These are the 12 most famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings from art history.
Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)
Rossetti was an English painter, illustrator, translator, and poet who influenced the symbolists and was a precursor of the Aesthetic movement. His art was characterized by its sensuality and its medieval revivalism. He began work on this particular painting in 1871 and had painted eight separate versions, of which the last was completed in the year of his death. He depicted the goddess Proserpina. She was an ancient Roman goddess who was a goddess of fertility and was in love with Adonis. In mythology, she was carried off to the Underworld by Pluto, who married her despite her love for another man. When her mother, Ceres, begged Jupiter to return her from the Underworld, he agreed, under the condition that Proserpine had not eaten any fruits in Hades. But as she had already eaten six pomegranate seeds, it was decreed that she should remain in the Underworld for six months of the year and be allowed on Earth for the other six.
The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853)
Hunt was an English painter whose works were notable for their great attention to detail with the use of vivid colors and elaborate symbolism. This painting depicts a woman rising from her position in the lap of a man and gazing transfixed out of the window of a room. Trapped in a newly decorated interior, Hunt’s heroine at first is a stereotype of the age, a young unmarried woman engaged in an illicit liaison with her partner. This is confirmed as she is not wearing a wedding ring. But there is a twist. She springs up from her lover’s lap as she is reminded of her country roots by the music the man plays (the sheet music to Thomas Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night) causing her to have an awakening prick of conscience.
Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais (1850)
This painting is Millais’s first important religious subject. It depicts a scene from the boyhood of Christ and when it was exhibited it was given no title, but accompanied by a biblical quotation “And one shall say unto him, what are those wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends” (Zech. 13:6). The painting is full of Christian symbolism; for example, the carpenter’s triangle of the wall above Christ’s head symbolizes the Holy Trinity. The wood and nails prefigure the crucifixion, as does the blood on young Christ’s hand, dripping onto his foot. The young St John is depicted fetching a bowl of water with which to bathe the wound, and this identifies him as the Baptist.
Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1851–1852)
This painting depicts a character from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Ophelia. This painting done by an English painter Millais, became one of the most important works f the mid-19th century for its beauty, accurate depiction of nature, and influence on artists from Waterhouse to Dali. As described in Act VI, scene VII of Hamlet in a speech by Queen Gertrude, this painting depicts Ophelia singing while floating in a river just before she drowns. The flowers shown floating on the river were chosen to correspond with Shakespeare’s description of her garland. They also symbolize the Victorian interest in the language of flowers, according to which each flower carries a symbolic meaning. The prominent red poppy (not mentioned in Shakespeare’s description) represents sleep and death.
The Death of King Arthur by James Archer (1860)
Archer was a Scottish painter of genre works, portraits, and even landscapes and historical scenes. This scene depicts the death of the legendary King Arthur, who is shown laid out, as his wounded body and clothes reveal his battle scars. He is wearing a suit of chainmail under a tunic, bearing the emblem of a dragon on the chest. His head is resting on the lap of Queen Guinevere, and seated at his side is another female figure. Kneeling at his feet is the third female figure, weeping into her hands, while close by is another woman with a mournful expression. Based on the legend, it can be assumed that the elderly man on the shoreline is the wizard, Merlin.
Fair Rosamund by Arthur Hughes (1854)
Hughes was an English painter whose best-known works depict couples contemplating the transience of love and beauty. But, this painting tells a story about a 12th-century legend of Eleanor of Aquitaine (wife of Henry II of England) who poisoned Fair Rosamund Clifford, his mistress, and true love. The king had created a secret garden of Rosamund, accessible only via a maze. Hughes depicted the moment when Eleanor discovers the entrance to the garden, gaining the opportunity to commit a murder. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the tragic and heartbreaking story of two women resonated with artists and poets.
Portrait of a Young Lady (Sophie Gray) by John Everett Millais (1857)
Sophia Margaret Gray was a Scottish model and a sister-in-law of Millais. She was a younger sister of Euphemia, Effie Gray who married Millais after the annulment of her marriage to the English writer, John Ruskin. In the years after this painting was produced, in the late 1860s, she suffered from a mental illness, a form of anorexia nervosa. She later married a Scottish entrepreneur and had a daughter, but passed away at the age of 38, probably as a result of her mental illness.
Autumn Leaves by John Everett Millais (1856)
This painting depicts four girls in the twilight collecting and ranking together fallen leaves in a garden, a location now occupied by Rodney Gardens in Perth. They are making a bonfire, but the fire itself is invisible, only the some emerging from between the leaves. It is believed that this painting is a representation of the transience of youth and beauty, and the girls are portrayed in middle-class clothing of the era. In the 1850s, when this painting was produced, Millais was moving away from the Pre-Raphaelite style to develop a new form of realism in his art.
The Hireling Shepherd by William Holman Hunt (1851)
This painting by Hunt, an English painter and one of the founders of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, represents a shepherd neglecting his flock in favor of an attractive country girl to whom he shows a death’s-head hawkmoth. His paintings were notable for their attention to detail, vivid color, and great symbolism. Therefore, the meaning behind this painting has been much debated. Hunt asserted that he intended the couple to symbolize the pointless theological debates which occupied Christian churchmen and their “flock” went astray due to a lack of proper moral guidance.
Circe by John Collier (1885)
Collier was one of the most prominent portrait painters of his generation. In this famous painting, he depicted Circe, a sorceress from the ancient Greek legend. She was the daughter of Helios (god of the Sun) and the ocean nymph, Perse. She was able by means of drugs and incantations to change humans into wolves, lions, and swine. She was known as the goddess of sorcery or pharmakeia in ancient Greek.
Lady Godiva by John Collier (1897)
Lady Godiva was a late Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who is remembered as a legend dating back to the 13th century. In the legend, she rode naked (covered only in her long hair) through the streets of Coventry to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation that her husband, Leofric Earl of Mercia, imposed. Collier depicted her in the pre-Raphaelite style, in her apocryphal ride. The model in the painting is Mab Paul, an artist model, and theatre actress who was also painted as herself by Collier.
Medea (Sandys painting) by Frederick Sandys (1868)
This oil painting is a work by pre-Raphaelite painter Frederick Sandys. Medea was modeled on Keomi Gray, a Romani woman whom the artists had met in England, and taken back to London to sit and model for his paintings. This painting depicts the granddaughter of the sun god Helios from Greek mythology. She is known in most stories as a sorceress and is depicted as a priestess of the goddess Hecate.
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