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In 1848, as revolutions swept continental Europe and an uprising for social reform, known as Chartism, unsettled Britain, seven rebellious young artists in London formed a secret society with the aim of creating a new British art. They called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the name, whose precise origin is contested, nevertheless indicates the chief source of their inspiration. Disenchanted with contemporary academic painting-most of them were colleagues at the Royal Academy of Art and famously disparaged the Academy's founding president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), as "Sir Sloshua"-the Brotherhood instead emulated the art of late medieval and early Renaissance Europe until the time of Raphael, an art characterized by minute description of detail, a luminous palette of bright colors that recalls the tempera paint used by medieval artists, and subject matter of a noble, religious, or moralizing nature. In mid-nineteenth-century England, a period marked by political upheaval, mass industrialization, and social ills, the Brotherhood at its inception strove to transmit a message of artistic renewal and moral reform by imbuing their art with seriousness, sincerity, and truth to nature.
At London's Royal Academy and Free Exhibition shows of 1849, several paintings were exhibited with the cryptic initials "P.R.B." along with the artists' signatures; among these were Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions (private collection) by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Isabella (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) by John Everett Millais (1829-1896), and the Girlhood of Mary Virgin (Tate, London) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). These canvases, though diverse in subject, embodied the Brotherhood's initial aims in their keen observation of the natural world and depiction of subjects that lead the viewer to contemplate moral issues of justice, piety, familial relationships, and the struggle of purity against corruption.