- Explain the tenets of female beauty as described by mainstream Victorian society
- Describe Victorian society’s obsession with narrative art
- Recount the basic plot points of the ‘Fallen Woman’ motif common in Victorian art and literature
- List the main artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
- Explain how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was started and why
- Identify the works of Whistler and explain Whistler’s art making motivations
Audio recording of chapter opening:
Audio recording of the full chapter can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1_s7c4KYNBAtD5KpPshm8SNK2iFAnWyU4/view?usp=sharing
Do you know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man.
Do you know the muffin man,
Who lives on Drury Lane?
Oh Yes, I know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man,
Yes, I know the muffin man,
Who lives on Drury Lane.
The interrogation scene between Lord Farquaad and Gingy in Shrek might make you feel a little differently about how Gingy’s life has been going so far in Duloc if you have seen Gustave Doré’s Orange Court, Drury Lane print from 1872.
While a Muffin Man is likely to have have travelled throughout the city selling his wares, the fact that Gingy knows where the Muffin Man lives (and SPOILER ALERT: much later it is revealed that the Muffin Man is Gingy’s creator), it could mean that Gingy lives or has lived nearby. In the realm of reality in 1870s London, England – Drury Lane was a place of destitute poverty.
Of Orange Court on Drury Lane, the artist said:
“On our way to the City on the tide of Labor we light upon places in which the day is never aired: only the high points of which the sun ever hits. Rents spread with rags, swarming with the children of mothers forever greasing the walls with their shoulders; where there is an angry hopelessness and carelessness painted upon the face of every man and woman, and the oaths are loud, and the crime is continuous; and the few who do work with something like system are the ne’erdo-weels of the great army. As the sun rises the court swarms at once: for here there are no ablutions to perform, no toilets to make-neither brush nor comb delays the outpouring of babes and sucklings from the cellars and garrets. And yet in the midst of such a scene as this we cannot miss touches of human goodness, and of honorable instinct making a tooth-and-nail fight against adverse circumstances. Some country wenches, who have been east into London – Irish girls mostly – hasten out of the horrors of the common lodging-house to market, where they buy their flowers for the day’s huckstering in the City. They are to be seen selling roses and camellias, along the curb by the Bank, to dapper clerks.”
Victorian England was a nation of extremes. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Extreme ugliness and extreme beauty. The reign of Queen Victoria was long and in many ways her reign was a time of stability for the nation. The ideas that swept artists up in a fevered outpouring of art production were not always the things that the general public felt inclined to embrace as readily. While ideas of Realism and the heroism of the everyday citizen were interesting, the British soul longed for story-telling and narrative. Social change was a nice idea, but what about the soul-crushing stories that were available to be bought and sold as entertainment? The ability to create social-change with art was probably a good idea, but what about sweet paintings of mothers and children? Victorian art (and perhaps its culture as a whole) had a bit of an issue – vacillating from moralizing calls to better living to sweeping escapist fantasy. In the 21st century, mainstream Victorian art is frequently skipped over in art history – except to talk about its one band of bad boy artists who bucked the establishment – and a few select Academic artists. To the contemporary tastes of today, Victorian mainstream art was too sweet and syrupy to be palatable. It’s somewhat ironic that the most famous Victorian artists in the 21st century are the artists who were not deeply sought after during their time.
Audio recording of A Reading from Homer segment:
The title is A Reading from Homer. And yet, we see no indications of anyone reading (either to themselves privately or aloud to others). In fact, the storyteller at right, crowned in a wreath of laurel leaves and gesticulating with his left arm, is decidedly looking away from the scroll that unfurls on his lap. Moreover, this painting does not even illustrate a specific scene from Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey.
Despite the title, then, Alma-Tadema’s painting showcases the oral transmission of culture across the ages. Unlike the Victorian (male) elite, who spent long hours studying ancient Latin and Greek texts in pedantic exercises at grammar schools and at university, Alma-Tadema favored a vision of the ancient world that was anything but dry. His paintings were accessible to those outside academia and thus more democratic in their appeal. In A Reading from Homer, the marble bench even seems to curve towards the viewer’s space, as if offering us an invitation to participate in this gathering.
In fact, at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1885, art critic Claude Phillips perceived the populist element of this painting, although he interpreted it negatively. While acknowledging that the painting demonstrates Alma-Tadema’s “usual mastery . . . of light, color, texture, and drawing,” Phillips nonetheless disapproved of the figures themselves: “The facial types, though they have an air of realistic truth, are of a low order, and not such as should have been selected for such a subject.” Here Phillips draws upon the contemporary pseudo-scientific discourse of phrenology and physiognomy, which argued that an individual’s character was legible through the shape of the head and facial features. For Phillips, the supposedly “low” nature of the figures’ faces was corroborated by their lethargic attitudes, and he preferred paintings with classical themes that elevated the viewer by featuring noble people doing noble deeds. By Victorian standards the people in the painting were not beautiful, and Victorian culture equated physical beauty with goodness of character. Therefore, these less than beautiful people where exhibiting their lower characters with their indolent poses and slow responses in ways that only the unlovely could.
Alma-Tadema’s vision of antiquity was decidedly different than that. He was a key figure in the mid- to late-Victorian Classical Revival. We can think back to the Neo-classical movement of a century before. A product of the Enlightenment, Neoclassical art favored the cerebral over the sensual and themes that promoted reason, civic virtue, and heroism. Think of Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784), which shows three brothers who vow to go to war and sacrifice their lives for Rome. By contrast, in A Reading from Homer, Alma-Tadema shows a group of languorous figures enjoying the sensory delights of a warm Mediterranean day by the sea, withdrawing into private worlds of reverie rather than being urged into collective, public action.
Here Alma-Tadema’s classicism also engages with the mid-Victorian Aesthetic movement (which emphasized the aesthetic qualities of art over the narrative), and A Reading from Homer resembles Albert Moore’s A Musician of c.1867. The lyres in both Moore and Alma-Tadema’s paintings underscore the Aesthetes’ “musical” approach to painting, encouraging the viewer to look at painting in terms of harmonies, rhythms, and contrasts rather than offering any specific narrative moment or moral meaning. In A Reading from Homer, the viewer can appreciate a series of visual contrasts that offer a pleasing sense of balance and harmony: the angular geometries of the marble architecture at left, which transforms into the sweeping curve of the bench at right; the figures resting in cool shadow against the bright, glowing marble and sun-lit water; the palette of whites, blues, and browns punctuated by the loud accents of the red tambourine and fuschia roses.
Alma-Tadema delighted in the day-to-day materiality of the past. In A Reading from Homer we can see the skill with which he depicted the translucency of the marble, tinged blue by the light from the sky and water; the soft fur tunic worn by the reclining man; and the lyre with all strings carefully delineated.
Alma-Tadema’s attention to artifacts and architecture represents an archaeological approach. The second half of the nineteenth century was a great age of archaeological study and excavation, with discoveries being made in Mediterranean and Near Eastern sites such as Knossos, Mycenae, and even the famed Homeric city of Troy. Alma-Tadema himself regularly visited Pompeii, the Museo Nazionale in Naples, the Vatican Museum, and Rome for archaeological inspiration; at home in London he also had a great resource in the British Museum.
Because of Alma-Tadema’s pleasure in depicting the material objects and structures of the past, critics have sometimes been unkind in their view of him. Critic and curator Roger Fry, who helped introduce Post-Impressionism to Britain, denounced Alma-Tadema as representing “an extreme instance of the commercial materialism of our civilization.” This view was further cemented by the fact that his art was collected by the wealthy capitalists of his day. A Reading from Homer was purchased by American financier Henry Marquand, then President of the Metropolitan Museum, to go in the music room of his New York mansion.
A Reading from Homer offered visitors to Marquand’s home a sort of mirror for their own behavior. Like the figures in the painting, these Gilded Age elite would gather in the music room to listen to a performance or recital. They would also witness Alma-Tadema’s artistic performance by proxy, in the form of this painting. Inscribed on the seat beneath the storyteller is Alma-Tadema’s signature, suggesting the artist’s identification with this figure. Like the Homeric storyteller, Alma-Tadema captivates his audience through his artistic performance, bringing visions of the ancient world to life.
Excepted and Adapted from: Dr. Chloe Portugeis, “Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Listening to Homer,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/alma-tadema-listening-to-homer/.
All Smarthistory content is available for free at www.smarthistory.org
Audio recording of the Fallen Woman trope segment:
Beauty and the so-called character truths it revealed were an important part of Victorian culture. This was deepened, in part, by the demographic ratios in the Victorian population. In Victorian England, due to wars and pandemics, the male to female ratio was one man to every ten women. This meant for every single woman who got married, nine others were left single. This might seem like a small matter in the 21st century, but in Victorian England this was a major cause for concern.
See, in England at this time a woman had to marry. Not because women were forbidden from remaining single, but because society was structured so that women needed to be married in order to access to the ability to care and provide for themselves. Life was divided into two overlapping spheres – the Public Sphere, realm of the male, and the Private Sphere, realm of the female. Only in the creation of a family home did the two spheres overlap. Therefore a woman without access to an overlapping Public Sphere would suffer destitution, ill-repute, and dead-ends in most efforts to access the goods and services of the Public Sphere. Thus, Victorian women needed to marry. Their only other option was to remain in their parent’s home under the care of her father. However, the Industrialization of Britain during this period had changed the economic culture and many families in the lower and middle class were unable to care for adult children. Women who were unable to find a husband were often forced to care for themselves. Some were able to find work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution and scrapped together a mean existence. However, as hundreds of thousands flocked to the cities in search of work the factories had more prospective employees than work to give and thousands of women found it necessary to make a living via the world’s oldest profession – prostitution. Yet, a prostitute in Victorian society was as invisible and as worthless as a French Laundress and thus the cycle of poverty persisted.
