In 1848, William Holman Hurt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti founded the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" in order to unite English painters, poets, and critics who wanted to reform English art. According the three founders, the quality of art had deteriorated during the High Renaissance, because Raphael, Michelangelo, and their contemporaries favored highly stylized poses and artificial compositions over the intense realism, natural influence, and jewel-like brilliance of Quattrocento Italian Art.
Additionally, the members of the Brotherhood felt that the Royal Academy of Art, under the leadership of Sir Joshua Reynolds, was undermining the academic study of painting by promoting these lax and "sloshy" techniques. The Brotherhood was based in London and eventually grew to seven members with the addition of William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens, and Thomas Woolner. They promoted their ideas by writing and publishing a newspaper called The Germ.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was not dogmatic, but they did define their doctrines. They declared that Pre-Raphaelite artists must:
1) Have genuine ideas to express,
2) Study nature attentively, so as to know how to express it,
3) Sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote.
4) Most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
Although the Pre-Raphaelite Movement was primarily centered around the visual arts, Christina Rossetti's poetry belongs to the literary branch of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, illustrated some of her poems in the Pre-Raphaelite style, including "Goblin Market." Additionally, Christina modeled for her brother's painting "The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary," which was one of the first paintings to bear the signature "PRB" - the Brotherhood's hallmark.
Influenced by her brother's leadership in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Christina Rossetti's poetry adheres to the ideals of the movement. While abundantly rich in detail, her poetry strives for clarity in meaning through its relatively simple rhyme schemes and language. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, she draws from literary sources of the past.
Also present in Rossetti's poetry is the Pre-Raphaelite obsession with symbols. Rossetti practices word-painting in her poetry, where a word or combination of words can conjure up a strong, clear image. She draws her use of symbols from the medieval period, during which which tokens and blazons were common in both art and literature. Ultimately, the Pre-Raphaelite Movement was a precursor to the European movement of Symbolism, which emerged in the late 19th century and blossomed in the early 20th century.
During the growth of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a schism formed between those who favored medievalism and those who embraced realism. Originally, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his followers emulated the medieval period, because of its unique creative energy and innovation. In addition, the original Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from the medieval period, when the predominant belief was that art was a spiritual, not a material, endeavor. Christina Rossetti took her brother's side, and her poetry is steeped in Anglo-Catholic beliefs. Poems such as "The Convent Threshold" emphasize the raw, turbulent and emotional burdens of Medievalist Christianity.
In 1850, John Everett Millais exhibited a painting called "Christ in the House of his Parents," which opened up the Brotherhood to public controversy. Many public figures, including Charles Dickens, attacked Millais for his "ugly" representation of Mary and the depiction of Christ and his family as "alcoholics and slum-dwellers." They criticized the contorted medieval poses as well. Eventually, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood evolved beyond the imitation of medieval art, and all the founders had moved onto a variety of movements and styles by 1860. However, the impact of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement was significant, especially in Great Britain. Many Scottish painters have been influenced by the brotherhood's philosophies. Also, it is widely believed that J.R.R. Tolkien was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite's mythological images when writing The Lord of the Rings. To this day, the Tate Modern in London presents exhibits of Pre-Raphaelite art.