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19th Century Question - Victorian vs Pre-Raphaelites

Updated on December 20, 2013

Frith’s At the Seashore (Remsgate Sands) 1854

The Encyclopedia of the Victorian World: A Reader's Companion to the People, Places, Events, and Everyday Life of the Victorian Era (Henry Holt Reference Book)

Introduction to Victorian and Pre-Raphaelites

For artists it had always been a tug and pull between the academy and innovation. In the middle of the 19th century we begin to see a stark different between the two. The Academy gains importance in terms of its cultivation of art. The English government founded a national gallery that allowed free admission and gave people the opportunity to come in and partake of the art. In 1830 a national art education program was started to raise the general level of aesthetic taste. This caused academic realism to become fashionable during the reign of Queen Victoria, creating what we know now as Victorian Art. The backlash to this is the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais, the founders of the group, believed that art had taken a wrong turn after the death of Raphael. They were looking back to the guilds, to the Nazarenes, to the Renaissance artists, who they thought were true artists. They did not believe in the calculated work of Academic art.

Although working in the same time period, we see how different their subject matters are. The Pre-Raphaelites tried to bring back the beauty of religious biblical art and the Victorian artist seem to be more secular. Because of their different philosophies involving art, their style’s and techniques were different. The Pre-Raphaelite’s style and technique were more fluid, brighter colors, new brush strokes, while those in the Academy had a more set color palette and very precise placement of brush strokes. Yet, we also see commonalities, such as sources of inspiration. Both styles were motivated by contemporary events. The mood on both styles is more sober, serious, and depicting life struggles.

Victorian Era

The Victorian Era was far more concerned with secular events, while the Pre-Raphaelites were more focused on subject matter from biblical times. Frith’s At the Seashore (Remsgate Sands) 1854 is a modern life painting. It gives a greater sense of 19th century realism. It is a depiction of everyday life. It shows the middle class people doing what they do. There is a mother dipping her child’s feet at the water’s edge, a man reading the newspaper, and the people wearing their everyday clothes. Frith is duplicating what he is seeing, an ordinary event, capturing the people at their leisure. In Millais’s painting Christ in the House of His Parents 1850, we see a depiction of the child Christ in Joseph’s workshop. This is example of the Oxford movement which was an intellectual movement in which the people felt that perhaps the English Church was moving away from its Catholic roots that they should reconcile with it, and there was a massive conversion in Oxford to embrace Catholicism. This painting was thought of as too Catholic, not enough British influence, and too many religious issues. This painting is completely progressive in that he was returning to a familiar scene with fresh eyes. He had new angles, different thinner bodies, and we see stigmata on the child’s hands. It is not completely pleasant, unlike Victorian paintings. Victorian paintings showed everyday subject matter to keep the masses happy, while the Pre-Raphaelites tried to change people’s perspective on the old to bring about different thoughts and new ideas.

Christ in the House of His Parents 1850


The Pre-Raphaelites, not weighed down by Academic rules, were far freer when it came to style and technique than their counterparts. Millais’ Ophelia 1851 is a completely avant-garde piece. To begin with the model herself is modern. These non-academic artists began to search for women who were not Victorian, tame, orderly, neat, but instead looked for women who had wild, long, curly hair, who were known as stunners. Their style was far more naturalistic, as it was one of their main arguments as Pre-Raphaelites that they should turn to nature for inspiration. Although she is posed because she is in a tub, the artist could not control what her hair and dress did. The foliage in the painting seems to be dispersed randomly, everywhere, in mad manner. Again, this shows the freedom that came with their style. The style in Landseer’s Alexander and Diogenes 1848 is far less organic. It is an example of animalier, paintings of animals that were extremely popular in the Victorian Era. This painting can be classified as many things, a still life of animals, a genre scene, or a history painting in an animal form. Yet, what stands out the most from this style is how precise it is. The animals are placed in a certain order, the best breeds in the middle, and lesser breeds on the sides. Dogs, usually, around each other are barking, running, chasing, these dogs are still. It shows how orderly and proper the Victorian style was in comparison to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Technically, both paintings are also completely different. Millais’ painting is an example of an unconventional painting. His brush strokes are loose, painterly; we can see how he was directing the brush and which way he wanted the strokes to go. The colors that he chooses are bright and vivid. They seem to blend into one mass of color beautifully put together. We can see this in her dress, how it blends in with the water, we can’t really see where her dress begins and the water ends. It is a mixture, a blending of colors, that plays tricks on the eyes. It lets the audience’s eyes move throughout the painting seamlessly. Landseer’s academic painting is different. The colors are stark. We see the bright white on the center dog, the leader, Alexander the Great, who represents the upper class and the aristocracy. The further we get from the center of the painting, the darker the color choice becomes, representing the lower classes. But most importantly instead of being painterly, this painting is very structured. We can see the different textures of the furs of the animals. Landseer was exact in his placement of paint, which is the opposite of what we see in Millais painting. Overall their techniques were totally different, the Pre-Raphaelites were more erratic, and the Academics more realistic.

Millais’ Ophelia 1851


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Although there are many differences between the two styles, it is safe to say that there are also similarities. Two of which are most pronounced are the use of contemporary events for inspiration in both Academic and Pre-Raphaelite art, as well as the somber mood displayed in the paintings in regards to society. One inspirational source for the Academic artists was the plight of women. We can see this in Osborn’s Nameless and Friendless 1857. The painting is addressing the social problem of being a widow. Many men had died due to wars, alcoholism, or other vices. The women were being left alone. It was difficult for women to do anything without the accompaniment of men; she is escorted by a young boy. In the painting the woman seems to be selling a painting to make money. Osborn seems to be suggesting that women need to have more access to training and education so that they too can/and need to support their families. It was a big problem at the time and one that the female Academics wanted to take on. The Pre-Raphaelites also choose to do paintings inspired by contemporary events, but with their own style. One interesting painting is Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd 1851. Although the painting is not in a contemporary setting, seeing as the Pre-Raphaelites preferred their art to appear more Renaissance, the piece is still a commentary on something current. During this time in England there was a temperance movement raging. We see the harming effects of alcohol in this painting. The gin bottle the man has is in the viewer’s face, prominently displayed as the source of all the wickedness in this painting. It shows that because of alcohol, you are lazier, as both of them are not tending to their work. As well was the woman with the fruit on her lap, could be a reference to Eve’s temptation, and the sexual indecent temptations that the men of this time period were dealing with. The moods portrayed in these paintings are those of sadness for society. Both artists seem to want to change how society is working right at that moment, and that is visible by their negative commentary on what was happening.

It is obvious that both Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art was important during this time period. Both movements wonderfully displayed their goals, the Pre-Raphaelite’s of being more naturalistic, and the Victorian of being more Academic.


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