The rate of unwed mothers in a society that shut out the ‘shamed’ woman, create a voracious art market for stories of the ‘Femme Fatale’ and the ‘Fallen Woman’. The femme fatale was, as she always is, beautiful and dangerous. A woman of ambition who lies about her unseemly past and racks up societal taboos like Rachel Green racks up her credit card in Friends. The ‘Fallen Woman’ was the story of the failed femme fatale – the woman whose mistakes find her out and she is left with…nothing but shame.
The melodramatic moral work by Richard Redgrave – The Outcast – depicts a stern patriarch of inflexible puritanical morality casting out a fallen woman and her illegitimate baby – probably his daughter and grandchild – from his “respectable” house. Despite the snow visible on the ground outside, the paterfamilias stands by an open door, gesturing angrily for her to depart. Another young woman – probably another daughter – kneels, begging him to relent, while another weeps behind. The mother of the family comforts a weeping son, while a fourth daughter looks on in confusion. An incriminating letter lies on the floor, and a biblical painting – probably Abraham casting out Hagar and Ishmael, but possibly Christ and the woman taken in adultery – hangs on the wall. The device of the incriminating letter was used to better effect in a similar context by Augustus Egg in his 1858 triptych Past and Present.
The painting is ambiguous: it could be meant as a warning to other women to avoid a similar fate, or could be intended to evoke sympathy for the plight of the young mother abandoned by her family.
Excerpted and adapted from: Wikipedia, (August 17, 2020), s.v. “The Outcast (Redgrave painting).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Outcast_(Redgrave_painting)
But not just unwed mothers could be included in the ‘Fallen Woman’ narrative. In Augustus Egg’s triptych Past and Present he portrays the story of a mother who is found out in an affair and falls from her comfortable married position into utter destitution. The first piece, meant to be hung in between the other two pieces in the series, represented the Past, while the pieces on either side were two perspectives of the same moment in the Present.
Around this time the courts had just changed the divorce process, which made it more accessible to the middle classes – this may have been a discussion regarding the problems with easier divorces. It may have been a commentary on immorality. Or it may have been a judgement on promiscuous women who became wives.
The paintings were not individually titled when they were exhibited in the Royal Academy show of 1858 as they are now – Misfortune, Prayer, and Despair but they were accompanied with this fictional excerpt from a journal:
August the 4th – Have just heard that B— has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!
In Past and Present, No. 1 – Misfortune, the mother lays in a pleading swoon on the floor having realized her husband had an incriminating letter clasped in his hand. He sits thunderstruck his face glazed and despondent, showing that their difference have become irreconcilable. The portrait of the other man is under his foot. The apple has been cut – one piece staying on the table, the other by her foot. The children jump at the commotion between their parents as their house of cards falls down. In the mirror the door is open and the bag and umbrella sit by the door.
According to John Ruskin, in the story being presented by Egg’s paintings, five years have passed since the fateful day that the mother left the home. The children are older now and the older one’s black mourning clothes and the younger one’s crying shows that the father has died and they are alone in the world. Looking out the window as they pray for their wayward and estranged mother they look at the waxing moon.
In the third painting of the triptych, the mother stares at the same moon with the same cloud that her daughters are looking at at the same moment. The naked legs of a baby stick out from her rags, causing the viewer to speculate if the baby is already dead or if it will survive. She sleeps under the bridge by the Strand. The posters on the walls are advertisements for two plays that feature destroyed marriages and an ad for a pleasure cruise to France.
Audio recording of Beauty Standards segment:
This triptych and The Outcast are paintings of “Fallen Women” – a huge theme in Victorian arts – poetry and literature explored it the most but the fine arts did as well. With the massive number of prostitutes and questionably careered women in London, it is not strange that there would have been an interest in the fallen woman. There were lots.
Which is an interesting thing because England at this time was in the middle of a moral revolution of sorts. You’ll see with the works of William Holman-Hunt, that morality was a big deal in Victorian England. But, it wasn’t like the Neo-Classical French call to morality – which was all about the many over the few and a single sacrifice for the greater good, etc. That was a very Roman Catholic, collective approach. The English moral revolution was very much in the domain of the individual for the sake of the individual, although society would benefit, the reason for morality wasn’t the betterment of the many, but the saving of the one – which was a very Protestant, individualistic approach.
With these moralizing reminders everywhere and the real threat of destitution behind every mistake, women were very conscious of the very real need to find a husband. One of the ways to win a husband was with beauty and grace and this needed to happen very early in the ‘coming out’ of a young woman.
Coming Out: The phrase meant something different back then. Girls too young for courtship were referred to as “in the schoolroom”; to “come out to society” meant to enter the marriage market. Often these girls were presented to the Queen at St. James — the Victorian equivalent of a Senior Prom spotlight dance. The girls had to make the most of their first season. After two or three “failed seasons” — no engagement — they could be considered an old maid.
This is also where the saying ‘Three times a bridesmaid, never a bride’ has some of its roots- you know, apart from the Medieval superstitions about bridesmaids absorbing the demons and bad luck from the happy couple. If a bridesmaid had been in a wedding three times – which would probably mean three wedding seasons (spring/summer) – dressed in her best – and still hadn’t caught the eye of any bachelors, she was doomed to be an old maid. To provide for herself becoming a school teacher, or governess, was a suitable occupation for an old maid of middle class education and social standing.
In a society that values looks as an indicator of goodness, it makes sense that cosmetics were taboo. In other eras makeup would have been the way to perfect one’s looks to meet the criteria of society, but ‘proper’ British women didn’t wear makeup – or makeup that showed anyway. It was felt that wearing makeup or overly structured undergarments was akin to lying about who and what you were. According to beauty standards of the time the ideal complexion was called “the lily and the rose” – white, translucent skin with pale rose tint fading into the cheeks. To achieve this coveted complexion many home-made beauty treatments and questionable tinctures were used frequently. And beauty ads definitely targeted the fear of old-maid-dom with ads that stated:
“How frequently we find that a slight blemish on the face, otherwise divinely beautiful, has occasioned a sad and solitary life of celibacy, unloved, unblessed, and ultimately unwept and unremembered.”
Basically, those who didn’t have the most naturally derived good-looks were destined to die forever alone.
Every culture had ideals of beauty that changed from time to time – like France’s over the top Rococo fashions. Anyone with enough money, head gear, and makeup could be beautiful in Rococo France. This was so well known, even during the Rococo period that many jokes were made about French women as disguisers and dissemblers. So, sixty years later in England it was almost impossible to scam the system. Bone structure, hair colour and body shape were tantamount and faking it (with the exception of minor to moderate body modifications with foundational wear) was a sign of deep character-flaws and scandal.
Entire books existed as to explain what was, and was not beautiful – the “Laws” of Beauty. Alexander Walker’s book Beauty: Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Women did its best to present itself as a scientific manual regarding the most important aspects of female beauty. But keep in mind that all these rules and laws of good looks were deeply supported by the cultural belief that can be summed up with a simple equation:
BEAUTIFUL = GOOD
UGLY = EVIL
Which is why ‘faking it’ with makeup or overly structured clothing was considered scandalous and the same as lying and cheating. Because how you looked conveyed everything about you and to lie about how you looked was lying about who you were. Facial bone structure was considered of the MOST importance – a strong chin, or a thin & long face, or pronounced eyebrow line could undo a woman’s marriage chances (or so they said. Because were ‘ugly’ women finding love and getting married in Victorian society? For sure. For all the so-called science in their approach, the science of beauty frequently forgot the subjective nature of attraction.) Chins were especially considered markers of daily character. Walker stated in his book,
Of the chin, it should be observed that it is a distinctive character of the human species, and is not found in any other animal. When well formed, it is full, united, and generally without a dimple; and it passes gently and almost insensibly into the neighboring parts. In woman especially, the chin ought to be finely rounded; for when projecting, it expresses, owing to its connexion with muscular action and power, a firmness and a determination which we do not wish to discover in her character. In woman, the countenance is more rounded, as well as more abundantly furnished with that cellular and, fatty tissue which fills all the chasms, effaces, all the angles, and unites all the parts by the gentlest transitions. At the same time, the muscles are feebler, more mobile, resigned for a shorter time to the same contraction, and as inconstant as the emotions and passions which their rapid play expresses.
So basically, the beautiful woman was inconstant, emotional, and not one to jut out her chin in defiance too frequently.
Audio recording of Beauty Standards (con’t) segment:
Hair colour was also important. Blonde was considered the ideal hair color; lady’s magazines of the time declared blondes were the only true beauties. Other colours could be nice or handsome, but only blondes were worth talking about.
