Mid-nineteenth century Europe experienced considerable social, political, and religious upheaval. A wave of revolutions swept away governments, a surge of technological innovations began to reshape the way cities and nations operated, and new ideas circulated about the proper role and power of different social classes. Perhaps the most significant change during this time was the gradual end of a fifteen-centuries-long era in which Christian theology and values completely dominated all forms of social and intellectual discourse.

The modern era, with its focus on science and technology had begun to erode the solid bulwark of the church's teachings, and although the English remained very Christian in the latter part of the century questions and doubt had been raised. Significant advances in the study of geology and other natural sciences had exposed deep questions about the literal inerrancy of the Bible, as they brought into question the Biblical explanation of the age of the Earth. Also of great significance was Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, which further cast doubt upon the idea of Biblical literalism.

It was a time of uneasy faith, as life became more and more secular, divisions multiplied and widened within Christian groups, and Catholicism again became legal to practice in England, despite the still-strong influence of the Anglican Church headed by the reigning monarch. One offshoot of the Anglican Church that was particularly popular and influential was the Tractarian or High Church movement, which sought to reinstate many Catholic notions into the Church. This movement closely associated with Oxford attracted many of the era's wealthy and intellectuals. Others still found themselves questioning or losing their faith entirely — John Ruskin being an example of an extremely influential figure who started religious but lost his belief.

In the midst of these major societal changes and group of young and precocious artists launched a movement that has later been pointed to as the first "avant-garde" movement in art-the first in a long series of avant-garde movements. This first of the avant-garde movements is known as "Pre-Raphaelitism," and it dominated the art scene in England for the rest of the century. The movements that grew from Pre-Raphaelitism held a similar innovative cachet that built upon earlier traditions and often reacted strongly against predecessors in the same way Pre-Raphaelitism did. Although the artists associated with the different movements often worked together, each individual movement, as well as each individual artist, had different goals and beliefs for what they wanted from their artwork, and different ideas of what they were fighting against.

This essay intends to examine the different goals and thematic thrusts of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and some of their key followers, and examine their different techniques and observances of or departures from the past in their artwork. Consider the fact that changes and questions within the church were so important to the time, all of the pictures examined within this paper explore a common subject: that of Jesus Christ. By looking at the concerns of painters as they depict the central figure of the Christian era, the complexity of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the associated artistic ideas and the influences the movement spawned can be examined in a fascinating manner.

John Everett Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50)

Christ in the House of His Parents

Among the first and most infamous of early Pre-Raphaelite works was Christ in the House of His Parents. It first happened to be exhibited just as the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood gained considerable hostile attention in the art community, and was widely and viciously condemned by a number of critics. The Times of London called it "disgusting" while Charles Dickens referred to it as "mean, repulsive and revolting." This reaction is hardly surprising, considering the fact that these early Pre-Raphaelite pictures so sharply departed from prevailing attitudes and ideas about art.

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Christ in the House of His Parents embodies many of the early Pre-Raphaelite goals, showing a strong reactionary streak against its predecessors. The goal, as Millais wrote, was to paint pictures that "turned the minds of men to good reflections." Traditional methods, styles and techniques of painting were eschewed, and complete reliance on natural truth was the goal.

As a result, the picture is a very detailed and realistic as well as unusual in composition. The detailed realism of the picture, as Millais saw it, was one of the chief causes for outrage. Millais had hoped to convey what he "supposed might have been the actual fact" of the situation, but critics felt the setting was not fitting for the majesty of the holy family.

The departure was very conscious on the part of Millais. Apparently the Pre-Raphaelite inspiration for their society's name was in critical condemnation of Raphael's work The Transfiguration, which they deemed to hold a "grandiose disregard for the simplicity of truth." The Pre-Raphaelites had nothing but contempt for the idealized styling of Raphael, but the rest of the artistic community, and especially the Royal Academy, widely revered his works. In painting Christ in the House of His Parents as he did, Millais was vocally rebelling against one of the time's most beloved artists.

