Few artistic movements have managed to become so iconic that they are recognizable even by those who do not understand art. Absolute masterpieces come out of the hands and minds of artists deeply in love with nature, ephemeral beauty, femininity and chivalric legends. Men and women in search of a time lost and in reality never found, but whose very search is universal and ancient sentiment. An entirely new adventure to unveil something of a mystical past, rejecting all strict canons and letting themselves be carried away by the impetus of beauty, painting on canvas what the heart was clamoring for. These were the Pre-Raphaelites. This was their art.
Why did the famous brotherhood born in the fascinating Victorian age give itself such a peculiar name? At the time the Italian masters represented the pinnacle and the artistic model to which every aspiring painter should strive. It was the prestigious Royal Academy of London that dictated canons and rules, as well as consecrating fortunes and abysses in the careers of British artists. Raphael was considered the greatest of the masters in the academic world of the time, and his unmatched technique was to be the goal for every painter. A group of young Royal Academy students rejected this approach; they even found Raphael's works sad, pathos-free, imperfect in their very perfection, empty and soulless. So it was that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais decided to rebel against the severity of Victorian painting imposed by their masters and founded their own artistic movement, precisely Pre-Raphaelite. Before Raphael, first of all what the Italian genius represented.
In 1848 the three young men began a happy and fervent experience of collective study where they discussed art, poetry, literature and anything that would increase their search for a world different from the one around them (which in the meantime was experiencing the great changes due to industrialization). Their interests led them to find inspiration in Shakespeare and Keats, medieval legends and naturalism. Soon the confraternity expanded, accepting new members including James Collinson, Thomas Woolner, Frederic George Stephens and William Michael, brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. There were also women, including Cristina, sister of the Rossettis and especially Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal. The latter has a reputation equal to that of the entire Brotherhood. Model, painter, poetess and lover of Dante, she posed for the legendary Ophelia by Millais.
In the first exhibitions of the Pre-Raphaelites one can perceive the influence of the exhortation contained in the essay Modern Painters by art critic John Ruskin. The future patron of the Brotherhood urged the young painters of the time "to go towards nature with honesty of heart [...] without rejecting anything". Simplicity was one of their characteristics, as well as one of the most questioned defects. Initially their success was enormous, but the personal vicissitudes of the members led to a decline that did not allow the artistic movement to reach the new century. A second group of Pre-Raphaelites reconstituted themselves in the late 19th century, with names like William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, but by then the initial dream had been lost. Of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood we are left with many iconic works such as The Lady of Shalott by Waterhouse and Beata Beatrix by Rossetti, but their influence touched many sectors of Western culture and for many years.