This lady here, in George Goodwin Kilburne’s painting, would be considered nearly ideal. The chin isn’t really there as it gently fades into the neck, the face is a long oval, the eyes rounded and china blue. Her hair is blond and slightly curly – slightly curly is important here. Too curly and she seems wild and unrulable, but slightly curly gives the idea of yielding and gentle, with no severity. The hands are small, the arms taper, the neck is not thick or short, and her chest is defined but not overwhelming. Lacking pointy or jutting features of any kind, this lady’s only flaw may be that her nose is too straight and strong, giving her too much a Classical profile. However, her blond hair, round blue eyes, and cupid’s bow lips come very close to the stereotypical standard of Victorian beauty.
Another canon of Victorian beauty, one not as beautiful as the blonde canon but still a lovely lady, was the auburn haired beauty. Auburn hair, to any readers of Anne of Green Gables, may seem to be a very red-headed type colour, but in this era it was a brown hair colour that glowed with reddish warmth (rather than simply being a dark red). The auburn haired woman was considered almost beautiful by Victorian standards. She needed an ample chest – though that was never quite nearly enough to counteract her misfortune of not being blonde. She should have a tapered waist, but a good corset could help with that. And as with the blonde standard she should have small hands, tiny feet (not seen in James Tissot’s painting), and tapering arms. In Tissot’s Young Lady in a Boat, his model has a gentle chin and rounded oval face. Here, compared to Kilburne’s painting, the eyes are more almond – she’s simply not as beautiful. Her character would be considered in keeping with her eye and hair – possibly a little on the saucy side, but still upstanding. The auburn haired woman could be handsome.
The last kind of woman in Victorian society was the dark haired woman.
They could never be beautiful.
But if her skin was lily enough and her neck long enough, her bosom ample enough, her waist thin enough, her hands small enough, her disposition gentle enough, she could be considered ‘Striking’.
The dark haired woman required a gentle nature and pale complexion to be considered attractive. The auburn haired woman needed a quick wit. The blonde woman could be effortlessly beautiful. Of course, all of these beauty standards hung on more than just hair colour – bone structure, skin tone, and other things were part of the equation.
But there is a hair colour that isn’t on this list.
The Red Headed Woman. Even just calling someone a ‘Red Headed Woman’ was like calling someone a bad name – it was a social call-out that either meant you were a mean-spirited cat or the woman you were speaking out about was your worst enemy. It was a Mean Girls ostracizing call-to-arms.
But, you might say after a Google search, Red Headed Women show up in a lot of Victorian art!
This is partially true. Red Heads were featured in a lot of art created during the Victorian era, but they are not, strictly speaking, featured in Victorian art. There was a sub-culture of art that rebelled against the beauty standards of the Victorian and created art that celebrated what the mainstream deemed ugly. In the paintings of these artists you will find sharp chins and elbows, bony bodies, hooked noses, wild hair, and red locks streaming untamed around the thin, long bodies of the women painted. These rebels began with a small group of painters in London who went by a (not so secret) name:
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
- Thinking specifically about Victorian beauty standards for women, do you feel that 21st century society has a similar approach to categorizing what is and is not beautiful? Why or why not?
- Victorian England equated aesthetic appearance with moral character. Does the 21st century equate body mass, appearance, cosmetic health, etc with moral/ethical character? Is the 21st century approach more, less, or equally correct as the Victorian approach and why?
During a visit to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1848, the young artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was drawn to a painting entitled The Eve of Saint Agnes by William Holman Hunt. As a subject taken from the poetry of John Keats was a rarity at the time, Rossetti sought out Hunt, and the two quickly became friends. Hunt then introduced Rossetti to his friend John Everett Millais, and the rest, as they say, is history. The trio went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group determined to reform the artistic establishment of Victorian England.
The name “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” (PRB) hints at the vaguely medieval subject matter for which the group is known. The young artists appreciated the simplicity of line and large flat areas of brilliant color found in the early Italian painters before Raphael, as well as in 15th century Flemish art. These were not qualities favored by the more academic approach taught at the Royal Academy during the mid 19th century, which stressed the strong light and dark shading of the Old Masters. Another source of inspiration for the young artists was the writing of art critic John Ruskin, particularly the famous passage from Modern Painters telling artists “to go to nature in all singleness of heart . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing.” This combination of influences contributed to the group’s extreme attention to detail, and the development of the wet white ground technique that produced the brilliant color for which they are known. The artists even became some of the first to complete sections of their canvases outdoors in an effort to capture the minute detail of every leaf and blade of grass.
It was decided that seven was the appropriate number for a rebellious group and four others were added to form the initial Brotherhood. The selection of additional members has long mystified art historians. James Collinson, a painter, seems to have been added due to his short-lived engagement to Rossetti’s sister Christina rather than his sympathy with the cause. Another member, Thomas Woolner, was a sculptor rather than a painter. The final two members, William Michael Rossetti and Frederic George Stephens, both of whom went on to become art critics, were not practicing artists. However, other young artists such as Walter Howell Deverell and Charles Collins embraced the ideals of the PRB even though they were never formally elected as members.
Audio recording of Pre-Raphaelites segment:
The Pre-Raphaelites decided to make their debut by sending a group of paintings, all bearing the initials “PRB”, to the Royal Academy in 1849. However, Rossetti, who was nervous about the reception of his painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, changed his mind and instead sent his painting to the earlier Free Exhibition (meaning there was no jury as there was at the Royal Academy). At the Royal Academy, Hunt exhibited Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, a scene from an historical novel of the same name by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Millais exhibited Isabella, another subject from Keats, created with such attention to detail that one can actually see the beheading scene on the plate nearest the edge of the table, which echoes the ultimate fate of the young lover Lorenzo in the story. In both paintings, the accurately designed medieval costumes, bright colors and attention to detail produced criticism that the paintings mimicked a “mediaeval illumination of the chronicle or the romance” (Athenaeum, 2 June 1849, p. 575). Interestingly, no mention was made of the mysterious “PRB” inscription on the bench leg. In 1850, however, the reaction to the PRB was very different. By this time, many people knew about the existence of the supposedly secret society, in part because the group had published many of their ideas in a short-lived literary magazine entitled The Germ. Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini appeared at the Free Exhibition along with a painting by his friend Deverell entitled Twelfth Night. At the Royal Academy, Hunt’s A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids and Millais’s Christ in the House of his Parents, famously abused by Charles Dickens, received the brunt of the criticism. In the aftermath of the humiliating reception of their work, Collinson resigned from the group and Rossetti decided never again to exhibit publicly. Undeterred, Millais and Hunt again continued to exhibit paintings demonstrating the beautiful colors and detail orientation of the mature style of the PRB. The Royal Academy of 1851 included Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia, and three pictures by Millais, Mariana, The Woodman’s Daughter, and The Return of the Dove to the Ark as well as Convent Thoughts by Millais’s friend Charles Collins. Although many were still dubious about the new style, the critic John Ruskin came to the rescue of the group, publishing two letters in The Times newspaper in which he praised the relationship of the PRB to early Italian art. Although Ruskin was suspicious of what he termed the group’s “Catholic tendencies,” he liked the attention to detail and the color of the PRB paintings. Ruskin’s praise helped catapult the young artists to a new level. The Brotherhood, however, was slowly dissolving. Woolner emigrated to Australia in 1852. Hunt decided in January 1854 to visit the Holy Land in order to better paint religious pictures. And, in an event Rossetti described as the formal end of the PRB, Millais was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1853, joining the art establishment he had fought hard to change. Despite the fact that the Brotherhood lasted only a few short years, its impact was immense. Millais and Hunt both went on to establish important places for themselves in the Victorian art world. Millais was to go on to become an extremely popular artist, selling his art works for vast sums of money, and ultimately being elected as the President of the Royal Academy. Hunt, who perhaps stayed most true to the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, became a well-known artist and wrote many articles and books on the formation of the Brotherhood. Rossetti became a mentor to a group of younger artists including Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Rossetti’s paintings of beautiful women also helped inaugurate the new Aesthetic Movement, or the taste for Art for Art’s Sake, in the later Victorian era. To a contemporary audience, the Pre-Raphaelites may appear less than modern. However, in their own time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood accomplished something revolutionary. They were one of the first groups to value painting out-of-doors for its “truth to nature,” and their concept of banding together to take on the art establishment helped to pave the way for later groups. The distinctive elements of their paintings, such as the extreme attention to detail, the brilliant colors and the beautiful rendition of literary subjects set them apart from other Victorian painters.Excerpted and Adapted from: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, “A beginner’s guide to the Pre-Raphaelites,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/a-beginners-guide-to-the-pre-raphaelites/.
All Smarthistory content is available for free at www.smarthistory.org
John Everett Millais
When it appeared at the Royal Academy annual exhibition of 1850 Christ in the House of his Parents must have seemed a serious departure from standard religious imagery. Painted by the young John Everett Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), Christ in the House of his Parents focuses on the ideal of truth to nature that was to become the hallmark of the Brotherhood.
The picture centers on the young Christ whose hand has been injured, being cared for by the Virgin, his mother. Christ’s wound, a perforation in his palm, foreshadows his ultimate end on the cross. A young St. John the Baptist carefully brings a bowl of water to clean the wound, symbolic of John the Baptist’s future role in the baptism of Christ. Joseph, St Anne (the Virgin’s mother) and a carpenter’s assistant also react to Christ’s accident. At a time when most religious paintings of the Holy Family were calm and tranquil groupings, this active event in the young life of the Savior must have seemed extremely radical.
