The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (Spring Term)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

 The Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelite movement began as a reaction against the prevailing rules of painting that were based on the works of the Renaissance painter Raphael and his followers (e.g. 1/7 of the canvas should be in bright light, 1/3 in shadow; no two heads should be turned the same way; the human figures should represent ideal beauty). The Pre-Raphaelite painters (Hunt, Millais, Rossetti) believed they were returning to the "naturalism" of the Italian primitives--painters before Raphael; the first Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions (1848; 1850) featured paintings from human models and in natural light. As William Morris wrote, this new style was part of the "general revolt against Academicism in Literature as well as in Art," although the revolution in literature happened much earlier (see Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads."). Perhaps not surprisingly, traditional art critics were outraged.

Note: click on paintings to view enlargements.

The Second Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition, 1850

John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of his Parents

Charles Dickens was one who was shocked. He wrote in Household Words: "You behold the interior of a carpenter's shop. In the foreground . . . is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a probe in the hand from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman so hideous in her ugliness that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) 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."

 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domine 

The model for the Virgin Mary in this painting was Rossetti's sister, Christina Rossetti. The model for the angel Gabriel was his brother William Michael Rossetti.

This painting also illustrates the development of symbolism in Pre-Raphaelite painting. Note the dove and the lily.

 The Quintessential Pre-Raphaelite Painting (1857)

Although the Medieval quality in Pre-Raphaelite painting continued as a strong characteristic, the interest in brutal naturalism soon gave way to a desire for a more imaginative and sensuous treatment of the subject. The dreamy self-contained world of the lovers in the following painting was seen to embody the new Pre-Raphaelite feeling, offering an imaginative escape from the world of industrialism and the machine.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Wedding of Prince George and the Princess Sabra


The painter James Smetham described this painting as "one of the grandest things, like a golden dim dream" with a magical "sense of secret enclosure."


Other Pre-Raphaelite web pages:

Paintings on Literary Subjects

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel"

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel" (background detail)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings of Jane Morris (wife of William Morris)

Designs by William Morris

These notes are intended for the use of students in a lecture course; for any other use, please acknowledge this site.

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