John Everett Millais became friends with William Holman Hunt, a fellow student at the Royal Academy School. They both rejected the ideas of Joshua Reynolds, who argued in his famous Seven Discourses on Art, that young British artists should follow in the Renaissance tradition, to admire the work of Raphael, and to aspire to the classical ideal "that perfect beauty never found in nature but attainable by the artist through careful selection and improvement". Hunt and Millais reacted against this view and in September 1848 they joined up with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Woolner and James Collinson to establish what became known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Other artists such as Charles Allston Collins and Ford Madox Brown were closely associated with the group but were never official members of the PRB.
The Pre-Raphaelites focused on serious and significant subjects and were best known for painting subjects from modern life and literature often using historical costumes. They painted directly from nature itself, as truthfully as possible and with incredible attention to detail. They were inspired by the advice of John Ruskin, the English critic and author of Modern Painters (1843). He had encouraged artists to "go to Nature in all singleness of heart rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing."
John Everett Millais, who had already developed a reputation as a artist, now tried to put Pre-Raphaelite ideas into practice. His first major painting in the new style was Isabella. According to Malcolm J. Warner: "It shows the use of portraiture as an antidote to idealization, the stiffness of pose intended to recall medieval art, the minute, all-over detail, and the high colour key that characterized early Pre-Raphaelitism."
As Ian Chilvers, the author of Art and Artists (1990) has pointed out: "They (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) chose religious or other morally uplifting themes and had a desire for fidelity to nature that they expressed through detailed observation of flora, etc., and the use of a clear, bright, sharp-focus technique... When their meaning became known in 1850 the group was subjected to violent criticism and abuse."
The most important attack on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood came from Charles Dickens in his journal Household Words on 15th June, 1850: "You will have the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphaelly considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting."
Dickens then went on to criticize Millias's painting, Christ in the House of His Parents, that had appeared for the first time at the 1850 Royal Academy Exhibition: "You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England. Two almost naked carpenters, master and journeyman, worthy companions of this agreeable female, are working at their trade; a boy, with some small flavor of humanity in him, is entering with a vessel of water; and nobody is paying any attention to a snuffy old woman who seems to have mistaken that shop for the tobacconist’s next door, and to be hopelessly waiting at the counter to be served with half an ounce of her favourite mixture. Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed. Such men as the carpenters might be undressed in any hospital where dirty drunkards, in a high state of varicose veins, are received. Their very toes have walked out of Saint Giles’s."
On the 7th May, 1851, The Times accused John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Charles Allston Collins of “addicting themselves to a monkish style”, having a “morbid infatuation” and indulging in “monkish follies”. Finally, the works are dismissed as un-English, “with no real claim to figure in any
decent collection of English painting.” Six days later John Ruskin had a letter published in the newspaper, where he came to the defence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In another letter published on 30th May, Ruskin claimed that PRB “may, as they gain experience, lay in our land the foundations of a school of art nobler than has been seen for three hundred years”.
Ruskin now published a pamphlet entitled, Pre-Raphaelitism (1851). He argued hat the advice he had given in the first volume of Modern Painters had “at last been carried out, to the very letter, by a group of young men who... have been assailed with the most scurrilous abuse... from the public press.” Aoife Leahy has argued: "Ruskin’s defences had now taken a new and decidedly evangelical tone. he had formed friendships with the Pre-Raphaelite artists on the basis of his letters to The Times and, just as significantly, he had been personally harassed by members of the public for his views."
However, most art critics agreed with Dickens rather than Ruskin. As Lucinda Hawksley has pointed out: "Millais... was one of seven young artists, all of whom were Royal Academy trained, who formed a group called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (known as the PRB). They disagreed with many of the principles of art as defined by the rigid government of the Royal Academy and wanted to paint in the style that had been popular in Italy before the advent of Raphael. When the authorities and the public discovered - by an unfortunate chance - what the letters PRB stood for, they were furious at the group's perceived arrogance and actively turned against them, their followers and anyone who assumed a Pre-Raphaelite style of painting. It was several years before artists who painted in this style were accepted back into mainstream galleries. Millais was one of the fortunate few who was not ruined by the furore, largely because he was kept financially secure by family money."
Aoife Leahy has pointed out: "The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood itself lost its cohesion as a group in 1853 and no longer held meetings after this date. Ruskin, however, continued for some time to write about these same artists and the movement they had inspired in confident tones, with no note of disharmony. Fortunately, he had generally referred to the Pre-Raphaelites as a school and continued to do so in a seamless fashion. Having begun to defend the P.R.B. at a rather late stage, Ruskin seems to over-compensate by making no mention of the group’s break-up in his critical writings."