The same can be said for Millais’ handling of the figures and the setting in the painting. Mary’s wrinkled brow and the less than clean feet of some of the figures are certainly not idealized. According to the principles of the P.R.B., the attention to detail is incredible. Each individual wood shaving on the floor is exquisitely painted, and the rough-hewn table is more functional than beautiful. The tools of the carpenters trade are evident hanging on the wall behind, while stacks of wood line the walls. The setting is a place of work, not a sacred spot.
William Michael Rossetti recorded in The P.R.B. Journal that Millais started to work on the subject in November 1849 and began the actual painting at the end of December. We know from Rossetti and the reminiscences of fellow Brotherhood member William Holman Hunt that Millais worked on location in a carpenter’s shop on Oxford Street, catching cold while working there in January. Millais’ son tells us that his father purchased sheep heads from a butcher to use as models for the sheep in the upper left of the canvas. He did not show the finished canvas to his friends until April of 1850.
Audio recording of Millais segment:
Although Millais’ exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1849, Isabella, had been well received, the critics blasted Christ in the House of his Parents. The most infamous review, however, was the one by Charles Dickens that appeared in his magazine Household Words in June 1850. In it he described Christ as:
a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a nightgown, who appears to have received a poke playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster in the vilest cabaret in France or in the lowest gin-shop in England.
The commentary in The Times was equally unfavorable, stating that Millais’ “attempt to associate the Holy Family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, of even disease, all finished with loathsome minuteness, is disgusting.” The painting proved to be so controversial that Queen Victoria asked that it be removed from the exhibition and brought to her so she could examine it.
The attacks on Millais’ painting were undoubtedly unsettling for the young artist. Millais had been born in 1829 on the island of Jersey, but his parents eventually moved to London to benefit their son’s artistic education. When Millais began at the Royal Academy school in 1840 he had the distinction of being the youngest person ever to have been admitted.
At the Royal Academy, Millais became friendly with the young William Holman Hunt, who in turn introduced Millais to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the idea for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was born. The young artists exhibited their first set of paintings in 1849, all of which were well received, but the paintings shown in 1850 were universally criticized, although none with as much fervor as Christ in the House of his Parents.
Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents is a remarkable religious painting for its time. It presents the Holy Family in a realistic manner, emphasizing the small details that bring the tableau to life. It is a scene we can easily imagine happening, but it is still laced with the symbolism expected of a Christian subject. It is Millais’ marriage of these two ideas that makes Christ in the House of his Parents such a compelling image, and at the same time, made it so reprehensible to Millais’ contemporaries.
Excerpted from: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, “Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/millais-christ-in-the-house-of-his-parents/.
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Rising up to stretch after a long session of embroidery, Millais’ Mariana is the epitome of the Victorian idea of a medieval woman. Set in a vaguely Gothic interior with pointed arches and stained glass windows, the painting has an air of mystery and melancholy that is typical in Victorian depictions of the Middle Ages. The 1830s-50s saw an interest in the Middle Ages which appeared to offer an alternative to the problems of industrial capitalism of the Victorian era.
Also typical of the time, is the emphasis on the isolated female figure. The dark colors and straining posture of the woman lead us to wonder about her story, and the Victorian painter always has a story to tell.
Mariana is an illustration to Tennyson’s poem, lines from which were included in the catalog when the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851:
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said:
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’
The inspiration for the poem was taken from the character of Mariana in Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, who was locked in a moated grange (an estate with a moat around it) for years after her dowry was lost at sea in a storm, causing her to be rejected by her lover Angelo. However, the happily ever after ending found in Shakespeare’s play is not even hinted at in either Tennyson’s poem or the painting by Millais. Instead the young woman is totally enclosed and isolated by her surroundings, with even the garden visible outside the window bordered by a high brick wall. The visual imagery, with the dying leaves that are strewn throughout the composition, does not seem to suggest a happy ending for Millais’ heroine.
As is typical with the Pre-Raphaelites, Millais’ painting shows his mastery of the minute detail. The viewer can almost reach out and touch the softness of her velvet dress, and the jewels in her belt glitter against the dark blue fabric. The beautiful stained glass windows depicting an Annunciation scene were adapted from the windows in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford. Even the smallest details such as the small mouse that runs across the floor and the light of the lamp by the prie dieu in the corner are painted with the same attention to truth to nature found in the more prominent elements of the painting.
Mariana was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851. Although Millais and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite artists were not well received by the critics, the attacks were not as savage as Millais had endured the previous year over his Christ in the House of his Parents. In fact, the young but influential critic John Ruskin was persuaded to send two letters to The Times praising the new style for its skill in drawing, intense color and truthfulness to nature. This was a turning point, both for the future of the Pre-Raphaelites and for Millais, whose future association with Ruskin was to be so eventful.
In Mariana, Millais has created both an essay in Pre-Raphaelite execution and an evocative literary female portrait. The viewer feels the release of her aching muscles as she leans backward, however we are also palpably aware of her isolation. It is a work that is at once vibrant and colorful, but also cold and forbidding.
Excerpted from: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, “Sir John Everett Millais, Mariana,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed October 15, 2020, https://smarthistory.org/millais-mariana/.
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Audio recording of Ophelia segment:
Ophelia is considered to be one of the great masterpieces of the Pre-Raphaelite style. Combining his interest in Shakespearean subjects with intense attention to natural detail, Millais created a powerful and memorable image. His selection of the moment in the play Hamlet when Ophelia, driven mad by Hamlet’s murder of her father, drowns herself was very unusual for the time. However, it allowed Millais to show off both his technical skill and artistic vision.
The figure of Ophelia floats in the water, her mid section slowly beginning to sink. Clothed in an antique dress that the artist purchased specially for the painting, the viewer can clearly see the weight of the fabric as it floats, but also helps to pull her down. Her hands are in the pose of submission, accepting of her fate.
She is surrounded by a variety of summer flowers and other botanicals, some of which were explicitly described in Shakespeare’s text, while others are included for their symbolic meaning. For example, the ring of violets around Ophelia’s neck is a symbol of faithfulness, but can also refer to chastity and death.
Painted outdoors near Ewell in Surrey, Millais began the background of the painting in July of 1851. He reported that he got up everyday at 6 am, began work at 8, and did not return to his lodgings until 7 in the evening. He also recounted the problems of working outdoors in letters to his friend Mrs. Combe, later published in the biography of Millais by his son J.G. Millais.
“I sit tailor-fashion under an umbrella throwing a shadow scarcely larger than a halfpenny for eleven hours, with a child’s mug within reach to satisfy my thirst from the running stream beside me. I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay.”
His problems did not end when he returned to his studio in mid-October to paint the figure of Ophelia. His model was Elizabeth Siddal who the Pre-Raphaelite artists met through their friend Walter Howell Deverell, who had been impressed by her appearance and asked her to model for him.
When she met the Pre-Raphaelites Siddal was working in a hat shop, but she later became a painter and poet in her own right. She also become the wife and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Millais had Siddal floating in a bath of warm water kept hot with lamps under the tub. However, one day the lamps went out without being noticed by the engrossed Millais. Siddal caught cold, and her father threatened legal action for damages until Millais agreed to pay the doctor’s bills. (And the other PRB artists may have threatened to beat him up, or maybe they actually did. There’s a lot of folklore around this.)
Ophelia proved to be a more successful painting for Millais than some of his earlier works, such as Christ in the House of his Parents. It had already been purchased when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852. Critical opinion, under the influence of John Ruskin, was also beginning to swing in the direction of the PRB (the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood). The following year, Millais was elected to be an Associate of the Royal Academy, an event that Rossetti considered to be the end of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The execution of Ophelia shows the Pre-Raphaelite style at its best. Each reed swaying in the water, every leaf and flower are the product of direct and exacting observation of nature. As we watch the drowning woman slowly sink into the murky water, we experience the tinge of melancholy so common in Victorian art. It is in his ability to combine the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites with Victorian sensibilities that Millais excels. His depiction of Ophelia is as unforgettable as the character herself.
Excerpted and Adapted from: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, “Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/millais-ophelia/.
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William Holman Hunt
From William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Act III, scene 1 (a room in a prison):
ISABELLA What says my brother?
CLAUDIO Death is a fearful thing.
ISABELLA And shamed life a hateful.
CLAUDIO Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
ISABELLA Alas, alas!
William Holman Hunt’s Claudio and Isabella illustrates not only the Pre-Raphaelite fascination with William Shakespeare, but also the artist’s particular attraction to subjects dealing with issues of morality. Taken from the play Measure for Measure, which tells the story of Claudio, who has been sentenced to death by Lord Angelo (the temporary ruler of Vienna) for impregnating his fiancée.
Claudio’s sister Isabella, a nun, goes to Angelo to plead for clemency for her brother and is shocked that he suggests that she trade sex for her brother’s life. Of course, she refuses, and Claudio initially agrees with her decision, but later changes his mind. Hunt depicts the moment when the imprisoned Claudio suggests that Isabella sacrifice her virginity to gain his freedom.
It was the type of subject that appealed to Hunt, who liked themes to do with questions of guilt and sinful behavior, such as his well known painting The Awakening Conscience (1853).
Claudio’s face, which is partly in shadow, looks down and away from his sister. His slouching posture, the rich texture of his dark, yet colorful clothes and pointed medieval-looking shoes are a sharp contrast to the stark white of the nun’s habit, her upright posture and unwavering gaze. Sunlight from the prison window lights Isabella’s face and permits a glimpse of apple blossoms and a church in the distance.
