Victorian Literature Pre-Raphaelitism
by
Stefano Evangelista
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0054

Introduction

Pre-Raphaelitism was a countercultural movement that aimed to reform Victorian art and writing. It originated with the foundation, in 1848, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) by, among others, the artists John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. The name Pre-Raphaelitism derives from these artists’ controversial admiration for painting before the era of Raphael (b. 1483–d. 1520). Other principles they followed in their art included rejecting academicism, representing nature faithfully, and stressing the interconnections between literature and painting. The innovations championed by the Pre-Raphaelites immediately attracted widespread condemnation, but they won the important support of John Ruskin, who played an important role in promoting the movement. Together with Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites were instrumental in spreading a taste for medievalism in evidence in several aspects of Victorian literature and arts. In the 1860s Pre-Raphaelitism underwent a second wave, associated mainly with the work of Edward Burne-Jones, which departed from the realism of early pre-Raphaelite works and moved instead toward myth and aestheticism. While the origins of Pre-Raphaelitism are in painting, the ideas behind the movement quickly spread to literature, especially poetry. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the original founders of the PRB, was also a poet, and aspects of Pre-Raphaelitism can likewise be seen in the work of authors such as Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, A. C. Swinburne, William Morris, and Walter Pater. Pre-Raphaelitism was the first of a series of interconnected movements that introduced a note of dissent in the Victorian public culture of art: from the 1860s onward it can therefore be seen to shade into aestheticism first and then into decadence, two movements in which the literary component is more pronounced. As such, Pre-Raphaelitism should be understood to encompass a range of arts including painting and sculpture but also poetry, fiction, and criticism. Pre-Raphaelitism also became one of the dominant influences on English literature from the 1850s to the end of the 19th century.

General Overviews

Since the 1980s, the popularity of Pre-Raphaelite painting has resulted in popular and sometimes sensational treatments of the movement in print and other media. Gaunt 1942 is an early example of this genre. All the other entries listed in this section are scholarly sources, and most of them are written by art historians. Barringer 1999 and Prettejohn 2007 are excellent starting points for students: both are authoritative, comprehensive, and richly illustrated. They offer different structural approaches: Barringer is historical, while Prettejohn is thematic. Hunt 1968 is more focused on the literary context, especially in terms of the Pre-Raphaelites’ influence on decadence. Essay collections provide a good way to explore the breadth of critical responses and possible approaches. Sambrook 1974 is a classic, combining primary documents, early responses, and criticism. Among more recent collections, Parris 1984 is biased toward art history, while Latham 2003 shows a breadth of interdisciplinary approaches. Interdisciplinarity is also much in evidence in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, a scholarly journal that provides the main forum for academic research on Pre-Raphaelitism.

  • Barringer, Tim. Reading the Pre-Raphaelites. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    A rich and highly readable history of Pre-Raphaelitism through painting by a leading art historian, with plenty of color illustrations. One of the best introductions to the Pre-Raphaelites.

  • Gaunt, William. The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy. London: Jonathan Cape, 1942.

    E-mail Citation »

    Somewhat sensational and somewhat dated, but still an enjoyable and highly readable history of Pre-Raphaelitism that makes for a good, mainly biographical, introduction. A rare document from a period poor in scholarship on the Pre-Raphaelites.

  • Hunt, John Dixon. The Pre-Raphaelite Imagination, 1848–1900. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

    E-mail Citation »

    Especially strong on the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism on later Victorian literature and on the genesis of 1890s decadence.

  • Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. 1977–.

    E-mail Citation »

    Founded in 1977, this journal is a vital resource for students and researchers. It features articles as well as reviews of all major critical studies in the field. A crucial forum for up-to-date critical debate on the Pre-Raphaelites. The journal website lists the contents of each issue.

  • Latham, David, ed. Haunted Texts: Studies in Pre-Raphaelitism in Honour of William Fredeman. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection of essays aims to illustrate the “full spectrum” of Pre-Raphaelitism. It contains essays by leading scholars and covers mainly poetry (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Swinburne) and material culture.

  • Parris, Leslie, ed. Pre-Raphaelite Papers. London: Tate Gallery, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection of essays is linked to the important Pre-Raphaelite Tate exhibition of 1984. It remains a good source even though some of the material appears a bit dated today. The essays mostly deal with art-historical questions. It contains a frequently cited essay by Stephanie Grilli on Pre-Raphaelitism and phrenology.

  • Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    A rich, engagingly written critical study of Pre-Raphaelitism by a noted art historian, with an emphasis on visual culture. It covers important, emerging scholarly areas such as cultural context, gender, and technique. Prettejohn brings out the interpretative richness of the material and includes many beautiful color illustrations that make this book also a great reference source.

  • Sambrook, James, ed. Pre-Raphaelitism: A Collection of Critical Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    This excellent anthology of primary documents and critical responses includes important essays on general aspects of the movement as well as specific authors such as Swinburne and Rossetti. It excludes important late-20th-century and early-21st-century critical developments, especially in terms of gender and visual culture.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down