The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a vivacious group of painters in the early 19th century, set out on a rebellious quest to shift the paradigm of British art through their artistic movement. To that end, these painters depicted a vast variety of content: portraits, religious scenes, literary scenes etc. This paper endeavors to explore in great depth the way that Pre-Raphaelite artists represented women in their artwork, and thus uncovers a critical contradiction which permeates Pre-Raphaelite art, the contrast between their innovative ambitions in aesthetics and their frequent confirmation of established gender norms and precepts.
Although the Pre-Raphaelite artists were successful in depicting aesthetically unique women that deviated from Victorian beauty ideals and in presenting women who were vastly different from the idyllic homemaker of Victorian art, their depictions of women still contained dogmatic elements prescribing ideals of femininity. The main modes of depicting feminine idealism were the archetypes of the virgin, and the fallen woman. Another archetypal representation, the femme-fatale serves as a counterpoint, an area in which the Pre-Raphaelite woman escapes moralizing feminine ideals by transcending into a sensual fantasy of power though beauty.
The works ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini’, ‘Found’, ‘The Awakening Conscious’, ‘Lady Lilith’ and ‘Marianna’ depict these archetypes and will be taken as case studies for delving into the complicated gender messages the Pre-Raphaelites incorporated into their artworks of women.
The three artists who formed the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood were: Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. These three were young men in their early twenties who viewed themselves in the context of this movement, thus explicitly articulated their artistic identities.
The initial aims of the PBR were threefold: to revive British art by making powerful creative works similar to those of the late medieval and early Renaissance period, predating the time of the Italian artist Raphael; and to bring the truth of nature and the truth of their emotions to the canvas.
The Pre-Raphaelite desire to be faithful to nature stemmed in equal parts from resonance to to the writings of Ruskin and a discordance with the teachings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and the Royal Academy. Ruskin wrote prolifically on the subject of nature, for example writing, “Mark the definite and characteristic leaf, blossom, seed, fracture, color, and inward anatomy of everything. … The laws of nature he knows, are to him [the ideal painter] no restraint. They are his own nature.” This principle was not in fashion in the academic art world at the time, with Sir Joshua Reynolds, a prominent artist and the first president of the Royal Academy, preaching the anthesis of naturalism, idealism. Reynolds felt that artists should idealize, universalize, and generalize the world in reproductions, writing “All the objects which are exhibited to our view by nature, upon close examination will be found to have their blemishes and defects, … [the great artist] corrects nature by herself-her imperfect state by her more perfect.” In addition, Sir Reynolds preached a narrow rhetoric of what art should be as taught by the royal academy, writing:
I would chiefly recommend that an implicit obedience to the rules of art, as established by the great masters, should be exacted from the young students. That those models, which have passed through the approbation of ages, should be considered by them as perfect and infallible guides as subjects for their imitation, not their criticism.
Thus, Reynolds teachings were not only unappealing but also stifling to the young Pre-Raphaelite artists, who felt the need to buck the established norms which Reynolds so passionately upheld.
Another influence on the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was the presence of ‘primitive’ art works in the newly founded National Gallery. One work which was particularly influential was the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. The painting depicts a newlywed couple standing in a fashionable room. The Pre-Raphaelite artists admired the work for its rich colors, subtle symbolism, natural light, and acute attention to detail evident in the beautifully realized surfaces and textures. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood embraced what they admired in this and similar ‘primitive’ artworks.
These factors lead to a movement that looked backward in time in order to move forward and innovate. Their innovations were plentiful from crisp images with unrelenting clarity to startling saturated color use. Overall, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood aimed to revitalize art through the creation of visually demanding images, which utilized a newly forged artistic language.
In order to better understand the way that Pre-Raphaelite artists both revolutionized and reaffirmed the archetypal depiction of women, it is important to understand the way women where hitherto depicted in art and how they were understood by society at the time, in addition to the beauty norms which went hand in hand with these depictions.
The Victorian woman at the time was seen as a caregiver, whose role was chiefly motherhood, followed closely by tending to the duties of the house and providing a safe haven from the masculine world to her husband.
‘Women’s Mission’ a group of three paintings by George Elgar Hicks captures the social attitudes toward women which were prevalent in Victorian Society and in pictorial language at the time. The paintings are ‘Guide to Childhood’, ‘Companion to Manhood’ and ‘Comfort in Old Age’. In the first work a young mother leads her child along a wooded path, carefully turning aside a bramble in his path. In the second work, a wife gives solace to her husband who is experiencing intense emotional strife. The last work depicts a daughter lovingly caring for her dying father. Each work shows a woman who is subservient to a male in her life, her son, husband or father. These works are a visual representation of the cult of domesticity which was main cultural script that enforces traditional gender norms.
The appearance of Victorian women was intertwined with the perception of their characters. Writers at the time described the connection between beauty and morale character, one reviewer in the British Quarterly Review “the most beautiful soul must have the most beautiful body,” unequivocally equating good character with beauty. Believing that “two great essentials to the healthy expression of sentiment generally … are the appearance of cleanliness, and the absence of disease.” This appearance of cleanliness was all encompassing, from clear skin and delicately quaffed hair. Victorians also believed in phrenology, that the shape of the skull was representative of the personality the person. While this was a strange and inexact pseudo-science, it affected the way Victorians read others, including women. Since appearance was deeply related to perception of character at this time, the representation of women in art reflected this. In early Victorian art women were characterized by sweet, delicate looks to represent their good, humble and submissive characters.
