Term designating a tendency inspired by the painters of the British Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who admired the simplicity and purity they perceived in work of early Renaissance artists preceding Raphael. Following the English painters' devotion to exactingly illusionistic detail, glossy finish, and moral urgency, American Pre-Raphaelites generally applied these precepts to depiction of landscape or other natural subjects, such as still lifes set outdoors. Few Americans were drawn to the didactic and frequently sentimental narratives favored in England, and most rejected the high-keyed color and decorative elaboration associated with the style there. Although the number of Americans who identified themselves with the movement remained small, the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of truth to nature and the Brotherhood's conflation of art, nature, and ethical or spiritual goals resonated widely in the United States. As a spokesman for its ideals, the respected English aesthetician and art critic John Ruskin proved instrumental in disseminating such ideas. Broadly filtered throughout the artistic community, these affected a large swath of nineteenth-century American still life, genre, and landscape, including the Hudson River School.
During a sojourn in England, William James Stillman developed an enthusiasm for the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and other British Pre-Raphaelites. After his return, in 1855 he founded The Crayon, which introduced such work to Americans. Two years after it ceased publication in 1861, a small group of Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts organized the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art. From 1863 until 1865 this group put out another magazine, The New Path. Pre-Raphaelitism in the United States peaked in the late 1850s and 1860s, but its influence continued to reverberate. Leading American Pre-Raphaelites include Fidelia Bridges (1834–1923), John William Hill, Charles Herbert Moore, and William Trost Richards. Although Henry Roderick Newman (1843–1917) spent most of his professional life abroad (from 1870 Florence was his permanent residence, although he often traveled elsewhere), he remained true to his Pre-Raphaelite roots. Thomas Charles Farrer (c. 1840–91), an English painter who came to New York about 1860 and stayed for more than a decade, played an instrumental role in organizing and promoting the movement. His brother, painter and etcher Henry Farrer (1843–1903), also born in London, stayed on in the United States, remaining attuned to the style, as did Hill's son, John Henry Hill. Critic Clarence Cook helped to found the Association and served, for a year, as The New Path's first editor.