The Transfiguration by Raphael. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

The composition of the picture is also indicative of the Pre-Raphaelite desire to defy the prevailing notions of composition. The traditional pyramid scheme of figure layout has been changed to have the central figures of Jesus and Mary lower than the others. The background spaces of the composition also reflect a somewhat strange choice, with one window leading out to a field and one area to the right of the composition leading to a back room filled with planks.

Also of great significance in the picture is the early use of typological symbolism-use of iconography that prefigures a later important event. The blood on Christ's palm and foot from a wounding nail look forward to the crucifixion. Similarly, the carpenters' tools prefigure the instruments used to torture Christ. The image is filled with other elements relevant to Christ's life, as well-the dove as the Holy Ghost, the triangular tool as the holy trinity.

There is also a strong suggestion of Tractarian political messages in the work. According to William Holman Hunt, the work itself was inspired by a sermon Millais heard from a leading Tractarian minister. Looking at it in this context finds the sheep outside as closely akin to the church's "flock" of parishioners, separated from the holy family by a wall, linking closely to a Tractarian notion of "reserve"-that the commoners should be kept at a distance from the sacred rituals. In this reading of the picture Jesus is in the place of the priest and the table represents the Church altar. While a study for the work seems to support this conclusion, it must be noted that the work was actually purchased by a supporter of the evangelicals, who held the opposite view of the Tractarians. The depiction of Christ as a working man would have been very popular in the evangelical faction of the church with its emphasis on the simple working man, and so it is apparent that the painting cannot be said to have only one religious or political meaning. Many of the critics, however, seemed to be of the opinion that a Tractarian agenda was at work, with Ruskin himself avowing suspicion of Millais' painting.

Whatever the meaning is taken as, the symbolism itself was to be very important to subsequent works of art, especially the use of typology. Adding to this the rejection of the Raphael-like ideal and neat artistic conventions as well as a strict devotion to natural painting, Christ in the House of His Parents was an enormously influential and looked forward to a lot in the future of art.

D. G. Rossetti's The Passover in the Holy Family: Gathering Bitter Herbs (1855-56)

Although Rossetti followed many of the same general Pre-Raphaelite principles as the early works of Millais in his watercolor The Passover in the Holy Family: Gathering Bitter Herbs, his intentions and techniques are quite different. Already by 1855 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had officially split up, with Rossetti deciding to follow his own course.

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In some ways Rossetti's watercolors are pure examples of Pre-Raphaelite ideals. The works use very bold and bright colors in detailed compositions. More so than even most of the Pre-Raphaelite works that go for a Renaissance feel of space that is rather flat, Rossetti's Gathering Bitter Herbs appears very two-dimensional. In addition, his composition in the work is characteristically unorthodox.

Rossetti's major point of departure, however, is in the intention and function of the typological symbolism inherent in the work. The symbolism employed is used to service notions of romanticism and poetic mystery, and not to support any sort of religious point of view or idea of Biblical literalism. Rossetti himself considered his own brand of symbolism distinct from that of Millais-and in fact he found his own brand of symbolism more pure than that of Christ in the House of His Parents.

As were Hunt and Millais in their works, Rossetti is interested in the factual and historical value of his painting as that "which must have occurred every year in the life of the holy family." Rossetti was also concerned that these historical facts were fully integrated with the symbolism of the picture, and this is evident in Gathering Bitter Herbs as the whole idea of the suffering inherent in the idea of the Passover fits well with Christ's suffering on behalf of man. Rather than just let the symbols stand to be discerned by the careful and knowledgeable viewer, however, Rossetti provides a sonnet to accompany the picture which guides a reader's interpretation and points to a very specific intent on Rossetti's part. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dgr/2.html

The sonnet points to a theme which would be very important to Rossetti and his work-the mystery and problems presented by our perception of time. Since Rossetti had no interest in the Bible other than as an inspiring poem, the idea of typology attracted Rossetti from a completely non-spiritual viewpoint, only in its ability to provide an organized structure and sensibility to temporal perception. Rossetti's new use and interpretation of the value of typology fits well into his broader examination of the perfect moment in time and the loss of that moment. Rossetti writes: "Here meet together the prefiguring day/And day prefigured"-which emphasizes the importance the meeting of two times through typology held for him.

