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Pre-Raphaelites

Pre-Raphaelites (prēˌ-răfˈēəlĪtsˌ) [key], brotherhood of English painters and poets formed in 1848 in protest against what they saw as the low standards and decadence of British art. The principal founders were D. G. Rossetti, W. Holman Hunt, and John Millais, at the time students at the Royal Academy of Art. In poetry as well as painting, the Pre-Raphaelites turned away from the growing materialism of industrialized England. They sought refuge, through literary symbolism and imagery, in the beauty and comparative simplicity of the medieval world. In the works of the Italian painters prior to Raphael, they found a happy innocence of style that they tried to imitate. Influenced by the Nazarenes, a similar group of German painters founded in Rome in 1810, and also inspired by England's Gothic revival, the Pre-Raphaelites declared themselves devotees of nature and truth. In the early 1850s their works were violently criticized, first by Charles Dickens, as being vulgar and ugly. They were defended by John Ruskin and attracted numerous followers, among whom were Edward Burne-Jones, G. F. Watts, and William Morris, but the group disbanded after 1853 and the movement died out before the end of the century. The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites are characteristically nostalgic in tone, bright in color, and emotionally overwrought. Despite their supposed predilection for simplicity, they were highly meticulous in detail, often extremely patterned, and mannered in style. Eventually their painting became as artificial as the historical works they had organized to protest. There is a fine collection of Pre-Raphaelite works at the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Del.

See J. D. Hunt, The Pre-Raphaelite Imagination (1969); J. Nicoll, The Pre-Raphaelites (1970); L. Stevenson, The Pre-Raphaelite Poets (1972); J. Sambrook, ed., Pre-Raphaelitism (1976); T. Hilton, Pre-Raphaelites (1985); J. Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Women (1988); A. Smith et al., ed., Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848 to 1900 (museum catalog, 2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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