The Beginning of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood

I have been rereading The PreRaphaelites in Love by Gay Daly and wanted to share  some of what I’ve confirmed or am able to refute about the characters in a recent miniseries.

I took exception to the way it portrayed Gabriel Rossetti as the “leader” of the PRBs.  He was certainly not the originator.  The seeds of a new art movement grew between Hunt and Millais and drew inspiration from Ruskin.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)  Self-Portrait, 1845  Oil on canvas  39.3 x 45.7 cm (15.47

William Holman Hunt, Self Portrait, 1845

Hunt was raised by a father who had wanted to be an artist himself, but gave it up in order to struggle for a living as the manager of a draper’s warehouse and, and to be just, feed and shelter a family.  His father did not support his son’s ambition, but William, whose most salient characteristic was the indomitable power of will, worked 6 days per week as a child, yet attended art classes in the evening and badgered his father into paying for private painting lessons from a successful portrait painter.  He quit his father’s business when he was sixteen, but couldn’t afford prep school for the Royal Academy, so he drew from casts at the British Museum.  He’d heard about John Everett Millais, the child prodigy, who entered the Royal Academy Schools when he was eleven and idolized the very idea of him, much as Salieri idolized the unmet Mozart in Amadeus.  I’m sure that because of his own prodigious talent, he saw Millais as what he might have been with more affluent parents, but he doesn’t seem to have been bitter.  He attended the prize ceremony at the Royal Academy School just to catch a glimpse of him.  This is what Hunt wrote of it in his autobiography:  “I had not until now seen either the boy of whom I had heard so much, or his drawings; I had formed so exalted an idea of both, that it would have been a pain to me had either fallen short of my standard.  In the conception of a yet unknown living hero the image cherished becomes so dear that too often the reality is disenchantment.  It was not so in this case; the boy Millais was exactly what I had pictured him, and his work just as accomplished as I had thought it to be.” 

John Everett Millais, Self Portrait, 1847

Both Hunt’s first and second applications to the Royal Academy Schools, consisting of three finished drawings both times, were rejected.  Hunt was bitterly disappointed and had to face his father’s reproofs on top of it  He struck a bargain with his father though; if he failed a third time he would go into business.

Enter John Millais, deus ex machina.  Hunt was drawing in the British Museum, when Millais, flying through, suddenly halted behind him struck with the drawing and burst out (in true British fashion), “I say!…You ought to be at the Academy!”  When told that he’d been rejected, Millais assured him, “You just send the drawing you are doing now and you’ll be in like a shot.”

And so it turned out to be.  Hunt would not have curried favor with this young Mozart had the Mozart in question not been a genuine spirit of generosity and enthusiasm.  Millais soon invited Hunt to his home and they began working side by side and discussing art.  Hunt’s radical ideas quickly transfused Millais, darling of academia though he was.  Hunt raged at the current paintings of the time, painted figures who looked to him “not like sober live men, but pageant statues of waxwork.  They weren’t human; the pious had vitreous tears on their reverential cheeks; innkeepers were ever round and red-faced; peasants had complexions of dainty pink; shepherdesses were facsimiled from Dresden-china toys; all alike from king to plebeian were arrayed in clothes fresh from the bandbox.”

He and Millais wanted to paint people as they really were.  However, it would be very hard to succeed if they followed their own lights.  Art, as propounded by the Academy, was governed by a rigid set of rules.  Every composition had to make either an S or a triangle.  All colors had to be subdued, every landscape brown in tone.  Light and shadow had to be painted in a ratio of one to three or one to four.  And all human figures had to be painted free of deformity, dressed in clean new clothes.  (Gay Daly)

Both Hunt and Millais very much wanted to succeed, so even though they were in the process of rebelling against the establishment, their paintings had very little chance of being seen if they couldn’t be shown at the Royal Academy’s yearly exhibition.  “Galleries were few and far between and tended to deal in Old Masters and established painters.  Dealers were a new phenomenon, just beginning to be anything; the art market as we know it was not a reality.   Dealers scouted the exhibition each spring; if they saw something they liked, they would go around to the artist’s studio to talk and to see what else might be for sale.  Selling for both young artists was critical, because from the age of sixteen, Millais’ family depended on his income from his sales – as you can see they made a gamble in favor of Millais talent by sending him to the Academy, while Hunt’s family made a gamble against – and Hunt had to support himself entirely, so his father didn’t have to.”   (Gay Daly)

Hunt borrowed and adapted the painting technique, completely foreign to the Academy, which characterized the paintings of his and Millais’ as the founding members of the PRB, from the Italian fresco painters, who painted directly into wet plaster.  This method was a radical departure from the practice then in vogue of painting on a dry canvas coated with asphaltum, a tarry brown compound that muted all colors.  The wet white ground was far more difficult to control.  The artist had to prepare a small square of canvas each day by putting down a thin layer of white pigment mixed with a dab of varnish.  It could be painted only once; if the hand faltered, the painter had to scrape out what he had done and start all over again….Hunt felt that this method brought so much light into the picture that it was well worth the risk.”   (GD)

Moreover, Hunt and Millais decided that paintings must be painted from nature directly.  In this their views were augmented by Ruskin’s Modern Painters.  Hunt read it in twenty-four hours and rushed to Millais brimming with the recognition of their own beliefs and taking it as personal validation.  However, Hunt’s response was not unique:  As Gay Daly points out, “similar sentiments were echoed in the diaries and letters of many, many young Victorians.  Ruskin fired the imagination of a generation; his passionate commitment to art and the strong moral foundation on which that commitment rested offered young artists a justification of their own passionate intellectual intensity….Millais, who was never much of a reader, … was perfectly happy to soak in Hunt’s excited account.  His floods of nervous energy made it hard for him to sit still; the one place that he could bring his energy under control was in front of his easel.”  (I can so identify with Millais’ difficulty in sitting still.)