The subtle shifts of Rossetti's style show someone already moving in his own direction away from the early Pre-Raphaelite works. His emphasis on poetry, passion, and bright stylization in his watercolors were later to attract the attention of many of the second-wave Pre-Raphaelites, who were to move into the aesthetic movement.

William Dyce's The Man of Sorrows (1860)

William Dyce's The Man of Sorrows begins to point to the influence and contradictions associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. A High-Churchman associated with Tractarianism, Dyce became a follower of the Pre-Raphaelites after seeing Christ in the House of His Parents. The Man of Sorrows appears to function as a synthesis of High Church and Pre-Raphaelite influence for an overall jarring effect.

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The Pre-Raphaelite influence is undeniable. Dyce, like many of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape painters, painted his work mainly outside. In this instance he went to the Scottish Highlands and painted a scene there. The meticulous observation of the scenery and the extreme attention to detail and hard-edge realism indicate the work to be clearly Pre-Raphaelite. The subject, however, is not portrayed in a realistic fashion, which creates a strange effect in the middle of the hyper-realistic landscape.

The painting, which depicts Christ sitting on a rock with his hands clasped in contemplation, is based on a poem written by one of Dyce's friends, the subject of which is Christ's 40 days and nights in the wilderness. However, the fact that Christ is depicted in Italian robes while sitting in what is recognizably the rocky Scottish Highlands breaks the otherwise realistic approach of the picture. Christ is not portrayed stoically, but rather, his head in repose, as if dejected or doubtful. Doubt, in fact, could be in the subtext of the picture.

Some speculate that Dyce's placing Christ in this rocky landscape deliberately refers to the study of geological time. The new scientific notions of geology were seriously challenging church views at the time, and it is no far stretch to say that the figure of Christ looks uncomfortable sitting among all the rocks. Was Dyce saying or suggesting something more in the fact that Christ in his robe seems so out of place in Scotland? The very fact that the Church itself was uncomfortable with the new notions of science supports this theory.

On the other hand, even if the out-of-place feeling of the Christ figure is purely accidental, the painting nevertheless illuminates some interesting contradictions inherent in the goals of the Pre-Raphaelite movement at the time. The Pre-Raphaelites were a modern movement, following along with a modern age. At the same time, this modern movement looked towards the medieval era for many of its ideas and subjects. While taking a scientific, rational approach to the way they were constructing their pictures-true to nature-at the same time the Pre-Raphaelites had a great interest in romantic and moral, religious imagery. These two currents (which one could point to as symptomatic of the wider Victorian culture) are apparent in the goals and intentions of many of the Pre-Raphaelite works, but it's not always you see them so clearly opposing in one place as in The Man of Sorrows.

William Holman Hunt's The Shadow of Death (1869-73)

Looking at William Holman Hunt's The Shadow of Death it is hard not to be reminded of the early Pre-Raphaelite picture by Millais on a similar theme, Christ in the House of His Parents. Both pictures feature typological symbolism prefiguring the crucifixion, both portray Christ as a working class man, and both use a highly detailed, hard-edged realist style. Indeed, the similarities are logical, since Hunt more than any other painter remained true to the Pre-Raphaelite style he pioneered with Millais in the 1850s. Still, Hunt always had his own purposes and ideas for his artwork, and his work of the 1870s, while not having branched off radically, still had grown and pushed in different directions from the days of Christ in the House of His Parents. Hunt also fell into some of the same sort of difficulties that Dyce seemed to hint upon in his painting The Man of Sorrows.

Hunt was a deeply religious man, and his paintings represent more than any other artist the serious moralizing side of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, as well as the extreme attention to detail and real-life fidelity. The Shadow of Death is exactly such a painting-filled with religious content and meticulously observed from one of Hunt's actual journeys to the Middle East, the picture recalls some of Hunt's previous famous works, such as The Scapegoat, The Finding of the Savior in the Temple and The Light of the World. By this time Hunt had fully considered the purpose of his paintings, and published a pamphlet along with the picture to explain his work in detail. Hunt's purpose, according the pamphlet, is that The Shadow of Death, "was painted in the conviction that Art, as one of its uses, may be employed to realise facts of importance in the history of human thought and faith." While Millais was to switch his focus mainly to portraits and Rossetti to switch his focus to romanticism and poetry, Hunt remained steadfastly devoted to this principle up to his death.

