The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was founded in 1848 by William Hunt, John Millais and Dante Rossetti. They believed that the Mannerists (the successors of the Renaissance masters) had been a corrupting influence on high art. Raphael, largely considered the most talented painter the world has ever seen, was seen by the brotherhood as the man who saw to the decline in art.
Hence the name, 'pre' Raphaelites. They were all about the good ol' days. They particularly hated Sir Joshua Reynolds, who founded the Royal Academy and they refered to him as 'Sir Sloshua'. They wanted art to return to the state it was during the Quattrocento - proto renaissance and international Gothic.
England during the 19th century was full of political unrest that undoubtedly would have put conservative men on the edge of their seats. Before, the working class had no political consciousness, but when the industrialisation brought them into the cities they began to gather awareness. Some worked their way up to become businessmen and thus was the emergence of a middle class. This was scary for the upper class, now that there was EDUCATED lower classes to deal with.
The newly well-off, industrialised class soon became sympathetic with the plight of the lower classes and were similarly frustrated that they were not eligible to vote. This resulted in middle/working class alliance within the likes of the Birmingham Political Union (spearheaded by Thomas Attwood). During this time, in 1830, King George IV had just died and a public vote was held for a PM. The tories won by considerable majority and thus the 1st Duke of Wellington came to power. A large percentage of the commons urged for reform because of the political atmosphere, however the Duke thought otherwise and basically dug his own grave when he defended the old system. He was then replaced by the Whig leader, Lord Grey.
Lord Grey wrote up a reform act almost immediately but it took 2 years to pass. He had the support of the Commons but could not get the House of Lords to sign it off for a third time running. He took this matter to the king, William IV, and tried his hand at bluffing. He told the king that he would resign if he did not pass the act himself. The only problem? the king called his bluff and off Grey went, replaced by the Duke.
The masses were not fickle enough to have forgotten the Duke just yet, and a wave of revolutionary air hit England. There was a call to withdraw all money in gold from the banks - often refered to as 'Stop the Duke, go for Gold'. After 1.5 million pounds was withdrawn from the banks in gold and economic crisis was sure to follow, the king was forced to reinstate Grey and pass the act. Considerable ammendments were made, but the reform started to amend the problem of disproportionate representation. Cities that had emerged during the industrial revolution were given more seats and 'rotten boroughs' had seats taken away. The franchise also extended to include some middle class men in an attempt to break the middle/working class alliance that had the government worried.
Not only that, the poor old government had to contend with the outdated Poor Laws . The 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws was ordered after a bout of riots took place accross much of southern England in 1830, known as the 'Swing Riots'. The commission found that the Speenhamland System (a system that would give subsidies for low wages) and the Roudsman System (where overseers could hire cheap pauper labour) were putting the normal independent labourer at a disadvantage - why would an employer employ someone that he has to pay full price for when he can employ someone for far cheaper?
There was an amendment act drawn out which aimed to drive down the amount of people claiming relief and therefore the costs of relief that were payed for by those who voted. They tried to abolish outdoor relief (relief outside a workhouse) and employ a measure of 'less eligibility' whereby a pauper was required to be worse off than those in the workhouse to gain access .Another method used was to segregate women, men, girls and boys in an effort to deter people from entering- alongside an introduction of a prison like uniform. Moreover, they had little workhouses join together to become 'unions'. This put in practice however backfired catastrophically because to make the workhouses worse than the outside would be to starve the inmates and it was often too expensive to build new workhouse unions and thus outdoor relief remained.
Further reform was necessary however when the 1845 Andover Workhouse scandal made public to the press the disgusting state of the workhouses. The inmates were so hungry they began eating the bones they had to crush to make fertiliser. Other reforms were pushed here and there all throughout the 30's and 40's that gave more and more rights not only to paupers, but to other children, men and women too. Education reform was being fought for too. Work hours decreased, no little girls were permitted to work and young boys had to provide birth certificates to prove they were over the required age to work (which had increased from something silly like 4 or 5 to at least 9 or so i think). The reforms however proved too little for the masses and paved the way for the biggest let down in European history: the 1848 Chartist gathering in Kennington. I believe the government were expecting a full scale revolution a la French revolution in February that year but the event failed to gather much momentum and thus was the demise of the Chartist Movement.
