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The Pre-Raphaelites have been considered the first avant-garde movement in art, though they have also been denied that status, because they continued to accept the doctrine of 'mimesis', or imitation of nature, as central to the purpose of art. However, the Pre-Raphaelites undoubtedly defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their form of art, and published a periodical, "The Germ", to promote their ideas. Their debates were recorded in the "Pre-Raphaelite Journal".
The central doctrine of the movement was that artists should seek to represent the natural world without preconceptions about what is artistically proper according to traditions and techniques inherited from old masters. Nevertheless, their early work was influenced by late Medieval art. However, Hunt and Millais soon moved towards greater emphasis on the detailed observation of nature. Rossetti's work continued to be influenced by Medieval art.
The group was founded in London in 1848 by three art students, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. Four friends and relatives also joined to form the seven strong Brotherhood. These were William Michael Rossetti, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens.
After early controversy, the Brotherhood was supported by the critic John Ruskin. However, it ceased to exist as an active organisation after the early 1850s.
The second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism after 1856 centred on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Frederick Sandys.
The movement influenced the work of many later British artists well into the twentieth century. Rossetti later came to be seen as a precursor of the wider European Symbolist movement. His work also influenced William Morris, in whose firm he became a partner. Millais' work ceased to be recognisably Pre-Raphaelite after 1860.
It also influenced interior designers and architects, arousing interest in medieval designs, as well as other crafts.
There is a major collection of Pre-Raphaelite work in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.