Sir Joshua Reynolds was the first President of Britain’s Royal Arts Academy in the mid 1700s. He trumpeted a style known as Grand Style or History Painting, in which he contended that painters should perceive their subjects through generalization and idealization, rather than by the careful copy of nature.
In 1848 a group of artists and poets who hated Sir Joshua and this very idea got together and declared themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They contended that the obsession with “classical” poses, classicism in general, concept over aesthetic, and formality and starkness over richness of detail and colorful exuberance had caused art to… well, suck.
They wanted this:
Basically, they contended that everything since Raphael had gone downhill, so they were going back to Pre-Raphael ideals of painting.
They felt that the Middle Ages possessed a spirit and grace that had been lost to modern man and they vowed to recapture that spirit.
In a nutshell, these were their 4 declarations:
- to have genuine ideas to express
- to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them
- to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote
- most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues
As pretty as they seem nowadays, in the 1850s this was seriously innovative stuff and both the public and the critics were truly shocked and the PRB was lambasted. Reviews were scorching. It took hte most revered aesthetician of the day, John Ruskin to give his approval before the populace starting calming down and accepted the new style.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began by putting the letters PRB on their paintings, long before anyone knew what it meant.
“More than any of the original Brotherhood could have predicted, the Pre-Raphaelite label turned out to be a canny piece of marketing. The aura of mystery surrounding the initials “PRB” fostered an explanation industry: commentaries, reviews, and evaluations that set out to teach the uninitiated just what Pre-Raphaelitism was. As early as the 1850s, this apparatus gave the Pre-Raphaelites a particular aura of intellectual rigor and interest, and it helps to explain how a rather small group of paintings and painters came to acquire such an enormous, unlikely influence. ” - Andrew Elfenbein