This very long explanation brings us back to 1848, the formation of the Pre-Raphaelites. As a group of pretentious poets, painters, writers, you can imagine they felt the need to discuss the 'question of England' despite the Chartist Movement's eventual fizzling out.
John Millais, Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru, 1848.
The V&A website tells me this is an unsual scene to depict but is the capture of the Inca emperor by the Spanish conquistador. This is a fairly typical history painting style wise.
Lorenzo and Isabella, 1849.
This was Millais' first painting done in the Pre-Raphaelites style. This scene is a representation of an episode from a Keats poem. Isabella has fallen in love with her brothers' employee. This shows when the brothers become aware of the situation and make a pact to kill Lorenzo. Lorenzo is giving a blood orange to Isabella - the symbol of someone who's been decapitated - an allusion to his end fate whereby Isabella decapitates his head to carry with her after discovering his dead body. The difference in style is evident when you compare the image below with the image above. It has become far more medieval looking, unsurprising seeing as they admired the Italian 'primitives'.
Christ in the House of his Parents, 1849.
This shows an infant Jesus having hurt himself, whereby Millais alludes to the stigmata of his crucifixion. The 'house' of his parents is shown to be a very detailed carpenders workshop. Nevertheless, the Pre-Raphaelites intended to uphold religious moral values and included many christian elements: John the Baptist with his bowl of water (reference to his future involvement in the baptism of Christ), a bright red flower in the foreground (to signify Jesus' passion), Joseph holding a bolt very close to his hand which has the stigmata etc. Even so, critics HATED it in belief that it was horrendous and blasphemous. The only reason this is famous however, is because Charles Dickens very very famously despised it.
Lots of botany which was very medieval ;often found in a Book of Hours and other Medieval scripture as patterning.
John Ruskin, 1854.
John Ruskin famously fought the Pre-Raphaelite corner in the wake of criticism.
Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini, 1850.
This was criticised for an unconvincing command of space and the hovering angel. However, Rosetti was academically trained and was by no means unable to represent an image in a renaissance fashion. This was all deliberate.
The influence of medieval illuminated maniscripts grows stronger. The subject is thought to be based on an old Medieval tale or song; or alternative the marriage of Rossetti. If the latter, the painting is a solemn affair because his wife, Elizabeth, was extremely ill at this time.
Beata Beatrix, 1863.
The name of this refers to a figure in a poem by Dante Alghigieri, but is said to have been modelled on his late wife who had died a year earlier. Rossetti explained in a later letter that he did not intend to depict Beatrix at her time of death but rather at the time that a 'trance' or 'sudden spiritual transfiguration' had occured. Perhaps his own way with dealing with Elizabeth Siddal's death - believing her spirit had left her body but not died maybe gave him some comfort.
Proserpine (persephone) lived in the underworld during autumn and winter and Rossetti said himself that his representation of her here is transfixed on the sight of an opening to the world above. His mental state was deteriorating and this point and he was massively obsessed with a woman called Jane Morris, of whom he modelled his Proserpine on.
Holman Hunt, the Hireling Shepherd, 1851.
This was painted at the same time as Millais' Ophelia. This was hated because, and i quote, the 'fiery red skin' and 'wiry hair' of the peasants who look so 'flushed' because they'd be drinking too much cider! Hunt's meaning for this was suggested to be the Hireling Shepherd as the antithesis of the Good shepherd. He stated that the upper members of the clergy argued about petty things while letting their 'flock' run amock, in a similar way this peasant here is trying to impress the girl while his sheep veer off into danger and do whatever.
The Light of the World, 1851.
Jesus knocks at the door that represents the book of Revelations (3:20):
"Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me".
William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1858.
A portrait of his wife, Jane Burden, in medieval dress.
Henry Wallis, Stonebreaker, 1857.
Unmistakably influenced by Courbet's work by the same name.
John Brett, Stonebreaker, 1857-8.
A brighter palette, recalling medieval manuscripts.