One of my favourite aspects of Pre-Raphaelite art is its devotion to Medieval-inspired subjects, like the Knights of the Round Table. But interestingly, the Pre-Raphaelites were initially attracted as much to the way medieval artists painted as they were to the subjects they covered.
The Pre-Raphaelite movement began in 1848, when a goup of young artists decided to take on the conventions of the London art world. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais were the founding members of the brotherhood, which met regularly to discuss art. They shared a mutual distaste for the art of Raphael, Titian and the artists of the Renaissance.
Their least favoutite modern was Sir Joshua Reynolds (referred to as "Sir Sloshua," by Millais and Hunt, who felt his brushwork was lacking). Sir Joshua Reynolds was the first president of the Royal Academy and had established the academy's "rules" for painting based on the conventions of neo-Classical and late Renaissance art. He decreed that "subjects should be edifying, colors subdued, compositions either pyramidal or S-shaped"(Stewart), and so on.
The Pre-Raphaelites rejected the idea that art should be so formulaic. Subdued colours and pyramidal compositions were not natural and thus untrue--something that bothered them. In response they sought to turn to medieval or "primitive" art for inspiration, believing it to be more realistic, detailed and authentic. They did face some problems with this, however.
Since very few examples of medieval art remained, even in their own time, they had to frequently resort to using their imaginations. In order to access the Medieval, the artists turned to early literature for inspiration, most often using the Bible, Chaucer, and the tales of King Arthur. They also used the poetry of John Keats and Alfred Tennyson. This earned them a great deal of criticism from their contemporaries, who charged them with "idealizing the Middle Ages" (this same criticism is still launched at them today). William Morris made it quite clear in his writings that he in no way sought to return to the Middle Ages or to replicate Medieval art. Instead, he hoped to revive the spirit of the age, which he felt was more sincere and less artifical than that of his own time.
The Pre-Raphaelites' obsession with the Medieval grew with time and qualifies the Pre-Raphaelites as one of the last chapters in the Romantic movement. I will discuss Romanticism and the Pre-Raphaelites soon!
Source: Doug Stewart, "Incurably Romantic," Smithsonian, Feb2007, Vol. 37 Issue 11, p86-94.