Audio recording of Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood (con’t) segement:
The interior of the scene was painted at Lollard Prison at Lambeth Palace, and the crumbling masonry around the windows and the rusty metal of the shackle that bind Claudio’s leg detail the less than desirable conditions.
Hunt also painted the lute hanging in the window while at the prison. The lute with its red string is symbolic of lust, but the fact that it is placed in the sunshine rather than the gloom of the cell lessens the negative impact. The petals of apple blossom scattered on Claudio’s cloak on the floor, although not added until 1879, are intended to show that Claudio is willing to compromise his sister to save himself.
Claudio and Isabella was begun in 1850 after Hunt received a small advance from the painter Augustus Egg (who although he belonged to the art group The Clique, who were the sworn enemies of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was friends with Hunt). Poor reviews of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Royal Academy of 1850 had created financial difficulties for Hunt. He continued to work on the painting for the next several years, finally exhibiting the picture at the Royal Academy of 1853.
The painting appeared with a quotation from the play carved into the frame, a devise Hunt was to explore in many of his paintings, as a way of reinforcing his message. The short notation “Claudio: Death is a fearful thing. Isabella: And shamed life a hateful,” serves not only to point to the exact moment in the play, but also as a reminder of the underlying moral dilemma of the subject. The ability to bring to life these moments of ambiguity was one of Hunt’s greatest achievements.
Excerpted and adapted from: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, “William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/hunt-claudio-and-isabella/.
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William Holman Hunt’s painting, The Awakening Conscience, addresses the common Victorian narrative of the fallen woman. Trapped in a newly decorated interior, Hunt’s heroine at first appears to be a stereotype of the age, a young unmarried woman engaged in an illicit liaison with her lover. This is made clear by the fact that she is partially undressed in the presence of a clothed man and has rings on every finger except her wedding ring finger.
However, Hunt offers a new twist on this story. The young woman springs up from her lover’s lap. She is reminded of her country roots by the music the man plays (the sheet music to Thomas Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night sits on the piano), causing her to have an awakening prick of conscience.
The symbolism of the picture makes her situation as a kept woman clear—the enclosed interior, the cat playing with a bird under the chair, and the man’s one discarded glove on the floor all speak to the precarious position the woman has found herself in. However, as she stands up, a ray of light illuminates her from behind, almost like a halo, offering the viewer hope that she may yet find the strength to redeem herself.
The theme of the fallen woman was popular in Victorian art, echoing the prevalence of prostitution in Victorian society. Hunt’s redemptive message is unusual when compared to other examples of this theme. For example, Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast (1851), which shows a young unwed mother and her baby being cast out into the snow by her disgraced father, while the rest of her family pleads for mercy. Countless other paintings of the period emphasize the perils of stepping outside the bounds of acceptable morality with the typical conclusion to the story being that the woman is ostracized, and inevitably, suffers a premature death. By contrast, Hunt offers the viewer the hope that the young woman in his painting is truly repentant and can ultimately reclaim her life.
The Awakening Conscience is one of the few Pre-Raphaelite paintings to deal with a subject from contemporary life, but it still retains the truth to nature and attention to detail common to the style. The texture of the carpet, the reflection in the mirror behind the girl and the carvings of the furniture all speak to to Hunt’s unwavering belief that the artist should recreate the scene as closely as possible, and paint from direct observation. To do that, he hired a room in the neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. The picture was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1854, and unfortunately for Hunt, met with a mixed reception. While Ruskin praised the attention to detail, many critics disliked the subject of the painting and ignored the more positive spiritual message.
For Hunt, the moral of the story was an important element in any of his subjects. He was a deeply religious man and committed to the principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and John Ruskin. In fact, shortly after this painting was completed, Hunt embarked on a journey to the Holy Land, convinced that in order to paint religious subjects, he had to go to the actual source for inspiration. The fact that a trip to the Holy Land was a difficult, expensive and dangerous journey at the time was immaterial to him.
The Awakening Conscience is an unconventional approach to a common subject. Hunt’s work reflects the ideal of Christian charity espoused in theory by many Victorians, but not exactly put into practice when dealing with the issue of the fallen woman. While others emphasized the consequences of one’s actions as a way of discouraging inappropriate behavior, Hunt maintained that the truly repentant can change their lives.
Excerpted and Adapted from: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, “William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/hunt-the-awakening-conscience/.
All Smarthistory content is available for free at www.smarthistory.org
Audio recording of Rossetti segment:
Just one bite. Surely that can’t hurt. Or can it? It took less than one bite to destroy the mythological goddess Proserpine’s life. This tragic maiden was gathering flowers when she was abducted by Pluto, carried off to his underground palace in Hades – the land of the dead, and forced to marry him. Distraught, her mother Ceres pleaded for her return. The god Jupiter agreed, on condition that Proserpine had not tasted any of the fruits of Hades. But she had—a single pomegranate seed—and as punishment she was destined to remain captive for six months of each year for the rest of her life in her bleak underground prison.
The English painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti produced at least eight paintings of Proserpine trapped in her subterranean world, the fatal pomegranate in her hand. He also wrote a sonnet to accompany the painting, which is inscribed in Italian on the painting itself and in English on the frame, cited below. This is the seventh version of the painting. It was produced for the wealthy ship-owner and art collector Frederick Leyland from Liverpool and is now in the Tate collection, London. The original idea was to paint Eve holding the forbidden apple, a scene from Genesis; and in fact the two stories are almost directly comparable. Eve and Proserpine both represent females banished for their sin of tasting a forbidden fruit. Their yielding to temptation has often been seen as a sign of feminine weakness or lack of restraint.
At first glance the painting appears still, subdued—muted like the colour scheme. Proserpine is motionless, absorbed in thought, and the only sign of movement is the wisp of smoke furling from the incense burner, the attribute of the goddess. But look closely, and the painting appears to bristle with a tortuous, pent-up energy. It is full of peculiar twists and turns. Take Proserpine’s neck: it bulges unnaturally at the back, and looks as though it is slowly being screwed or twisted like rubber. Her hands too are set in an awkward grip. Try mimicking this yourself—it is difficult to hold this pose for long. This is a painting of almost tortured stillness: a body under strain.
This underlying unease is also apparent in the lines and creases of Proserpine’s dress. Notice how it does not form natural-looking folds. Instead it looks like the fabric is covered in clinging, creeping ridges that seem to slowly wind their way around the goddess, ensnaring and rooting her to the spot. These ridges could be compared to the tendril of ivy in the background, which appears to sprout directly from her head. Ivy is a plant with dark connotations—an invasive vine, it has a tendency to grip, cover and choke other plant-life. It is often associated with death, and is a common feature in graveyards. Rossetti wrote that the ivy in this painting symbolises ‘clinging memory.’ But what are these memories that cling so tightly?
As many have pointed out, this painting of Proserpine strikes a chord with Rossetti’s personal life. The writer Theodore Watts-Dunton, Rossetti’s close friend, wrote that “the public… Has determined to find in all Rossetti’s work the traces of a morbid melancholy… Because Proserpine’s expression is sad, it is assumed that the artist must have been suffering from a painful degree of mental depression while producing it.” Rossetti had, in fact, suffered a nervous breakdown just two years before he produced this painting. He suffered from acute paranoia, and was becoming increasingly reliant on alcohol and chloral for relief. There are doubtless many reasons for this, one of which was the death—or perhaps suicide—of his wife Lizzie Siddal in 1862, of a laudanum overdose. Rossetti and Lizzie’s relationship had been fraught and unstable. He was haunted by memories of her for the rest of his life.
But the plot thickens. When he painted Proserpine, Rossetti was entangled in a complicated love triangle. He was completely infatuated with the model for this painting, Jane Morris, easily recognizable by her thick raven hair, striking features and slender, elongated figure—though here they have been molded into the typical Rossettian type. Rossetti called her a “stunner.” The problem was that this stunner happened to be the wife of his good friend William Morris. When this was painted, the three were living together at Kelmscott Manor (Oxfordshire). Morris appeared either to tolerate or ignore the intimacy that cleaved Rossetti and his beloved Jane together. Many have noted the similarity between Proserpine and Jane’s personal predicaments: both were young women trapped in unhappy marriages, longing for freedom. But perhaps it is also a meditation on Rossetti’s own situation. Unable to contain his feelings for Jane, he had given in to temptation and for this was destined to live part of his life in secrecy and withdrawal. Rossetti himself had tasted the fatal fruit and was living with the consequences.
In this painting, a clear correspondence is set up between Proserpine’s improbably large lips and the pomegranate in her hand. While the rest of the painting has been completed in cool, sometimes murky colors—Rossetti called it a “study of greys” —the lips and pomegranate are vivid and intense, painted in warm orange and red tones. It is significant that these features—the mouth and the fruit—have strong associations with the pleasures of taste. It is as though Rossetti is presenting both as objects ripe for consumption, tempting the viewer to take a taste. This is not as improbable as it first sounds: one of Rossetti’s earlier paintings, Bocca Baciata, which also shows a single female figure with a fruit (an apple in this case) was considered capable of stirring an erotic, physical response in viewers. The artist Arthur Hughes, a contemporary of Rossetti’s, said that the owner of this painting would probably try to ‘kiss the dear thing’s lips away.’ In fact, the title of the painting itself translates as “the mouth that has been kissed.”