Three paintings by Hunt: The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, The Light of the World, and The Scapegoat. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Reflecting one of the ideas behind Christ in the House of His Parents, the pamphlet describes of this depiction of Christ, "Mr. Hunt aims to show Him, as He may have been seen by His brethren, while still gaining His bread by the sweat of His face, during His first but longest humiliation." Like Ford Madox Brown's Jesus Washing Peter's Feet, Hunt's depiction of Christ as muscular figure serves to emphasize Christ's humanity. However, by depicting Christ as a carpenter himself (a view that some of his colleagues actually found questionable), Hunt sought to link Christ with the common laborer and relate to the pain of work as well as the relief experienced at the end of a hard day of suffering. The pamphlet explains the purpose thus: "the Divine Labourer pours forth His soul in fervent gratitude to His Father that the welcome hour of rest has come."

This message stands not only as a comfort to ordinary man, the pamphlet suggests, but also, "It is thought this expression is in perfect harmony with the incident and the work He came to do. 'Even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life' (John iii. 14-15)." The work is filled with similar typological symbolism, but the significance of the reference to Moses suggests that one of Hunt's main goals in his use of typology was to connect the experiences and sufferings of everyday people with the sufferings of Christ, perhaps even consciously. Hunt himself was connecting the difficult rigors of his work with that of the carpenter Jesus. Unlike Millais' work dealing with Tractarianism, Hunt's work reflects a deeply complicated and personal relationship to the typological subjects in his paintings.

The painting also strives to reach new ground compositionally. While Hunt's early works attempted to approximate the space and feel of early Renaissance works, The Shadow of Death introduces some new compositional ideas. Unlike other flat-seeming Pre-Raphaelite inspired compositions, the picture establishes a real sense of depth and dimensionality in the lower portion of the picture. At the same time, the connection of the round window and Christ's head in the upper portion of the picture unite elements of foreground and background in a very constructed manner. Indeed, it seems that Hunt begins to move away from pure devotion to Pre-Raphaelite naturalism and rely somewhat on the formal and geometric construction of space. His emphasis on two dimensional space as well as Renaissance space is similar in many ways to the works of the second movement of Pre-Raphaelites, and one can see similarities to the works of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, showing that Hunt's style did evolve with the times as well.

The Shadow of Death, like Dyce's The Man of Sorrows, also speaks to the complications of the time when modernity and Christianity were coming to a head. While Hunt was eventually to find popular appreciation in his work, he never gained the support among Church circles that he had sought. Hunt was to complain about this fact, "Why is [it] that I have been so persistently overlooked all my life by the very people who as Christians should have employed me? I know no other artist who is so outspoken and declared a follower of our Lord as myself. I don't boast of my excellence - only of my earnestness." Hunt's dilemma was that his work was both traditional and modern, and thus while forming a dynamic fusion of two worlds was never fully at home in either. Hunt wrote in 1894, "I often find myself somewhat lonely in questions concerning religion for the Orthodox people hate my words, as they hate my pictures, and the major part of the reforming world have a stronger disapproval of the point at which I stop." Hunt's very insistence on a scientific and observational approach to the details of his painting gained him multiple critics, who felt the details overwhelmed the subject of the works. The Finding of the Savior in the Temple, for instance, was criticized for having the richness of the costumes overwhelm the focus of the work. Indeed, looking at The Shadow of Death it isn't hard to see the awkward angularity of Christ's pose within the room and see him as somehow out of place in the setting.

Edward Burne-Jones's The Morning of the Resurrection (1882)

The work of Burne-Jones can be seen to have introduced several innovations to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, as well as making some significant departures from the early Pre-Raphaelite style. Although Burne-Jones began his artistic career as a disciple of Rossetti it is important to note the heavy Italian influence that went into his work that eventually produced his synthesis of Pre-Raphaelite and Italan Renaissance style paintings that many called aesthetic. The work of Burne-Jones in a way takes Pre-Raphaelitism to a greater extreme, with a very conscious emulation of the styles of Titian, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Botticelli and Mantegna. By his 1882 painting of The Morning of the Resurrection Burne-Jones' style had fully matured.

