Recommending the Literature that Inspired the Pre-Raphaelites

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m slightly (very) obsessed with the Pre-Raphalites. I’ve mentioned it in passing in my blog a few times, but I wanted to write a post focusing on that. Firstly, I want to make it clear that I am obviously not an expert on this subject, and this is just meant to be a fun post that can perhaps peak your curiosity.

I first came in contact with the Pre-Raphalite painters when I was taking a Victorian Literature course. We were studying Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market and to illustrate it we obviously had Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Proserpine. But it wasn’t until a year later, when I took a mythology course, that I became fascinated by these painters. During this time we saw a great deal of art and we were inevitably shown some Pre-Raphaelite works, but the one painter that truly sparked something in me was John William Waterhouse. My obsession with the entire Pre-Raphaelite movement was kick-started with an obsession with Waterhouse, and he remains my favourite painter.

Now, that was a few years ago, and from then I’ve been progressively trying to learn more about the Pre-Raphaelites. This also means that I’ve read some novels and poems because of them. Visual artists have historically been inspired by stories, and the Pre-Raphaelites are no exception.

In this post I want to show you some of my favourite paintings and recommend you the literary work they were inspired by. Some very iconic works will not be featured, simply because I haven’t got around to reading them, but I hope this sparks some interest in you. I will be mentioning both painters from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—the original group that started pre-raphaelitism—and those who were in close contact with the movement or were later influenced by it.


Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867) by William Holman Hunt

This painting is inspired by Isabella, or the Pot of Basil” by John Keats. This poem is Keats’ adaptation of a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. Isabella is a young woman who falls in love with Lorenzo. However, he is her brothers’ employee and therefore not fit to marry Isabella. When the brothers learn of Isabella and Lorenzo’s romance, tragedy ensures.

I’ve decided to go with Holman Hunt’s painting of this scene becacuse I find it simply fascinating, but we can find other depictions of Isabella, as Keats’ poetry was a great source of inspiration for these painters:

The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse

The Lady of Shalott is a character from Arthurian legend and she’s one that the Pre-Raphaelites painted time and time again. Here, I’ve chosen what is probably the most well-known rendition of this myth by John William Waterhouse. He not only painted this version of the Lady of Shalott, but also made another version in 1894 and 1915:

These paintings, as well as the rest of Pre-Raphaelite renditions of the myth were inspired by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott. In it we follow the Lady of Shalott, who is imprisoned near Camelot forced to weave a colorful web and only able to watch the outside world through a mirror. If she ventures to look outside directly, her curse will be set in motion. The poem shows us what happens when Sir Lancelot walks by and she can’t help but look.


Medea the Sorceress (1880) by Valentine Cameron Prinsep

Medea is yet another character who has been plenty of times by this group. The Pre-Raphaelites really enjoyed depicting scenes from Greek mythology, and Euripides’ Medea was definitely no exception. The story follows Medea’s revenge on her husband, Jason, after he abandons her for another woman. Other renditions of this myth include:

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet (1869-1870) by Ford Madox Brown

Another thing the Pre-Raphaelites loved to paint was Shakespeare’s work. Admittedly, the most famous Shakespeare paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites were of Ophelia, but since I haven’t read Hamlet yet, we’re going down another route: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I’m sure everyone know what the plot is about but in this play we follow a pair of star-crossed lovers and the tragedy that befalls them.

Did you know about the Pre-Raphaelite artists? What was your favourite piece? Have you read any of the literary works that inspired them?

See you next time, Maria

7 thoughts on “Recommending the Literature that Inspired the Pre-Raphaelites

  1. This was such an interesting, educational post! Although I must confess that I’m personally not a huge Pre-Raphaelites fan – I’ve been to so many art museums at this point that I’m mostly like “Oh yeah, another portrait of some famous character on canvas that looks almost exactly like the 50 million other portraits here” 😅 Every once in a while, there’ll be a painting that stands out, but mostly, I tend to gravitate to stuff that’s a few centuries younger – it’s the seascapes and anything by M.C. Escher that you literally have to drag me away from! 🤣 But I do love all the stories behind these paintings and find it very interesting how different artists interpret the very same tale so differently! Like, I’m kind of obsessed with anything Arthurian Legend related, so I immediately got excited when you showed us those Lady of Shalott paintings! 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s fair, art is subjective and that’s the great thing about it! Although if we’re being fair there are plenty of paintings that aren’t focused on famous characters (although for the sake of this post I had to go with those!) 😂 I’ve seen and enjoyed some M.C. Escher pieces but I’m personally not the greatest fan of land/seascapes. But like I said, that’s the beauty of art, what we might find interesting and beautiful, another person might not love! I’m glad you still could enjoy the post as I was super excited to put it together 💕 And same here, Arthurian Legend has been an obsession for a while so seeing those paintings for the first time, and then reading Tennyson’s poem was a whole thing hahaha

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I actually really enjoyed looking at these paintings! I know closely nothing about paintings, but I do enjoy Monet’s art, or basically anything that is about nature. I didn’t know Pre-Raphaelite paintings focused so much on mythology! I’m more intrigued now! My favourite is either Medea or Lady Shalott. I heard about the latter in an Agatha Christie novel, a Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.
    You had a lot of interesting classes!

    Liked by 1 person

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