Audio recording of Rossetti (con’t) segment:
This sensual, carnal side of Rossetti’s work caused controversy during his lifetime—for a Victorian artist, he was venturing into dangerous territory. Even today some find his sexualized vision of feminine beauty difficult to stomach. Rossetti argued however that work was not just a study of the sensual in life. He insisted that his art was an attempt to synthesize the sensual and the spiritual. His fried Theodore Watts-Dunton defended this in an article “The Truth about Rossetti.” To Rossetti he wrote, “the human body, like everything in nature, was rich in symbol… To him the mouth really represented the sensuous part of the face no less certainly than the eyes represented the spiritualized part.” adding that if the lips of Rossetti’s women appear overly full and sensual, this is always counter-balanced by the spiritual depth invested in their eyes. It is true that in this painting there does appear to be a haunting melancholy in Proserpine’s eyes, but whether Rossetti fully achieves this synthesis of the sensual with the spiritual is still up for debate.
Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
Unto this wall, – one instant and no more
Admitted at my distant palace-door.
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.
Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
That chills me: and afar, how far away,
The nights that shall be from the days that were.
Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
(Whose sounds mine inner sense is fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring,) –
“Woe’s me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!”
—Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Proserpina (For a Picture)”(1880)
Beata Beatrix is one of many portraits of beautiful women painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the last two decades of his life. During this time, Rossetti created many pictures of his favorite models luxuriously dressed in Renaissance-looking costumes and jewelry, often without the story or content associated with his earlier paintings, such as Ecce Ancilla Domini. Beata Beatrix is unique, however, due to the intensely personal symbolism and atmospheric quality of the sitter and her surroundings.
Beata Beatrix is a portrait of Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal, an important model in the early years of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Siddal was working in a hat shop when she met the artist Walter Howell Deverell. Hiring her as a model for a painting he was working on he was taken with her lovely face and beautiful red hair. Deverell invited all his friends to come and see his new “stunner.” Others in the Brotherhood were also enthusiastic, and Siddal became a favorite model in many now famous early Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including Millais’s Ophelia.
Rossetti and Siddal soon became a couple, spending the next decade in a tempestuous relationship. It was during this period that Siddal developed into an artist in her own right. By the time of their marriage in 1860, however, Siddal was in ill health and had to be carried to church. After a miscarriage, Siddal became depressed and, at some point, addicted to laudanum.
In February 1862 Rossetti returned home from a dinner to find his wife dead. Although her death was declared accidental by the coroner, Rossetti was distraught, and in a grand romantic gesture, placed his only copy of some recently written poems in Siddal’s coffin, nestled in her red hair. Several years later, however, Rossetti had her body exhumed and his poems retrieved by his friend and agent, Charles Howell, who reported that Siddal’s hair was still beautiful and red and had continued growing until it filled the coffin. (Would it ruin the tragic romance of this story to interject with the fact that he wanted those poems so he could give them to his new lover – the wife of another man – Janey Morris? Yeah. Okay, we’ll move on then.)
Beata Beatrix is filled with symbolism. Rossetti identified with the Italian poet Dante Alighieri and the title is reminiscent of Dante’s account of his own love, Beatrice. Behind Siddal are the figures of Dante and Love, with the Florentine landmark the Ponte Vecchio in the distance. The figure of Siddal, which was done from sketches completed before her death, looks towards heaven with her eyes closed. The cardinal, a messenger of death, swoops in and drops a poppy, symbolic of Siddal’s laudanum addiction, into her upturned hands. The fuzzy, atmospheric quality of the painting creates a dream-like intensity about the subject, and differs greatly from the crisp details found in many of Rossetti’s other famous pictures of beautiful women from this period, such as Monna Vanna.
After the death of his wife, Rossetti’s own health began to decline. He experienced depression, became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and in 1872 suffered a mental breakdown. He also became increasingly paranoid and even destroyed a section of the manuscript journal kept by his brother William Michael Rossetti during the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The missing section included the period when Elizabeth Siddal was first introduced to the members of the Brotherhood.
In her final appearance as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, Siddal is immortalized as a tragic and romantic heroine. The soft dream-like setting and tragic beauty of the central figure give Beata Beatrix an otherworldly quality, evoking an air of melancholy and loss that everyone can relate to, and making it, justifiably, one of Rossetti’s most famous pictures.
Excerpted and Adapted from: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix,” in Smarthistory, March 31, 2016, accessed October 14, 2020, https://smarthistory.org/rossetti-beata-beatrix/.
John William Waterhouse
Audio recording of Waterhouse segment:
In many ways, Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, painted in 1888, transports viewers back forty years—to 1848, when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was formed. Indeed, one commenter from Art Journal noted, “The type he [Waterhouse] chose for the spell-controlled lady, her action, and the garments in which he has arrayed her, bring his work into kinship with that of the “Pre-Raphaelites” of the middle of the century.” The subject of a vulnerable young red-haired woman in white gown, adrift in a riverine setting, is reminiscent of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia of 1852. Millais, one of the founding members of the PRB, had a much-acclaimed retrospective at London’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1886, which Waterhouse attended.
Waterhouse’s chosen subject, the Lady of Shalott, comes from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Arthurian poem of the same name (he actually wrote two versions, one in 1833, the other in 1842). Tennyson was a favorite among the Pre-Raphaelites. In the poems, the Lady of Shalott lives isolated in a castle upon a river that flows to Camelot. Because of a curse, she is fated to spend her days weaving images of the world onto her loom, but on pain of death, she is forbidden from looking out her window. Instead, she has to look at images of the outside world as reflected in a mirror. One day she sees a reflection of the knight Lancelot and is instantly smitten, so she breaks her prohibition and looks directly at him through the window. Desiring to meet him, she leaves her castle and rides a boat down to Camelot. The horrible conditions of the curse set in, and she dies before reaching the shore.
The Lady of Shalott was a prominent subject in the Pre-Raphaelite repertoire, the most notable example being William Holman Hunt’s illustration for an edition of Tennyson’s works published in 1857 by Moxon, which the artist reworked into a painting in the 1880s. Whereas Hunt highlights the moment of transgression, right after the Lady looks at Lancelot through the window, Waterhouse shows her on the boat to Camelot, her death foreshadowed by the lone candle that remains lit on the prow.
Nonetheless, as the Art Journal commenter went on to observe, there is a significant difference between Waterhouse’s work and that of the original PRB, specifically, in the technique: “[T]he almost impressionary delicacy of the rendering of willows weeds, and water is such as claims harmony with French work rather than what was so intensely English.” The early works of the PRB showed an extreme attention to detail, reflecting John Ruskin’s principle of “truth to nature,” which advocated a faithful transcription of landscapes and objects. But Waterhouse’s technique is notably looser, revealing his experimentation with French Impressionism. Impressionism offered a different conception of “truth to nature,” one that was based more in optical truth, that is, how an object or scene appears to the eye in a fleeting moment, given the time of day and atmospheric conditions.
We can see the difference if we compare the reeds of Millais’s Ophelia with that of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, positioned in analogous parts of the composition. Whereas Millais’s reeds maintain their physical integrity and rich detail when viewed up close, Waterhouse’s reeds lose some of their convincing illusionism and dissolve into obvious brushstrokes (even more apparent when you see the paintings in person!). The Lady’s tapestry, which drapes over the boat, seems to further highlight the difference between Waterhouse and the PRB. Whereas the early PRB were inspired by the bright jewel tones and minute details of medieval illustrated manuscripts and tapestries, Waterhouse took his inspiration from the en plein air (open air) methods of the Impressionists, replacing jewel tones for the atmospheric silvers and greens of a cool English day. Like the Lady herself, Waterhouse turns away from an art of the cloistered life and towards an art that engages with optical effects.
Although the original PRB openly declared their allegiance to continental “Old Masters” such as Jan Van Eyck and the early Raphael, by the end of the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelitism was cast as a specifically English phenomenon. As such, it was regularly pitted against the Impressionist trend, which solidified into a movement in Britain with the founding of the New English Art Club (NEAC) in 1886. Many figures in the art world were worried about the “Frenchification” of British artists. Marion Spielmann, editor of the Magazine of Art, noted with consternation at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1888: “that they [younger painters] are most of them imbued with the French spirit . . . is a fact that the Royal Academy cannot afford to overlook.” He then addresses the Council: “the future of the English ‘School’ is in their hands, and upon them devolves the responsibility of moulding it to the proper form.”
Spielmann also noted the “French flatness” of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott. However, the painting’s debts to early Pre-Raphaelitism and that most “English” of poets, Tennyson, remained undeniable. The setting, moreover, suggested a thoroughly English landscape, evoking not only the Surrey of Millais’s Ophelia, but also bearing resemblance to the sort of marshy, reedy scenery that could be seen in Peter Henry Emerson’s photographs of English landscapes, as in this image, “Ricking the Reed,” from his album, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1886). Despite initial remarks as to the “Frenchness” of its technique, The Lady of Shalott was ultimately accepted by the establishment as an “English” painting, and was acquired by Henry Tate for his museum of national art, where it still enjoys pride of place today as one of their most popular works.
Adapted from: Dr. Chloe Portugeis, “John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/waterhouse-the-lady-of-shalott/.
