Art History Lab

Rebels of Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood and Artistic Rebellion

During the Victorian era, a group of English artists rebelled against the traditional style of painting and established their own movement known as Pre-Raphaelitism. The Pre-Raphaelites were founded in 1848 and their art focused on the values of truth, beauty, and nature.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was founded by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, sought to revive the art of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, rejecting the classical art that dominated the British art scene at the time. This article will explore the Pre-Raphaelites, their art, and the social context behind their artistic rebellion.

to Pre-Raphaelite Art

Background of industrialization and social unrest

The Victorian era was characterized by industrialization and social unrest, which led to a cultural shift in the art scene. Industrialization caused a disruption in the natural world, decreasing the connection between man and nature.

This connection was essential to the Pre-Raphaelites, who sought to rediscover the beauty of nature and the simplicity of life. The Pre-Raphaelites rejected the classical art traditions of the Royal Academy, which were based on the values of history, mythology, and beauty, and instead created works that expressed the realities of the world around them.

Rebellion against classical Victorian art and revival of Renaissance and Medieval art

The Pre-Raphaelites focused on the revival of art styles from the medieval and Renaissance periods, with an emphasis on religious themes and natural imagery. They rejected the classical art traditions of the Royal Academy for being too academic and formulaic and instead sought to create art that was more emotional, expressive, and authentic.

Their art was inspired by the works of Italian Renaissance painters such as Botticelli and Fra Angelico, and the medieval themes of Arthurian legends and tales of chivalry.

Pre-Raphaelite Art and Social Context

Response to industrialization and diminished connection to nature and heart

The Pre-Raphaelites’ art was a response to the industrialization and social changes of the Victorian era. They wanted to highlight the beauty of nature and the importance of human emotions and experiences.

Many of their works presented nature in its purest form, unspoiled by modernization. For instance, John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, which depicts Ophelia lying in a river surrounded by flowers, portrays her in a state of serenity, which contrasts with the turbulence of the industrialized world.

The Pre-Raphaelites were also interested in exploring themes such as love, death, and spirituality, and often used vivid colors and intricate patterns to express their emotions.

Opposition to artistic values imposed by the Royal Academy

The Pre-Raphaelites were opposed to the academic traditions of the Royal Academy, which they perceived as restricting artistic freedom and promoting a narrow view of art. They believed that art should reflect the realities and emotions of the human experience, rather than conforming to strict academic rules.

Their rebellion against the Royal Academy was reflected in their art, which was highly emotional and expressive, often depicting scenes from everyday life with a vividness that was not appreciated by the Royal Academy. For instance, William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, which depicts a woman in a state of moral dilemma and spiritual conflict, was a bold departure from the typical subject matter of academic art.


Pre-Raphaelite art was a movement of rebellion against the rigid academic traditions of the Victorian art scene. The Pre-Raphaelites sought to rediscover the beauty of nature, the emotions of humanity, and the virtues of the medieval and Renaissance periods.

They rejected the kind of art that the Royal Academy promoted, which was based on traditional mythological scenes, and developed their own art style that focused on reality and the human experience. Their works have since become an influential part of English art, inspiring generations of artists to explore emotions, experiences, and human realities through their work.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Disillusionment with the artistic conventions of the Academy

Prior to the advent of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, British art was dominated by classical works that were often seen as being overly formulaic and lacking in emotional depth. The Royal Academy was considered to be the leading institution for art in Britain, but the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was not impressed with the institution’s policies and traditions.

Instead, the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to create art that was more authentic, emotional, and meaningful. They aimed to create artworks that would inspire the viewer to experience the world around them in a new way.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was primarily concerned with expressing human emotions and experiences. They believed that art should not be a purely decorative form; rather, it should have a social function, educating the public about what really mattered in life.

In contrast to the classical portraits and genre paintings that were highly valued by the Royal Academy, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood focused on more natural landscapes and ordinary people. They aimed to democratize art, making it more accessible to the working class and challenging the elitism of the Royal Academy.

Focus on the working class, meaningful work, and relationship with nature

The Pre-Raphaelites were deeply concerned with the impact of industrialization on the working classes. They believed that workers had lost their connection to nature and that meaningful work had been replaced by sterile, repetitive production methods.

