Rarely does one single image symbolise an entire art movement as strongly as the statuesque Pre-Raphaelite woman. The term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ conjures up visions of tall, willowy creatures with pale skin, flowing locks, scarlet lips, and melancholic expressions. The paintings of these models and muses, who were often the artists’ wives and mistresses, defied Victorian standards of beauty and caused much controversy. Yet beyond challenging the stereotypes of female appearance, were the Pre-Raphaelites really offering up a more modern woman?
When three high-spirited young painters established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) in 1848, they aimed to shake up English art and lead it away from the stale academicism which they believed to have stemmed from the art of Raphael and his followers. William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti turned back to nature for aesthetic inspiration and looked to literature for their subjects. In their quest to depict in intense realism exactly what they saw before them, they largely shunned the usual practice of assembling various features from different faces to create an idealised image; as their defender Ruskin noted: “Every Pre- Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person” (1).
The women of early Victorian art were usually given sweet, delicate looks to represent their humble, submissive characters. Rosy cheeks, plump faces, and maternal bodies were naturally prerequisites. When the Pre-Raphaelites stormed onto the art scene with their slim, tall women with strong jaws, wide mouths, and larger hands, critics saw in their art a “worship of ugliness and deformity” (2). Looking at these women today they appear assertive and powerful, with their direct gazes and confident stances, as seen in Millais’ Mariana, but the Victorian public viewed them with horror.
One magazine declared of the artists: “They apparently select bad models and then exaggerate their badness till it is out of all nature. We can hardly imagine anything more ugly, graceless, and unpleasant” (3). Even Charles Dickens attacked Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents, proclaiming Mary “so horrible in her ugliness that…she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France or the lowest gin-shop in England” (4).
In the midst of the social upheaval brought about by industrialisation, anxieties about decorum and virtue were on the rise. The unconventional Pre-Raphaelite woman tapped into this widespread fear, as part of what was perceived as a “protest against respectable and well-established rules of propriety and elegance” (5). But did these bold young artists’ challenge to the established idealisation of women extend beyond the aesthetic to their subject matter?
The Pre-Raphaelites strongly believed that art had a social responsibility. Although initially many of their subjects were taken from Shakespeare or the Bible, after around 1852 they took interest in more modern concerns. Their paintings often show ‘fallen’ women, as in Hunt’s Awakening Conscience of 1853, and Rossetti’s unfinished Found, begun in 1869. Awakening Conscience caused scandal upon its exhibition, with its portrayal of a gentleman and his mistress in the house he has installed her in.
Yet Hunt is not endorsing or glorifying this situation. The female model was his uneducated, working-class girlfriend, Annie Miller, whom he wanted to mould into a respectable wife (6). The painting is brimming with symbolism which emphatically warns of the dangers awaiting this woman. The tangled yarn at her feet and the cat playing with the bird under the table point to her perilous situation, but with the patch of sunlight in the foreground Hunt offers the woman the possibility of salvation through a respectable marriage and calm home far from the disorganisation we see.
Rossetti’s Found offers us a grim image of what the alternative might look like. On the streets of London, this country woman has fallen into a life of prostitution, ensnared and ready for sale like the calf behind her. Her green face is a vivid warning against her diseased life of destitution.
Hunt and Rossetti may have upset the status quo with their portrayals of modern urban life, but ultimately their art was a powerful caution for women against straying from the respectable way of life that Victorian society proscribed. The Pre-Raphaelite woman might be bolder and more self-assured than her contemporaries, but her duty was still to remain pure and obedient, in search of the wholesome unity of marriage.
As for the real women portrayed in these paintings, did they embody the traditional spirit their depicters promoted? Were their lives any more progressive? They hailed from all walks of life, ranging from prostitute to minister’s daughter, and certainly, as Carole Silver notes: “To insist…on their shared ambitions, characters and aspirations and to treat them as forgers of a gender alliance seems naive” (7). Yet many of them were themselves artists, and regardless of the extent to which their talent measured up to their more famous companions’, it is clear that their achievements have been largely dismissed.
Still today it is widely believed that they learnt all that they knew from their men. In fact Elizabeth Siddal studied at the Sheffield School of Art rather than receiving all her training from her husband Rossetti as his brother claimed (8). She impressed John Ruskin and contributed a number of works to a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. While Jane Morris is best known for her dark hair and striking features, she was a talented embroiderer and received little recognition for her role in the Arts and Crafts movement alongside her more-famous husband, William Morris. Perhaps then we should not look to Pre-Raphaelite art for progressive Victorian women, but to those whose faces we find there.
Text by Gillian Achurch
(1) John Ruskin, “Lectures on Architecture and Painting” (London, 1854), 158, quoted in Susan P. Casteras, “Pre-Raphaelite Challenges to Victorian Canons of Beauty”, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 55, 1 (Winter, 1992), 27.
(2) William Stillman, quoted in Susan P. Casteras, “Pre-Raphaelite Challenges to Victorian Canons of Beauty”, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 55, 1 (Winter, 1992), 19.
(3) “The Pictures of the Season”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 70 (1850), 82, quoted in Susan P. Casteras, “Pre-Raphaelite Challenges to Victorian Canons of Beauty”, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 55, 1 (Winter, 1992), 18.
(4) Charles Dickens, quoted in Mary Bennett, Millais (Liverpool, 1967), 29.
(5) “The Royal Academy”, Literary Gazette (May, 1855), 298, quoted in Susan P. Casteras, “Pre-Raphaelite Challenges to Victorian Canons of Beauty”, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 55, 1 (Winter, 1992), 24.
(6) See Elaine Shefer, “The ‘Bird in the Cage’ in the History of Sexuality: Sir John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 3 (January, 1991), 479. (7) Carole Silver, “Sitting Pretty? The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh”, The Women’s Review of Books, vol. 3, 8 (May, 1986), 15.
(8) Jan Marsh, “Imagining Elizabeth Siddal”, History Workshop, 25 (Spring, 1988), 72.