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The Aesthetic Movement
Audio recording of The Aesthetic Movement segment:
The Aesthetic Movement, also known as “art for art’s sake,” permeated British culture during the latter part of the 19th century, as well as spreading to other countries such as the United States. Based on the idea that beauty was the most important element in life, writers, artists and designers sought to create works that were admired simply for their beauty rather than any narrative or moral function. This was, of course, a slap in the face to the tradition of art, which held that art needed to teach a lesson or provide a morally uplifting message. The movement blossomed into a cult devoted to the creation of beauty in all avenues of life from art and literature, to home decorating, to fashion, and embracing a new simplicity of style.In literature, aestheticism was championed by Oscar Wilde and the poet Algernon Swinburne. Skepticism about their ideas can be seen in the vast amount of satirical material related to the two authors that appeared during the time. Gilbert and Sullivan, masters of the comic operetta, unfavorably critiqued aesthetic sensibilities in Patience (1881). The magazine Punch was filled with cartoons depicting languishing young men and swooning maidens wearing aesthetic clothing. One of the most famous of these, The Six-Mark Tea-Pot by George Du Maurier published in 1880, was supposedly based on a comment made by Wilde. In it, a young couple dressed in the height of aesthetic fashion and standing in an interior filled with items popularized by the Aesthetes—an Asian screen, peacock feathers, and oriental blue and white porcelain—comically vow to “live up” to their latest acquisition.In the visual arts, the concept of art for art’s sake was widely influential. Many of the later paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, such as Monna Vanna (above), are simply portraits of beautiful women that are pleasing to the eye, rather than related to some literary story as in earlier Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
A similar approach can be seen in much of the work of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, whose The Golden Stairs (1880) captures the aesthetic mood in its presentation of a long line of beautiful women walking down a staircase, devoid of any specific narrative content. The designer William Morris, another disciple of Rossetti, created beautiful designs for household textiles, wallpaper, and furniture to surround his clients with beauty.
Most famous of the aesthetic artists was the American James Abbott McNeill Whistler. His early painting Symphony in White #1: The White Girl caused a sensation when it was exhibited after being rejected from both the Salon in Paris (the official annual exhibition) and the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The simplistic representation of a woman in a white dress, standing in front of a white curtain was too unique for Victorian audiences, who tried desperately to connect the painting to some literary source—a connection Whistler himself always denied. The artist went on to create a series of paintings, the titles of which generally have some musical connection, which were simply intended to create a sense of mood and beauty. The most infamous of these, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875), appeared in an exhibition at London’s Grovesnor Gallery, a venue for avant garde art, in 1877 and provoked the famous accusation from the critic John Ruskin that the artist was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
The ensuing libel trial between Whistler and Ruskin in 1878 was really a referendum on the question of whether or not art required more substance than just beauty. Finding in favor of Whistler, the jury upheld the basic principles of the Aesthetic Movement, but ultimately caused the artist’s bankruptcy by awarding him only one farthing in damages. In The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a collection of essays published in 1890, Whistler himself pointed out the biggest problem for the aesthetic artist was that “the vast majority of English folk cannot and will not consider a picture as a picture, apart from any story which it may be supposed to tell.”
The Aesthetic Movement provided a challenge to the Victorian public when it declared that art was divorced from any moral or narrative content. In an era when art was supposed to tell a story, the idea that a simple expression of mood or something merely beautiful to look at could be considered a work of art was a radical idea. However, in its assertion that a work of art can be divorced from narrative, the ideas of the Aesthetic Movement are an important stepping-stone in the road towards Modern Art.
Excerpted from: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, “The Aesthetic Movement,” in Smarthistory, June 3, 2016, https://smarthistory.org/the-aesthetic-movement/.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Audio recording of Whistler segment:
Whistler was about so much more than just his mother.
The woman in white stands facing us, her long hair loose, framing her face. Her expression is blank, her surroundings indistinct; posed before some sort of pallid curtain, she appears almost as an immobile prop on a stage.
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl epitomizes James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s departure from the established norms of the era, and was perhaps his most reviled work. When he submitted it to the 1863 Paris Salon, the jury rejected the painting and the artist instead showed The White Girl at Napoleon III’s exhibition of snubbed artwork, the Salon des Refusés. Though it certainly defied many time-honored artistic conventions and earned much derision from critics, The White Girl does show some echoes of older standards. After all, its creator had studied under Marc-Charles Gabriel Gleyre in Paris, learning to paint in the academic manner – thus it is unsurprising that in the representation of his mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, Whistler opts for the customary full-scale society portrait format, and reproduces her features in a seemingly realistic and honest fashion.
The ways in which Whistler follows his own rules, however, far outnumber the few examples of accord, and they include the painting’s flattened and abstracted forms, distorted perspective, limited color palette, and penchant for decorative patterning. Though an intimate portrait, The White Girl is contrived and reveals no overarching mood or the personality of its sitter. While many of Whistler’s stylistic innovations are unique to the artist, he associated himself with other artists – such as Édouard Manet and Gustave Courbet, who also defied the traditions of academicism. The influence of Théophile Gautier is also apparent; in the 1830s, Gautier stated that art need not contain any moral message or describe any narrative, as art making is an end in and of itself – Whistler accepted this credo, “art for art’s sake,” wholeheartedly. In this light, The White Girl is less a faithful portrait painting and more an experimentation in color, pattern, and texture.
Whistler produced many portraits of similar format in the next decades, and continued to fine-tune his style and technique. In paintings such as Harmony in Gray and Green: Cecily Alexander (1872-74) and Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black: Portrait of Théodore Duret (1883), the artist exercised his need to balance the realist components of a picture with its more abstract needs, cherry-picking elements from the real world and reorganizing them in controlled, harmonious ways. Often these images feature a subdued palette, a lack of depth, unresolved backdrops, and irrational props that serve only as accents. His figures typically stand upon an unthinkably flat floor, appearing almost to hover like specters. As for Whistler’s signature, it evolved to take the form of a butterfly, applied to the surface in the manner of a mere decorative element.
Despite the controversy stirred when he entered the scene, Whistler won many wealthy and prestigious patrons over his career, and his portraits stand as testaments to growing interest in the radical new avant-garde approach to painting.
Adapted from: Meg Floryan, “Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/whistler-symphony-in-white/.
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One might say that for some artworks, seeing beyond the artist’s intention to form a more indefinite, personal interpretation is, ironically, the creator’s ultimate objective after all. Much like Alice stepping tentatively through the two-dimensional plane of the looking glass into the possibilities beyond, the viewer is invited to deduce his own meaning, to form his own associations, thus essentially taking part in the creative process itself. While ambiguity is standard in the conceptual contemporary pieces of today, what mattered most in early American art was what could be read on the surface: narrative clarity, illusionistic detail, realism, and straightforward moral instruction. When did things change? Perhaps, it seems, around the time avant-garde artists began to pursue abstraction, flirt with modernism, and challenge the aesthetic standards of the past.
Consider Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket of 1875. In the mass of shadowy dark hues, vague wandering figures, and splashes of brilliant color, museum-goers might construe myriad meanings from the same scene: perhaps sparks from a blazing campfire, flickering Japanese lanterns, or visions of far-off galaxies mystically appearing on a clear summer night. Indeed, while the Massachusetts-born artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was inspired by a specific event (a fireworks display over London’s Cremorne Gardens) the intangibility, both in appearance and theme, of the oil on panel was deliberate. The questions it conjures, the emotions it evokes, may differ from one viewer to another, and frankly, that’s the point.
The Falling Rocket resonates with many 21st-century beholders, yet when it was first exhibited at a London gallery in 1877, detractors deemed the painting too slapdash, incomprehensible, even insulting. Art critic John Ruskin dismissed Whistler’s effort as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face,” as in his opinion it contained no social value. In response, Whistler – cheeky man that he was – sued Ruskin for libel, and though he won the case in court, he was awarded only a farthing in damages. During the highly publicized trial, the artist defended his series of atmospheric “nocturnes” as artistic arrangements whose worth lay not in any imitative aspects but in their basis in transcendent ideals of harmony and beauty.
Whistler saw his paintings as musical compositions illustrated visually, and delineated this idea is his famed “Ten O’Clock” lecture of 1885:
Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose… that the result may be beautiful – as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.
Audio recording of Whistler (con’t) segment:
Many of his titles incorporate allusions to music: “nocturnes,” “symphonies,” “arrangements,” and “harmonies.” The immaterial, the spiritual – these principles are subtly interwoven throughout Whistler’s oeuvre, and he preached his ideas on the new religion of art throughout his career. Even Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother isn’t really about his mother at all but about compositions and combinations. Whistler’s Mother: Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1 uses his mom like a prop, not unlike the girl in his Symphony in White.
Adapted from: Meg Floryan, “Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/whistler-nocturne-in-black-and-gold-the-falling-rocket/.
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John Singer Sargent
El Jaleo is housed within the quirky Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a Gilded Age art collection that serves as a window into the eponymous collector’s life and unique aesthetic taste. In order to view the painting, you must pass by the sunlit faux-Venetian courtyard and into the shadows of the first floor’s Spanish Cloister. Here El Jaleo hangs at the end of a long hallway, its immense size (over 7 by 11½ feet) almost fully covering the far wall of a dark niche. Its mildly claustrophobic and somewhat out-of-the-way physical location lends the striking oil on canvas one of the most intimate settings for a work of art on display in an American museum.
