Conceived in Europe during the Middle Ages (14-16c), Renaissance art was regarded as an artistic form that sought to move away from the abstract and towards a more individualistic exploration of man, humanity, and nature. Interestingly, many people believed this meant that it was an attempt to reject mediaeval values, however evidence suggests that this new way of thinking was already dominant in society in Italy during the late mediaeval period. This was owed to the changes in the socio-economic environment and increased social mobility that the country was experiencing at the time.
High Renaissance art, which came into prominence in the early 1490s and spanned across 35 years, was centred around three main artists; Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. These artists focused on entirely different aspects of the form, however it can be said that da Vinci was somewhat of an erudite when it came to mastering Renaissance study. This was potentially a detriment to his output as an artist, as he spent much of his life involved in the research of the subjects of his work (as can be witnessed in his seminal masterpiece Mona Lisa).
The end of the Renaissance period came with the fall of Rome in 1527. Art periods that succeeded the Renaissance included Mannerism, which was regarded as the Late Renaissance, Neoclassicism, and Realism; all of which concerned themselves with idealising their subjects and classical definitions of beauty. This was the theme of the majority of art movements until 1848 when the Pre-Raphaelite movement began.
From its inception, the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to find a new way to express the themes of sincerity and arose in parallel to the industrialisation of the UK. The social and political landscape of Victorian England saw terrible working conditions, poor standard of living, and other negative impacts owed to industrialisation. This is not to say that sociological changes were the sole reason why the Pre-Raphaelites sought a new artistic form; they were also largely opposed to the artificial depictions of moral subjects by the British Royal Academy.
The so-called rebellious artists, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, were disillusioned by the myopic representation of society and its values as outlined by the Academy. Instead, they were inspired by art prior to the High Renaissance period, particularly before the time of Raphael (hence the name Pre-Raphaelites). They revived and explored the themes of religion, biblical subjects, and sex and focused on creating incredibly accurate depictions that had vitality at its heart, for example The Shadow of Death (1870) by William Holman Hunt.
Interestingly, this movement did not last particularly long, not even five years, and it saw the ‘Brotherhood’ go their separate ways, with Hunt choosing to continue his exploration of this artform for the rest of his career. The Pre-Raphaelite movement notably provided inspiration to what was referred to as the ‘Aesthetic’, of which many designers and those involved in the decorative arts use to this day. One more notable company was Morris & Co., which was founded by a ‘second generation’ of Raphaelites including William Morris, which later inspired Art Nouveau, which had an interest in interior design and glasswork.
It wasn’t just men who were interested in the Pre-Raphaelite movement; wives and muses of the three pioneers were, not only models for these works of art, but also artists in their own rights including Evelyn de Morgan and Marie Spartali Stillman. Modelling provided these women with the financial means to explore the artform in their own right, with works like The Garden of Opportunity (1892), by de Morgan, providing a feminist exploration of the transcience of wisdom and sensuality.
Even in the contemporary West, we can see the influence that the Renaissance period has on artists, with singers like Ariana Grande replicating Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in her music videos and Beyoncé’s album ‘Renaissance’ featuring her atop a horse in the style of Lady Godiva. What is interesting about these modern depictions is the focus on artist’s of colour, which could indicate a new-wave of Renaissance art that is reborn through the means of racial commentary; particularly in the United States at a time when the rhetoric of violence and the exploration of Black lives is growing in its significance.