Burne-Jones' intention in making the painting was actually not to convey any sort of religious message or typological precursor, but merely to explore an artistic moment when one sees a person, but before the significance of that person is recognized. Burne-Jones included a biblical passage to point to this idea: "And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus." Although religion was to remain important in the life and conception of Burne-Jones, the artist had long ago lost his faith in the doctrines of the church. Instead, he found godliness in the idea of beauty and poetic expression. As with others in the Pre-Raphaelite vein, Burne-Jones invokes the past only in service to his modern notion of imagination. Unlike Holman Hunt, who painted Christ out of religious principle, Burne-Jones represented him less an article of faith than an exponent of Christian virtues, in which Burne-Jones remained interested. Like the beauty of the moment, the beauty of these values was an important artistic subject for him.

The most important avant-garde advancement inherent in Burne-Jones' work was the advancement of the beautiful that had been instilled in him by Rossetti, cultivated by his study of the Italians. This eventually segued into the aesthetic movement. Burne-Jones' early works already show a penchant for decorative expression, and his trip to Italy in 1862 was to add a refinement to his paintings that became characteristic of his style. When The Morning of the Resurrection was painted Burne-Jones was working through a period where he was heavily under the influence of Mantegna. Burne-Jones' use of earth tones can be seen as an echo of Mantegna's The Agony in the Garden. The colorization is therefore not exactly Pre-Raphaelite in this picture, but the mood projected is definitely characteristic. In fact, the late Pre-Raphaelite wistful mood visible in so many works, for example Burne-Jones' The Mirror of Venus, is further emphasized in this work by the elements of Italian synthesis introduced-not just the coloring but the grid-like arrangement of the work into neatly arrayed horizontals and verticals reminiscent of Mantegna.

The work also represents a significant departure from many of the Pre-Raphaelite ideals. While keeping the spirit of imagination, mood and detail taken from the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Burne-Jones departed from the school of hard-edged realism as his style became more and more expressionistic and decorative. The colors of the work themselves are only the beginning of the indication. Burne-Jones' landscape background also establishes this pattern, with the one in The Morning of the Resurrection fitting into continual use of an other-worldly space to back the painting. The tradition of painting directly from nature or from models had diminished in use due to the extreme difficulty involved, and we see in The Morning of the Resurrection that no attempt is even made to make the tree in the upper-right corner of the painting look natural-rather its twisted branches appear almost decorative and serve to accentuate the feeling of the atmosphere.

By this time many believed that naturalism in painting had become exhausted, and Burne-Jones was looking forward to new ways of portraying his art. The synthesis he achieved from the different traditions he studied gave a major boost to the aesthetic movement and led many to consider Burne-Jones the movement's leader, even though he eschewed that role and did not agree with the notion of "art for art's sake."

Franz Von Stuck's Crucifixion (1892) and Edvard Munch's Golgotha. 1900

Moving from the aesthetic movement of the 1880s, the continental decadents and symbolists formed their own avant-garde movements in the latter part of the century. While Crucifixion and Golgotha seem to have little similarity to many of the Pre-Raphaelite works, they can actually be seen as a departing progression of the same movement. Both the decadents and the symbolists approached the subject of religion differently from previous eras, and together they saw a further transition away from the Christian world and into modernism.

Examining von Stuck's Crucifixion finds quite a different composition or intent from the earlier depictions of Christ examined. The scene presented is surrealist and gruesome, with the crucifixion examined in pained and distressing detail. Obviously the work has major compositional differences-it keeps the Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on compositional mood and use of vivid colors, but the colors used are fairly monochromatic, and the placement of a black void in the center of the picture looks forward to commonly used compositional techniques of the German expressionists. Many of these compositional ideas were an extension of the original drift away from hard-edge realism that was followed by Burne-Jones and the aesthetes, first by Rossetti. Form and naturalism are beginning to loosen at this stage, and imagination and mood are emphasized in the painting.