The scene portrayed is a dynamic one: a group of musicians provides the rhythm for a lone flamenco dancer who performs for an audience of clapping listeners. It is a snapshot of a specific point in time: the apex of the dance, a moment rife with energy and sensual drama. The footlights cast haunting silhouettes on the rear wall; the raw passion of the dance is palpable. The stark contrasts between murky shadow and dazzling illumination allow the painting to visually pop – a phrase that is often used in describing art but rarely so aptly. Due to the loose, frothy brushstrokes, there isn’t the sense of a true illusionary space, yet the light (and hence the vitality) of the scene seems to emanate outward from within the work, as though El Jaleo commands a life of its own.
El Jaleo’s precocious artist, John Singer Sargent, painted the artwork in 1882 at the young age of 26. Both the painting and its creator are evocative of the times, reflective of the nineteenth-century American fascination with, and inherent dependence upon, foreign cultures for both technical training and artistic inspiration.
Though labeled an American artist, Sargent was actually born in Florence to a Philadelphia family and traveled throughout his youth and career. In the late 1800s this type of background became the rule rather than the exception, with expatriate Americans taking advantage of the more accessible education opportunities abroad. Beyond the official state écoles (schools), private Parisian ateliers (studios) led by renowned artists offered instruction to admitted American students; Sargent studied under one such teacher, Charles Émile Auguste Durand, aka Carolus-Duran. The competitive annual salons (exhibitions) were another draw for foreign-born artists and these venues could win a painting great critical acclaim, as did the Paris Salon of 1882 for El Jaleo.
Excerpted from: Meg Floryan, “John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/sargent-el-jaleo/.
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Madame X is perhaps Sargent’s most infamous painting. When it debuted at the Paris Salon of 1884, critics lashed out at the artist for what they deemed a scandalous, immoral image. While the title omitted the sitter’s name, the public immediately recognized her as the notorious Parisian beauty Virginie Gautreau. The gown’s plunging neckline was considered too provocative for the times, and its right strap – which originally was shown to have slipped off the shoulder – ultimately led to Sargent repainting it in its proper position to appease outraged viewers and Gautreau’s own family.
Madame X mixes the Gilded Age penchant for portraying status and wealth in portraiture with a daring seductive aesthetic. For all that it shocked onlookers, however, much of its details were based in older classical traditions: Madame Gautreau’s hairstyle is based on one of ancient Greece, and she wears a diamond crescent that is the symbol of the huntress Diana.
John Singer Sargent intended the portrait to establish his reputation, and despite the notoriety it attracted, the work did succeed: Madame X advertized his ability to paint his sitters in the most flattering and fashionable manner possible, and led to a healthy career in Britain and great esteem in America from the late 1880s onward. Though he was born oversees, traveled worldwide, and spent much of his life abroad, Sargent’s career truly matured in his family’s native land, and he always considered himself an American artist. He toiled for nearly three decades on a mural commission for the Boston Public Library, he frequently painted fellow American expatriates, and in 1906 he was appointed full academician of the National Academy of Design in New York.
In 1916 the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought Madame X, which Sargent considered “the best thing I have done.” The painting—which debuted to severe disparagement but is today treasured as a masterpiece beloved in the history of Western art—is but one example of an artwork that gradually evolved from epitomizing the condemned to the celebrated. Much of a work’s initial reception is based upon society’s tastes, standards of etiquette, and values of the era, and as these attitudes shift over the decades, the public may begin to look at older paintings with new eyes. Sargent’s Madame X is perhaps a more dramatic example of this trend, yet it poses intriguing questions about what really defines an artwork’s popularity, legacy, and fame.
Excerpted and Adapted from: Meg Floryan, “John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau),” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/sargent-madame-x-madame-pierre-gautreau/.
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Audio recording of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose segment:
Shepherds tell me have you seen,
Have you seen my Flora pass this way?
A wreath around her head, around her head she wore,
Carnation, lily, lily, rose,…
The chorus of a popular song by composer Joseph Mazzinghi was the inspiration for the title of John Singer Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. In Sargent’s hands, however, the pastoral images of the song have been banished, replaced by an evocative twilight scene of children, flowers, and Chinese lanterns. The muted light and colors, unusual angles, and the lack of narrative content combine to create a beautifully rendered moment, capturing the fleeting atmosphere of dusk and the innocence of childhood.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was painted in the English village of Broadway. The artist had moved to London after leaving France due to the scandal caused by his painting Madame X, which was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1884. Sargent’s striking female portrait was the subject of enormous controversy due to the plunging neckline of her dress and the fact that originally one strap had been hanging off her shoulder (this was later repainted firmly in its correct place). Although the sitter, Virginie Gautreau, a fellow expatriate American who had married a French banker, was not explicitly identified, audiences recognized the likeness as well as her habit of using lavender dusting powder. Rumors of Gautreau’s infidelities were rampant, so the risqué portrait added fuel to the fire, for both artist and sitter.
For several years after his move to England, Sargent spent his summers in Broadway, a picturesque village in the Cotswolds, which was also the site of a thriving artist’s colony in the late 19th century. Both English and American artists and writers congregated there, and Sargent joined an expatriate community including such notables as Frank Millet, Edwin Austin Abbey and the writer Henry James. According to James in an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1889, “Broadway and much of the land about it are in short the perfection of the old English rural tradition,” and here Sargent found both acceptance and inspiration for his work.
Sargent got the idea for the painting in August of 1885 after seeing a group of children among flowers and Chinese lanterns hung among trees in the village of Pangbourne in Berkshire. He spent more than a year trying to bring his vision to fruition. In letters, he pointed out that he was hindered from completing the painting in September because it was the end of the flowering season. Taking no chances, when he returned to Broadway to finish the painting in the summer of 1886, he had a friend grow lilies in pots to extend his available time for working on the painting.
In addition to the problem of maintaining blossoms, Sargent was plagued by other issues. His original intent for the composition was to use one younger child, but he was eventually forced to select little girls who were a bit older and able to pose as required. White dresses for the girls were specially designed. Most importantly, the painting was completed “en plein air” to get the correct effect of light, but given the fleeting nature of light at dusk, he could only paint for a few minutes each day.
However, the effort that went into Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose proved worthwhile. The painting was well received by both audiences and critics when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887 and was immediately purchased for the British nation by the Chantrey Bequest, a fund established by sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey to acquire works of art made in England. The subtle effects of light illuminating the faces of the little girls, the subtly sketchy brushwork, the unusual angle looking down at the children (taken from the influence of Japanese prints), and the attention to capturing the momentary changes of twilight all speak to Sargent’s modernity.
Sargent’s painting is a combination of several radical ideas found in the art of the end of the 19th century. Like Impressionism, it captures a distinct moment. In an instant, the children could move, or the light change and the spell would be broken. It is worth pointing out that Sargent was friends with Claude Monet and had in fact been invited to exhibit with the Impressionist group, an honor he declined. The picture is also firmly associated with the Aesthetic Movement, with its insistence on beautiful subjects and a lack of narrative content. Like the song that inspired its title, the painting reminds the viewer of a simpler time, creating a quietly beautiful snapshot of a bygone era.
Excerpted and Adapted from: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, “John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” in Smarthistory, September 15, 2020, https://smarthistory.org/john-singer-sargent-carnation-lily-lily-rose/.
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- If the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were looking to explore and celebrate the female forms that were not considered beautiful by Victorian society in a beautiful way, what celebrities, musicians, actors, etc. of the 21st century are doing the same thing and how are they doing it?
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Singing Game (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 379–82. ↵
- Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold, “London: A Pilgrimage,” Harper's Weekly (London) Nov 9, 1872. https://books.google.ca/books?id=CsoIN5hjA_cC&pg=PA886&dq=%22On+our+way+to+the+City+on+the+tide+of+Labor%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjC64CX4bTsAhXHpZ4KHRcIDfgQ6AEwAHoECAEQAg#v=onepage&q=%22On%20our%20way%20to%20the%20City%20on%20the%20tide%20of%20Labor%22&f=false ↵
- Claude Phillips, “The Royal Academy,” The Academy 679 (9 May 1885), p.336. ↵
- Roger Fry Reader, “The Case of the Late Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M.” (reprinted from The Nation, 18 January 1913, 666-67) p.149. ↵
- Annabelle Rutherford, "A Dramatic Reading of Augustus Leopold Egg’s Untitled Triptych," Tate Papers, no. 7 (2007). https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/07/a-dramatic-reading-of-augustus-leopold-egg-untitled-triptych ↵
- Rutherford, "Dramatic", https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/07/a-dramatic-reading-of-augustus-leopold-egg-untitled-triptych ↵
- Emma Jameson, "Some Fun Facts about Victorian England," Official Site of Emma Jameson, New York Times Best Selling Author, January 21, 2012, https://emmajamesondotcom.wordpress.com/category/facts-victorian/ ↵
- Mark Sandy, The Persistence of Beauty: Victorians to Moderns, (Abingdon-on-Thames, England: Routledge, 2015), 38. ↵
- Alexander Walker, Beauty: Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Women, (New York : J. & H.G. Langley, 1840), 246-247. ↵
- Jameson, "Fun Facts," https://emmajamesondotcom.wordpress.com/category/facts-victorian/ ↵