The name adopted in 1848 by a group of young English artists who shared a dismay at what they considered the moribund state of British painting and hoped to recapture the sincerity and simplicity of early Italian art (i.e. before the time of Raphael, whom they saw as the fountainhead of academism). The nucleus of the group was formed by three fellow students at the Royal Academy—John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (to whom, son of an Italian ex-revolutionary, the sealing of the group into a secret Brotherhood was due). The other four original brethren were James Collinson, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and the art critics F. G. Stephens (1828–1907) and W. M. Rossetti (1829–1919), brother of Dante Gabriel. Ford Madox Brown was closely allied with them, though not at any time a member of the Brotherhood. The movement had a strong literary flavour from the start, and the members published a short-lived journal called The Germ (4 issues, 1850). They chose religious or other morally uplifting themes and had a desire for fidelity to nature that they expressed through detailed, rather literal-minded observation of flora, etc., and the use of a clear, bright, sharp-focus technique. The kind of pictures they hated were academic ‘machines’ and trivial genre scenes.
The initials PRB were first used on Rossetti's picture The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (Tate, London), exhibited in 1849, and were adopted by the other members of the Brotherhood. When their meaning became known in 1850 the group was subjected to furious criticism and abuse. Charles Dickens led the attack in his periodical Household Words, calling Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–50, Tate) ‘mean, odious, revolting and repulsive’ (later he became a friend of Millais). Dickens was outraged by the implied rejection of Raphael (still unquestioningly thought of by many critics as the greatest painter who ever lived), and he regarded the claim to go behind Raphael as an anti-progressive reversion to primitivism and ugliness. The fortunes of the Pre-Raphaelites improved after they were publicly defended by Ruskin in 1851, and they attracted numerous followers, including John Brett, Charles Allston Collins, Walter Howell Deverell, Augustus Egg, and Arthur Hughes. By 1853, however, the Brotherhood itself had virtually dissolved. Apart from their youthful revolutionary spirit (they were very young in 1848) and their romantic if uninformed medievalism, the prime movers had little in common as artists and they went their separate ways. Of the original members only Hunt remained true to PRB doctrines. Millais adopted a much looser style and went on to become the most popular and successful painter of the day. Curiously, however, it was Rossetti, the least committed to PRB ideals (he never cultivated painstaking detail), who continued the name. Although his later work, made up principally of languorous depictions of femmes fatales, is entirely different from his early Pre-Raphaelite pictures, the name stuck to him and to his followers. Thus in the popular imagination the term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ conjures up pictures of medieval romance, and ironically a movement that began as a rebellion against artificiality and sentimentality is now itself identified with a kind of escapism.