They therefore marched out into the countryside, the way the Barbizon School in France would concurrently do and the Impressionists later.  (The British Art World seemed to be completely unaware of what was happening in France or anywhere else that people painted.)  They went out and painted backgrounds en plein air, with all its attendant discomforts of wind, rain, insects, cold and heat; they built shelters, toted their equipment back and forth and wrestled with large canvases.  I really appreciate reading about this, because painting outdoors is very difficult and when you’re out there it often seems like it’s not worth it and you must be doing something wrong, because no one would ever have done this unless the whole project went more smoothly than this.

Here is a description of Millais painting the background for Ophelia:  He worked up the background of the stream and its bank dense with wildflowers and weeds, aware of the absurdity of struggling to render tragedy while swatting lies.  “My martyrdom is more trying than any I have experienced, “he wrote.  “The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and they have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh….Am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water, and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that lady sank to a muddy death….There are two swans who not a little add to my misery by persisting in watching me from the exact spot I wish to paint, occasionally destroying every water-weed within their reach.  My sudden perilous evolutions on the extreme bank, to persuade them to evacuate their position, have the effect of entirely deranging my temper, my picture, brushes, and palette….Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be a greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.”   Millais had more trouble putting a water rat into his picture than he did with the figure of Ophelia herself.  Water rats were hard to come by.  When his servant finally caught one, it began to decompose before Millais was able to render a likeness.  He had to call for a fresh corpse; the search was repeated, and before long he had run through three rats.  After all that, visitors came out from London complained that the rat shouldn’t be in the picture at all.  Some thought its proximity to Ophelia was indelicate; its presence obtruded on the viewer an awareness that a rodent would soon be feeding on the piteous virgin. (Probably the reason Millais even thought of putting it in; art should serve truth.)  Others simply couldn’t recognize the animal, guessing it to be a rabbit, a dog, a cat, anything at all but a rat.  So the artist painted the rat in and out, in and out, before finally concluding that it had to be banished forever.  In the end the rat triumphed:  Today any visitor to the Tate Gallery can see the distinct shadow of a fat, prowling rat in the upper right corner of the canvas. (GD)
I am personally certain that if the rat was still in the picture, it would look exactly like a rat.  Millais was a superb draftsman.  If he painted a rat; it was undeniably a rat.  I mean, look at this painting!  Could it be more believable.  I’d like to have his diary to know how long it took to paint that foliage.


Hunt was having his own animal difficulties.  His picture, The Hireling Shepherd, a parable about the shepherd who neglects his flock, was to feature more than forty sheep.  Hunt expected his sheep to be docile creatures.  Instead, nets, ropes, and a servant had to be employed to hold them in place.  When all else failed, Hunt directed his servant to pick up a flailing sheep and drop it to the ground, thereby rendering it insensible and cooperative. (GD)



These paintings were done after their first exhibition and after Ruskin had championed them.  The two friends sought a place they could go to work outdoors and encourage each other.  These paintings were done in Surrey from where they were settled at Worcester Park Farm.  Hunt used a local girl, Emma Watkins, as his model.  Lizzie Siddel was added in Millais London studio.  He was looking for an Ophelia, as I’ve looked for a Christina, a Phantom, or an Orpheus.

When Hunt and Millais painted Ophelia and the Hireling Shepherd, they’d already met Gabriel Rossetti and formed the Brotherhood.  That will be another Blog entry.  Just to show you what they were working on before Ophelia, which was a breakthrough painting for the whole brotherhood, drawing Ruskin’s support.  Here are the entries for their first exhibition:

The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry Eve of St Agnes, 1848, by William Holman Hunt.


For the first exhibition for which he submitted work beside Hunt, Millais was working on this one, Cymon and Iphigenia from Boccaccio’s Decameron, not to be confused with Iphigeneia of Greek Myth.   This is a story about a brutish sot, Cymon, who happens upon the sleeping Iphigenia and overcome by her beauty, is transformed by it.  He becomes an Italian Renaissance gentleman, with mental attainments as well as grace and manner.  When Iphigenia is engaged to marry another, he attempts to prevent it by abducting her, but is captured and imprisoned.  During the very wedding, he manages to escape and presenting himself at the wedding, fights the groom, kills him and marries her himself.  He and Iphigenia form a true love union.  Well, not to laugh, from this classical piece comes the plot of many a romance novel.

Hunt’s St Agnes was selected, Millais’ Cymon rejected.  This is perhaps the only Millais painting I don’t care for.  Well, maybe I don’t like Bubbles either.  Millais response was admirable.  Hunt wrote, “He was exceedingly brave about the disappointment, and – as was characteristic with him throughout life on encountering any check to success – he was very reticent on the subject, and now he hid the picture away.”   I do so like Millais.  He really was such a modest, hard-working and generous person.

Millais went to Oxford for the summer, getting away from the scene of his failure, but at the exhibition a fateful meeting took place.  An art student named Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti went up to Hunt and declared loudly that The Eve of St Agnes was the best in the collection.  Although embarrassed by the volume of the praise, Rossetti’s compliment was very much appreciated.  Hunt wasn’t a man who’d been praised much, as yet, and though he doggedly believed in himself, intending to become the greatest religious artist of the age and was less likely to give up and lick his wounds than anyone on earth, one can imagine how this sparked a new and important friendship.

Next installment, Dante Gabriel  Rossetti  and the PRB, the truth about him and Lizzie Siddel.

1 thought on “The Beginning of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood

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