The natural world, however, was seen as a source of inspiration and solace. The Pre-Raphaelites believed that by reconnecting with nature, people could rediscover their inner humanity and transcend the hardships of industrial society.

In their quest to connect with the working class, the Pre-Raphaelites produced art that was much more accessible than the abstract compositions of the Royal Academy. They wanted to create art that would be meaningful to ordinary people, rather than just a privileged few.

As a result, their art was often steeped in populist themes such as love, death, and spirituality, reflecting the concerns and experiences of everyday people.

Characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite Artwork

Disdain for portrait and genre paintings, emphasis on Renaissance and medieval art

One of the defining characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite art is its rejection of the classicistic norms of the Royal Academy. Instead of focusing on perfectly crafted portraits or genre paintings, the Pre-Raphaelites sought to create art that was more authentic and emotional.

They were inspired by the art of the Renaissance and medieval periods, which they saw as being more authentic and honest in its portrayal of human experiences. This fascination with medieval art was visible in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s use of ornate designs and complex patterns.

The Pre-Raphaelites believed that art should be a reflection of humanity’s collective experience. In their view, this meant that the ordinary people of their time should be the focus of artistic expression.

This focus on the everyday rather than the aristocratic or elite classes was revolutionary at the time and laid the foundation for modernist art movements all over the world. Techniques, use of color, and composition

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood utilized a variety of techniques in their art, many of which were innovative at the time.

One of the most characteristic features of Pre-Raphaelite art is its attention to detail and its use of vivid colors. The Pre-Raphaelites were not afraid to use a rainbow of colors in their works, bringing out the nuances and richness of the natural world.

They were also interested in creating compositions that were more organic and fluid, using flowing lines and interwoven patterns to convey a sense of natural harmony. Another hallmark of Pre-Raphaelite art is its attention to the minutiae of everyday life.

By focusing on the details of the natural world, the Pre-Raphaelites created art that was unique, expressive, and true to life. This technique of hyper-realism was groundbreaking at the time and inspired many artists in the years that followed.

Overall, Pre-Raphaelite art was a rebellion against the elitism and formulaic style of the Royal Academy. The Pre-Raphaelites sought to democratize art and make it more accessible to ordinary people by creating art that was both emotional and true to life.

Their focus on natural landscapes, the working class, and the complexities of everyday life changed the course of British art and continues to inspire artists all over the world today.

Notable Pre-Raphaelite Artworks

“Ophelia” by John Everett Millais

“Ophelia” is one of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite artworks and is known for its vivid, lifelike depiction of nature. John Everett Millais painted the piece in 1851-1852 and based it on Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet.” In the painting, Ophelia is seen floating amid an array of flowers and foliage, deep in contemplation.

The painting captures the vibrant, natural beauty of the pre-industrial era and serves as a symbol for the Pre-Raphaelite movement’s rejection of classical art traditions. “Ophelia” continues to be a celebrated work of art and remains popular with viewers today.

“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt’s “The Scapegoat” is a dramatic painting that embodies the themes of morality and redemption frequently present in Pre-Raphaelite art. The painting depicts a solitary goat wandering through a desolate desert after being cast out from a group of animals.

Hunt drew inspiration for the painting from the Book of Leviticus, which describes a ritual in which a goat is driven into the wilderness as a sacrifice for the sins of the community. The painting is notable for its vivid colors and realistic portrayal of the natural landscape.

“Ecce Ancilla Domini” by Dante Rossetti

“Dante Rossetti’s “Ecce Ancilla Domini” is a religious painting that is inspired by the New Testament. The painting depicts the moment in which the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will give birth to Jesus Christ.

The painting centers on the expression of the Virgin Mary, who is shown with a look of shock and wonder on her face. Rossetti’s use of vibrant colors and intricate patterns creates a sense of drama and emotion that reflects the Pre-Raphaelite movement’s commitment to authenticity and emotional depth.