Most significantly in this painting, and in many of the aesthetic/decadent movement, is the new use of religious subject and symbol. Unlike Hunt's prefiguration of a crucifixion in Shadow of Death, this actual view of a crucifixion has little or no ideological content. The painting, in the aesthetic tradition, is all about effect on the spectator, and the painter very consciously plays with manipulating that effect in the placement of the viewer in relation to the subject. Indeed, the idea of spectator is inherent in the painting itself, as besides Christ and his fellow victims, the two major elements of the picture are one group on spectators including Christ's fainting mother and an unruly devilish mob that looks on. Rather than telling the spectator something or illuminating one of the artist's beliefs, this painting rather seems to question viewers as to where they stand in the scene.

Lastly and most distinctly, this examination brings us to Edvard Munch's Golgotha, a work quite unlike the works of the early Pre-Raphaelites in every way. The early Pre-Raphaelites painted with fidelity to nature as part of a movement in which science became progressively better at grasping and explaining the physical world. The pure difficulty of painting in such hard-edged realism gradually led to an abandonment of the style as artists progressively questioned the value of simply mirroring the world with their painting. When simple and well-executed representation had been accomplished by the Pre-Raphaelites, many artistic movements began instead to focus on what was later to be known as the inner state of the artist. At first, this concern appeared only in connection with what was considered beautiful. Simple ideological treatments of religious figures gave way to a view of religion as a poetic subject, pioneered by Rossetti and brought to its conclusion by the decadent movement. It was not only religion the aesthetes sought to render poetic and expressive, however, but the very way of seeing itself, leading to more and more expressionistic and decorative works.

By emphasizing the poetic, the imaginative and the mood of a painting-all Pre-Raphaelite ideas-the aesthetes gradually merged into the symbolists, who were in open rebellion against realism, and sought to create pictures that did not portray surface truths, but deeper truths. The result was total liberation of the subject from ideology and form, two important elements of early Pre-Raphaelite painting which had grown to be seen as oppressive in the artistic community. In fact, some of the symbolist avant-garde are said to have celebrated when they heard the news that naturalism's lifelong champion, John Ruskin, had died in 1900. That same year the symbolist painter Munch composed a picture of Christ in Golgotha. While the form of the picture is nearly as far from early Pre-Raphaelitism as is possible, some elements-such as the use of bold colors or the emphasis on mood and even flat composition in the piece-can be seen as Pre-Raphaelite in nature. The significant element in the work is not the crucifixion itself, but the ideas brought up by its gruesome display and the reactions and mood suggested by the painting.


The avant-garde movement of Pre-Raphaelitism and the aesthetic, decadent and symbolic movements that followed all filled an important space in history. They bridged an important gap between the Victorian era and the modern era, between an age of faith and an age of science, between an age of romanticism and an age of technology. They responded to a history of changing ideas about social conventions, about new forms of representation such as photography, and about new notions of the mind. Most importantly, they explored the idea of a changing conception of faith.

In a way one could examine the iconoclastic attitudes of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers and hold it up as a mirror to changing perceptions towards faith and science. The Pre-Raphaelites began their assault on traditional art with a profound dissatisfaction with the aristocratic, idealized settings presented by the prevailing artistic trends of the previous era. Their response was to bring a scientific attention to detail and a rigorous analysis of painting. When questions about hard-edge realism itself became apparent, just as society was questioning the advances brought by the industrial revolution, a new, more internal and subjective form of art came to the forefront, pushed along by the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The initial reaction to the Royal Academy's strictures was to form a new set of strict naturalistic rules-these eventually gave way to a total immersion in the subjective artist's experience. The initial conflict at the end of the Christian era was the challenge to the church by an equally rigid scientific tradition. This in turn gave way to a much more difficult to combat challenge from the ideas of internal subjectivism and liberalism which rejected the outside imposed viewpoint of the church.

It is no coincidence that these avant-garde artistic movements coincided with similar movements throughout Europe in social and religious policy. In a unique position of looking back to the past while forward to the modern era, the Pre-Raphaelites exemplified many of the contradictions of the time and led the artistic community into a new era of relating to personal expression.

Aesthetes & Decadents paintings by artist Franz von Stuck