If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the World.' So wrote John Ruskin in his book Modern Painters ...