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Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolism

Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolism

Author: Ian McConnell
This lesson will provide an overview of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolist movement in art.
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An overview of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Symbolism movement.

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolism. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define these key terms, describe the motivation behind the Pre-Raphaelite movement, identify examples of Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist painting.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. The first key term is Pre-Raphaelites, a group pf late 19th century British painters united by their rejection of academic painting and of the legacy of Raphael in art. Quattrocento, of or referring to 15th century art, especially in Italy. Symbolism, a 19th century art movement that rejected Realism, using the convention of representing things through symbols or signs.

The big idea for today is that philosophically, the Pre-Raphaelites were against the academy and the classicizing tendencies of Raphael and Michelangelo, and longed for the Quattrocentro, the 15th century and medieval periods. We're going to be looking at the time period from 1851 to 1898. And we'll be traveling to London, England; Paris, France; and Oslo, Norway today.

So if you had to distill the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as it was known, down to its basic philosophy, it would be essentially anti-academy. Specifically, the Brotherhood was against the classicizing tendencies of Raphael and Michelangelo, which were supported by the Royal Academy of Art and its founder, Joshua Reynolds.

Now, artistically the Pre-Raphaelites, in a nutshell, emphasized bright colors, detail bordering on photo-realism, and the accurate depiction of nature. Now, philosophically, they felt that the contemporary art had lost the moral integrity that past art had. They longed to return to the Quattrocento, or better yet back to medieval times.

Now, this looking to the past was also due in part to an honesty or perhaps genuineness in the work produced during that time. The Industrial Revolution was replacing traditional craftsmen. And this longing for tradition and view of art as a way of life were ideas at the heart of movements like the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau.

The painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais is a prime example of Pre-Raphaelite stylistic conventions. Its bright colors, photo-realistic detail, and an accurate depiction of nature are used to portray the scene from Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which Ophelia, who is performing the back float there, sings in a river before drowning. And although expertly painted, there is always something unsettling about this image to me, like knowing something was about to happen and not being able to do anything about it. Regardless, though, it's a fine example of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Another example from the Pre-Raphaelite movement filled with cherry imagery is this painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, called Pia de Tolomei. It depicts a scene from the medieval author Dante and had his book Purgatory, or from the medieval author Dante, I should say, in his book Purgatory, in which La Pia, which means "the pious one," is wrongly accused of being unfaithful to her husband. Instead of seeking counseling, her husband locks her up. She's shown touching her wedding ring, on the verge of death, next to a prayer book and love letters to her husband, which are symbolic of her innocence, and nestled within fig leaves, which are symbolic of her shame.

Now it's an interesting tidbit that the model for this painting is the artist's lover and the wife of his good friend. So could this be that we're also witnessing some sort of confession slash catharsis? Could be.

Now, the Symbolist movement was anti-rationalist in philosophy and sought to depict the world of spirituality, imagination, and dreams. Heavily influenced by Dark Romanticism and an eventual influence on the development of Surrealism, Symbolists felt that painting should depict more than just what can be seen, as in Realism. Rather, art should express emotions in visual form.

Now, Odilon Redon was one of the Symbolist movement's most important figures. Now like Surrealist paintings to come, the Symbolist paintings, like The Cyclops here are open to quite a bit of interpretation. Cyclops were known in mythology to be rather unpleasant, nasty, giant monsters.

Now this for me can be interpreted one of two ways, this painting. It's either depicting someone vulnerable from impending danger, as in the nude woman being eaten by the cyclops, or perhaps a depiction of unrequited love as in the cyclops has absolutely zero chance. I honestly always felt that it was more of the latter, given the cyclops' sort of pained expression. But who can say? That's really the great thing about art like this, is that everyone sees something different, no pun intended.

Now, Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter whose style is often cited as one of the most important in terms of its influence on Expressionism. His painting Madonna, while open to interpretation of course, is almost always agreed upon by critics at the very least as not depicting the holy Madonna, but rather a beautiful woman. Madonna means "my lady."

Now whether this was someone specific or symbolic of all women, it's hard to say. Some have described it as a femme-fatale-type painting, suggestive of the power of women. I always felt, though, that this was more of a depiction of a woman in the throes of passion. Now Munch often used an aura of color like we see here to heighten a certain implied sensation, such as pleasure.

Edvard Munch's Scream is one of the most famous paintings in history. It's a form of early Expressionism depicting this now-iconic image of a man in a fit of intense anguish or fear. Now supposedly it isn't the man screaming, but rather his awareness of a primal scream or shriek passing through nature. And this would explain why his ears are covered by his hands.

Now, Munch apparently based the painting on a similar experience he had had while walking along a pier with friends, who are in the background. Now, Munch uses swirling lines that repeatedly return us to the main figure of the painting, while the brush strokes of the deck of the pier always felt to me as if the friends are perhaps accelerating away from him or he's accelerating away from them.

The blood red clouds have been suggested some critics as more than just symbolic, that they could be the actual effect from the eruption of Krakatoa in the Dutch East Indies in 1883. Now, depending upon when this painting was referring to, this is a possibility, at least in terms of time. Regardless of whether or not it's correct, it is an interesting suggestion I always thought, and may help explain Munch's decision to use this particular color as the background for this remarkable painting, a pastel version of which set a record, by the way, that may still hold for the most expensive work of art sold at a public auction, a cool $111 million or so.

So that brings us to the end of our lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the motivation behind the Pre-Raphaelite movement? And can you identify examples of Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist painting? And once again, the big idea for today is that philosophically, the Pre-Raphaelites were against the academy and the classicizing tendencies of Raphael and Michelangelo and longed for the Quattrocento, or 14th century, and medieval periods.

And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolism"

Key Terms


A group of late 19th-century British painters united by their rejection of academic painting and of the legacy of Raphael in art.


Of or referring to 14th-century art, especially in Italy.


A 19th-century art movement that rejected Realism, using the convention of representing things through symbols or signs.