“A plant, a tree, or a flower, he will depict either with the minuteness of the pre-Raphaelite painter.”
This sentence seems to have been written sometime after the 1840s, but in fact it comes from an 18th century essay on Shakespeare. Yes, the term pre-Raphaelite is pre- Pre-Raphaelite. Before Rossetti and the rest of those Victorian artist chaps came along, the term simply referred to painters of the early Renaissance.
Common Victorian knowledge held that early Renaissance paintings suffered from being too stiff. In an encyclopedia entry from 1835 on 'chiaroscuro', (distribution of light and shade in a painting), we see a typical example of this assertion. Raphael is chosen as the turning-point: “The drawing of a piece may be perfectly correct, the colouring may be brilliant and true, and yet the whole picture remain cold and hard. This we find often in the case with the ancient painters before Raphael.”
This was more or less what the future Pre-Raphaelite artists were taught in the Royal Academy in the late 1840s. But William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais were skeptical. Raphael's last painting, The Transfiguration (above), made them question the invincibility of the beloved Old Master. The whole effect was overly dramatic, they complained – it didn't even seem spiritual.
Holman Hunt recalled that when they relayed their new opinion to other students, “ . . . they as a reductio ad absurdam had said, 'then you are Pre-Raphaelite.'” The designation was quick work. If this account is true, it takes all of the mystery out of the origins of the term: it was slapped on them by others as soon as they had said a word against Raphael. All they could do was laughingly agree that they should accept the name.
But what put them off of Raphael – and all that followed him – in the first place? More on that in my next post.