The Pre-Raphaelites – The Years of Achievement 1848-1860


In 1848 a group of very young men, mostly students at the Royal Academy Schools, established themselves as The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They challenged the academic teaching of the Academy, and wanted to see nature through eyes unspoilt by theories and traditional ways of painting. They began to paint outside in broad sunlight using the brilliant new chemical paints which were becoming available, painting on white canvas rather than brown to create greater intensity of colour. They looked back to the ‘pure’ paintings of Giotto and the 14th Century in Italy eliminating chiaroscuro and too much shading.

These young men were revolutionaries and their work became incredibly popular with the public. At Royal Academy exhibitions guard rails had to be put to keep visitors at a safe distance, and their popularity was heightened when the popular art critic John Ruskin began to write article sin their support. In addition to stories from Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson, they looked at social issues such as vagrancy and poverty. They also took trains into the countryside to paint landscape in the open air many years before the Impressionists.

The lives of these painters was unconventional. They had affairs with their models who themselves were progressive thinkers who rejected Victorian respectability. The scandal of Millais and Ruskin’s wife Effie helped break the group up, but their achievements were extraordinary and their reputations in Europe very high. Far from being ‘old fuddy duddies’ with long beards, the Pre-Raphaelites were truly revolutionary painters.