In their quest to depict in intense realism exactly what they saw before them, the Pre-Raphaelites eschewed the typical practice of assembling various features from different faces to create an idealized image. Art critic Ruskin, a critical defender of Pre-Raphaelite art, noted this writing “Every Pre- Raphaelite figure, however, studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person”. Thus, the Pre-Raphaelites turned to models to provide individual and unique likenesses. These models were drawn from the family and friends of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. They were known colloquially as stunners, and amongst their number were women who would come to embody the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty: the pale, red-headed, Elizabeth Siddal; the blonde full-faced Fanny Cornforth, a former prostitute; the dark thickly-browed Jane Morris.
Contemporary critics described their distaste with Pre-Raphaelite depictions of female beauty, disparaging their naturalistic perspective and rejection of idealization. One such description was made by art critic David Masson in the British Quarterly Review of 1852, writing:
In their resolution to copy the forms of Nature, they [Pre-Raphaelite artists] took pleasure in depicting forms called ugly or mean. Thus, instead of giving us figures with those fine conventional heads and regular oval faces and gracefully formed hands and feet which we like to see in albums, they took delight in figures with heads phrenologically clumsy, faces strongly marked and irregular, and very pronounced ankles and knuckles. … Are there no beautiful faces, or fingers, or feet in Nature … that clever young men should paint things like those; or have the poor young men really been so unfortunate in their life-series of feminine visions?
This criticism stems from their depiction of unique likeness which did not adhere to Victorian beauty standards. They painted women with larger rather than dainty hands, prominent chins and noses rather than round soft features, all of which was shocking and unpleasant to the Victorian audience that had become accustomed to a visual language of gentle-faced women.
The first prevalent archetypal representation of women of this period is that of the holy virgin, a representation of the purest woman, the ideal image of piety and virtue. Two major works by D.G. Rossetti, “The Girlhood of Mary” and the “Ecce Ancilla Domini” depict Virgin Mary in two different stages of her life, and each work preaches tenets of ideal womanhood.
The idealization of the Virgin begins in Rossetti’s work ‘The Girlhood of Mary’. Of the Girlhood, Rossetti said “That picture of mine was a symbol of female excellence, the Virgin being taken as its highest type. It was not her Childhood but her Girlhood.” Here, Rossetti explicitly states his intention for Mary to represent ideal femininity. This painting depicts Mary being taught to embroider by her mother St. Anne, while in the background her father Joachim manicures vines growing on their home. This image depicts the education of Mary in the duties of the home and communicates the importance of this feminine education. In addition, the work illustrates the gendered division of labor, with the man doing physical labor outdoors with the women seated indoors sewing. The morale behind the work is evident, that women can emulate Mary by participating in domestic crafts, remaining within the home, and responding dutifully to what male figures ask of her. Thus, this painting confirms deeply entrenched Victorian ideals of womanhood. Beneath the artistic veneer of innovation are rigid gender roles that confirm the Victorian status-quo and so a slippage occurs between the progressive aims of the Brotherhood and the deeply entrenched patriarchal views about the place of women in society.
In the “Ecce Ancilla Domini” Rossetti continues illustrating Mary as the ideal female. This work depicts the annunciation, a famous biblical scene which has been rendered artistically countless times. In the bible, this is the moment where the Archangel Gabriel acted as the messenger of God and tells Mary that she has been chosen by God to carry his son, Jesus Christ. The work is on a long and narrow canvas, creating a condensed composition. The perspective in the work is flattened reminiscent of medieval art. The angel Gabriel faces Mary and his back is to the viewer. He hands her a white lily, a traditional symbol of purity. Mary is seated on her bed and is stricken with a fearful expression. She is fully clothed in a shapeless nightgown and yet she “shrinks back against the wall in maiden modesty, as if trying to evade the violation of the archangel’s lily stem, which points directly at her womb”. Her expression, coupled with her recoiling body position creates a sense of dread which is further underscored by her youthful appearance.
The stark tone emotional tone of the work is elevated by the sterile whiteness of the figure’s robes and the whiteness of the walls. The white color also symbolizes Mary’s innocence. This limited color palette also heightens the selective emphasis on symbolically important elements of the work. The rich primary colors featured in the work are also symbolic, the red representing Christ’s blood, the blue for her future nobility as the Queen of heaven, and gold for her divine status.
Rossetti evokes the “hortus conclusus” (enclosed garden) by featuring a window looking out onto trees which. Since Christ is divinely conceived with Mary’s virginity intact, the image of a walled garden came to symbolize the Virgin conception of Christ. The contained garden represents her womb, untouched by sin. This subtle reference to “hortus conclusus” is another way in which Rosetti emphasizes Mary’s purity. Mary’s chastity is the pivotal element of the narrative of divine conception, and it is emphasized by her youthful body and the pervasive symbolic white. Mary is impregnated by the masculine power of God in order to fulfil the sacred duty of procreation and despite her youth and trepidation she responds with duty and grace.
Mary is a woman defined by her virginity. The Victorian interest in the chaste woman makes her a model of behavior. The juvenile appearance of Mary mirrors Victorian conceptions of gender, such as the Victorian notion of woman as the desexualized angel of the house. This house angel was a woman who remained in the home, dutifully and lovingly completed domestic tasks, was physically fragile, and constantly sacrificing herself to others. This painting asks women to remain in this state of perpetual innocence, as Mary did. Rosetti’s desire to reinvent the Annunciation scene in novel way is contradictory to his reinforcement of gender roles. Ultimately, the work confines the woman within the home, asks her to maintain her virginal state, and emphasizes her sexuality only in its capacity to bear children as prescribed within the Christian tradition. As such the work upholds repressive Victorian gender norms.