While the Nazarenes remain primarily of interest to art historians, the PreRaphaelites are widely beloved. Their popularity in recent times mushroomed in the late 1960s and into the '70s with a revival of interest in 19th century art beyond Impressionism. Their critical reception from the very beginning was very mixed, and remains mixed to this day.
The PreRaphaelites were the last Romantic movement. They began in the very year that most historians date the end, or the beginning of the end, of Romanticism, the momentous year 1848, when, as Karl Marx pointed out, a specter haunted Europe. A wave of revolutionary uprisings swept the whole continent of Europe in 1848 with youth movements, nationalist movements, and labor uprisings. By 1849, almost all of it would end in defeat and failure.
The PreRaphaelite Brotherhood, the PRB, began with 3 young malcontents at the Royal Academy in London, chafing under the very classical instruction that was the rule then. All three were between 19 and 20 years old. They were Dante Gabriel Rosetti, son of an Italian poet and nationalist who fled to England, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt.
In many ways, they resemble the much earlier German Nazarenes in their belief that the conventional art of their day was hopelessly corrupt and decadent. Like the Nazarenes, they believed that the decadence began with the later work of Raphael and Titian and the creation of the Maniera Magnifica or The Grand Manner which dominated the national academies more or less since the 17th century. Also like the Nazarenes, they believed in the superior honesty and fidelity of the art of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. They wanted to revive art by going back to painting from the time before Raphael, hence their moniker, the PreRaphaelites. The PreRaphaelites' artists of choice from the early Renaissance were Hans Memling and Botticelli.
The PreRaphaelites never withdrew from society into a quasi-monastic community like the Nazarenes. Instead, they took on the form of a kind of revolutionary secret society, signing their paintings with the once mysterious initials "PRB." That got the attention of the very nervous police forces of an English Establishment anxious to prevent the passions of the Continent from crossing the Channel.
Above are 2 paintings which helped to launch the public career of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood. Both were roundly trashed by the critics of the day. The painting at the top is Rosetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini , and the painting at the bottom is Millais' The Carpenter's Shop. Both are religious paintings.
Millais' Carpenter Shop from 1850 went even further than the Nazarenes in its attempt to recapture something of that perceived honesty and innocence of early Renaissance painting, especially Flemmish painting from the 15th century. Officially titled Christ in the House of His Parents, the painting is a complex allegory of Christian salvation based on Zechariah 13:6. Gone are the large plays of chiaroscuro (light and dark), the tightly composed and rhythmic monumental compositions of the Grand Manner. Gone too is that editorial sense that privileged attention of parts of the composition at the expense of other parts. Gone as well is that virtuoso painterly brushwork that began with Titian and was epitomized by Rubens, that used the play of paintstrokes to suggest as well as describe. Like the Flemmish painters of old, Millais began with a plain white ground instead of the usual toned ground of classical practice. Like the Flemmings, he built his colors up like watercolors, transparent layers of oil glaze one on top of the other.
Unlike the great Flemmish masters, Millais and all the other PreRaphaelites had tremmendous difficulty seeing both the forest and the trees together and keeping the spatial coherence and unity of their pictures. Everything in The Carpenter's Shop is examined with a microscope, from the veins on the arms of St. Joseph to the wood shavings on the floor, to the wool on the sheep in the far distance outside. This intense unedited obsessive attention to everything has the strange effect of flattening the picture space by bringing everything in the background forward. There is a large measure of that modern literal-mindedness in this picture. Millais studied carpenter's shops, and used the arms of an actual carpenter for the arms of Joseph (the head is Millais' own father). He used sheep's heads purchased from a local butcher for the flock outside.
The critics pounced on this picture. It's most famous and ferocious detractor was Charles Dickens (of all people) who attacked the quotidian appearance of the Holy Family. He wrote that Mary in the picture was "so hideous in her ugliness that...she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England..."
Rosetti's painting was exhibited in the same year, 1850, and met with a similar reception. He was obliged to change the title to The Annunciation after the authorities complained of creeping popery in his original title. It shows a wingless Angel Gabriel bringing the News to the young Virgin Mary in her very small and narrow bedchamber. The Virgin Mary in this picture is the first appearance of the pale thin waif girl with long straight red hair that would become so identified with PreRaphaelite pictures, and would have such a huge influence on later fashion. In fact, she is Rosetti's sister, the famous poet Christina Rosetti posing as the startled and anxious looking Virgin Mary. The painting has the sharply up-tilted perspective of early Renaissance pictures, and the gilded haloes and overall chalky colors that Rosetti so admired in early Italian fresco painting, especially Fra Angelico. Unlike Fra Angelico's work, this is a very personal and deliberately unconventional version of this subject, especially the depiction of Gabriel as wingless and walking on gilded flames about 3 inched off the floor.
The PreRaphaelites, like the Nazarenes, tried to renew sacred subject matter through contact with the distant past seen through the eyes of nostalgia. Like the Gothic Revival movement led by Pugin, they saw the Medieval past as a kind of lost paradise of humane ecclesiastical government in a worldview pervaded with symbolic meaning and poetry. They wanted to make nothing less than a renewal of Christian art to redeem an industrial society of great brutality, to reinvest meaning in a world dominated by commerce where the most compelling meaning is what's written on a price tag.
The PreRaphaelites, even more strikingly than the Nazarenes, are moderns. Their pictures are deeply personal and idiosyncratic in a way that none of their early Renaissance heroes were. They are not guided by any inherited traditions or conventions like the Renaissance painters. A 15th century painter had a whole matrix of conventions and traditions which he could work with or against, but always within. None of that was there for the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood in post-Reformation Industrial Britain. It is that very personal quality of their work that betrays strong subliminal passions that sometimes work at cross-purposes to the stated intentions of their work. One of the things that makes their work so popular still is a strong undercurrent of sensuality. A past professor of mine described the PreRaphaelites as "turned on in the name of the Lord." That sensuality would come strongly to the surface in later Victorian artists deeply influenced by the PreRaphaelites like Burne-Jones, Waterhouse, and Lord Leighton. The original 3 would definitely not appreciate this.
At the very same time that Rosetti and Holman-Hunt were researching Medieval armor for their pictures based on Medieval romances, a brand new piece of technology emerged that would forever take painting into uncharted waters; photography.