The Second Generation and the Arts and Crafts Movement

Revival and influence of the Pre-Raphaelite movement

The Pre-Raphaelite movement had a significant impact on British art and continued to influence artists for years after the initial formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The second generation of Pre-Raphaelites, including artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, continued to explore the themes of spirituality and natural beauty that characterized the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

They also embraced new art forms, such as stained glass windows and book illustrations, which allowed them to bring their art to new audiences. Beyond its impact on art, the Pre-Raphaelite movement had a far-reaching influence on British culture, inspiring a wide variety of other movements, including the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Formation of Morris & Co. and the Arts and Crafts Movement

In the late 19th century, William Morris, one of the members of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites, founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., which later became known as Morris & Co. This company was at the heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which aimed to reform the decorative arts in Britain and return them to a more natural, humanistic form. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a response to the growing industrialization and mechanization of British society.

Arts and Crafts artists believed that the mass-produced goods of industrial society were soulless and lacked the human touch that was present in traditional crafts. They sought to bring back the artistry and craftsmanship of pre-industrial Britain, believing that art should be accessible to all people, regardless of social class.


The Pre-Raphaelite movement was a revolutionary art movement that sought to challenge the elitism and sterility of Victorian art traditions and create works that were more authentic, emotional, and accessible. The movement’s emphasis on nature, spirituality, and the human experience inspired artists for years to come and influenced the formation of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The Pre-Raphaelites created some of the most celebrated works of British art, and their impact on the cultural and social landscape of the country cannot be overstated.

The Sisterhood of Pre-Raphaelite Women

Role of women in the Pre-Raphaelite movement

The Pre-Raphaelite movement is often associated with male artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt. However, women played a significant role in the movement as both artists and muses.

While the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded as a male-dominated group, female artists and supporters emerged and formed their own sisterhood within the movement. The inclusion of women in the Pre-Raphaelite movement was notable during a time when female artists faced barriers and limited opportunities in the art world.

The Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood challenged societal norms and provided a platform for women to express their artistic talents. They sought to break free from the confinements imposed on women and contribute to the artistic discourse of the time.

Female artists and models in Pre-Raphaelite art

Within the Pre-Raphaelite movement, many female artists found their voice and produced remarkable works. One prominent figure was Elizabeth Siddal, an artist and poet who became a muse for several Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Siddal’s ethereal beauty and her personal connection to the Pre-Raphaelites made her an influential figure within the movement. She posed as a model for numerous paintings, including Millais’ iconic “Ophelia.”

As the movement progressed, more female artists started gaining recognition for their contributions.

For instance, Evelyn De Morgan, Marie Spartali Stillman, and Joanna Boyce Wells were among the notable female artists who embraced Pre-Raphaelite principles and developed their unique artistic styles. These women not only challenged societal expectations but also redefined the boundaries of art by exploring a wide range of subjects beyond traditional female tropes.

In addition to female artists, Pre-Raphaelite paintings often depicted women as models, embodying various roles and emotions. These representations challenged conventional notions of beauty and femininity, often presenting women as strong, complex individuals with agency and depth.

Many Pre-Raphaelite paintings featured women in powerful, mythological, or historical roles, reflecting a desire to elevate the status of women and highlight their untapped potential. The inclusion of female artists and models in Pre-Raphaelite art was groundbreaking for its time.

It offered a fresh perspective and allowed for a more nuanced exploration of the female experience. The Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood paved the way for future generations of women artists, challenging the notion that art could only be created by and about men.


The Pre-Raphaelite movement, traditionally associated with male artists, saw a significant presence and contribution from women. Within the sisterhood of Pre-Raphaelite women, female artists and models challenged societal norms, pushed the boundaries of artistic expression, and paved the way for future generations of women in art.

Through their talents and inspiration, these women played an integral role in shaping the Pre-Raphaelite movement and leaving a lasting impact on the art world. Their work and presence within the movement continue to inspire and empower artists and viewers alike.

In conclusion, the Pre-Raphaelite movement was a significant rebellion against the traditional art conventions of the Victorian era. Despite its initial male dominance, the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood emerged, comprising both female artists and models who challenged societal norms and left a lasting impact on the art world.

This sisterhood provided a platform for women to express their artistic talents, pushing the boundaries of art and challenging conventional notions of femininity. The inclusion of women in Pre-Raphaelite art and their exploration of diverse subject matters have inspired future generations of artists and continue to resonate today.

The Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood serves as a powerful reminder that art has the capacity to challenge, empower, and reshape societal norms.

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