The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and others, was a group of artists who rebelled against the prevailing Victorian taste for sentimental genre scenes. Their subjects were drawn from a variety of literary sources, including the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dante, as well as contemporary poetry. Avowing that Raphael, traditionally held as the epitome of artistic achievement, was artificial and academic, they looked to what they saw as the simplicity and “truthfulness” of medieval and early Renaissance art—hence the term Pre-Raphaelite.
Although their early ideals were later diluted, they succeeded in reinvigorating late nineteenth-century British art, and their innovations were part of an international efflorescence of symbolism in the visual and literary arts. Edward Burne-Jones, a younger artist often associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, assimilated their ideals while moving further into pure aestheticism. The French artist Gustave Moreau, best known for his otherworldly and enigmatic paintings, was a great admirer of Burne-Jones, as were American artists like Elihu Vedder and John La Farge.
The works in this gallery, by or inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, treat literary, biblical, or mythological themes, inviting the viewer to enter wholly imaginary and spiritual realms. The subjects tread the threshold between heaven and earth, earth and water, night and day, and, especially, life and death. Common themes include the idealized woman and the “femme fatale,” the afterlife, the role of religion in the age of Darwin, and the timelessness of nature in the face of industrialization.