With their stunning, powerful, and beautiful images, it is hard not to become drawn into the world of the Pre-Raphaelites. It was Waterhouse who was one of the first to introduce me into this delightful world, and I have been fascinated ever since, and urged on to pursue the subject and delve into their fantasies. While I ponder over their extraordinary works of art there is one question which has echoed in my mind and peeked my intrigue, and thus causes me to explore the depths of it. At a glance the question may produce on instant and obvious answer, the evidence at first appearing to be blatantly before you, but when looking beyond the surface, deeper than the outer beauty, prodding into the symbolism, and peeling back the layers the question might become gradually more complex and murky. Now before I reveal this tantalizing question, which has haunted me throughout their paintings, I will take a brief moment to introduce just who the Pre-Raphaelites are.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as it was so called (though there were in fact some women also involved in the “brotherhood” women painters influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite ideals, and women who played an important if lesser known role within the brotherhood) was first established in 1848 and was like many art movements, a reaction against the former current brand of art at the day. This group of revolutionary artists were tired of what they saw as the “formula driven art” commonly produced. They wished to return back to what they viewed as being more genuine art that was based in realism, nature, and truth. The Brotherhood was founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, but there is a long list of other artists who became a part of the movement.
The meaning behind their name Pre-Raphaelite:
To quote John Ruskin (Victorian art critic among many other things) the current approach to art was as follows:
“We begin by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet original manner: that is to say, he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules, is to have a principal light occupying one seventh of its space, and a principal shadow occupying one third of the same; that no two people’s heads in the picture are to be turned the same way, and that all the personages represented are to have ideal beauty of the highest order…”
The Pre-Raphaelites were a reaction against this very way of thinking, this Raphael worship in art, and so they coined their name. It was their idea, that nature should not be idealized but painted as it truly is, and that all human figures should be painted from a human model and they should be painted as they appeared in their true and real form and figure. Everything should be painted as it appears to the eye, and not rearranged or altered according to any artistic standard.
While one could go on for several pages discussing the nature of the Pre-Raphaelites, I think this was enough to give you the general idea of who they were and thus allow me to proceed as I am sure you are waiting in anticipation to the question which has so gripped me into exploring.
That question being, are the Pre-Raphaelites in their artwork, truly showing reverence, respect, admiration, and worship of women? Or in fact are their paintings yet another way to reinforce Victorian ideals and stereotypes regarding women and reflect their own apprehensions and fears about women and the idea of women independence and power?
To see one of their paintings one might at first think it obvious the positive light in which women are portrayed. For one thing women are the primary focus of almost any Pre-Raphaelite painting, and they are larger than life women who take center stage, and immediately draw the eye in. Women portrayed in bold bright colors, women of power and independent, beautiful women who stand tall and proud in complete confidence of themselves. They are women of the likes of Morgan Le fay, Belle Dame Sans Merci, Queen Guinevere, Lady Shallot, and so froth. They were mythical women, Greek Nymphs, Sirens, Elemental sprits, Egyptian Priestesses, and Magical women, sorceresses, witches, enchantress. Women portrayed in unashamed sensual nudity.
One might at first think the answer to the question posed is a resounding Yes! For how could such women, how could one who portrays women in such a way, do so without the greatest worship, respect, and reverence, how could anyone looking upon a Pre-Raphaelite painting think that it could have been created with anything other than the greatest of admiration? As well one might be tempted by the fact that they are creations of men who must surely be more Enlightened, more radical, and liberal considering their role as revolutionary artists, and they did work with independent women within their community. The sister of one of the founders of The Brotherhood, Christina Rossetti was a poet and of some renown.
So how than could such images created by such men be brought to doubt and question in considering their intentions and true meaning in regards to these women? To explore this possibility we must now look beyond the surface and delve into the symbolism that is presented to us within these paintings. In considering these women, what do they truly represent within the Victorian Era?
We shall have to resist the temptation now to view these paintings from a modern eye, and from the feminist eye, and look at them through the principles of the age in which they were created, uncover some of the complications of the society in which their creators lived to try and come close to the truth, though it may now never be fully grasped.
While I have mentioned some of the powerful female figures which present themselves in Pre-Raphaelite paintings there are two basic types of women who can be found present within the art work of The Brotherhood.
There are the bold, daring, independent, powerful and sometimes even dangerous women whom are often usually unnatural in someway, possessing of some magic quality or drown from mythology and then there are the women who present themselves in the form of the proper Victorian lady. Prim, proper, demure, shy, and chaste maidens. These women are those who are often being courted by some gallant brave knight, but she cannot bring herself to meet his eye. She knows to show embarrassment and dignity and turns her face away when her love attempts to kiss her and pays her compliment.
This very black and white, and dual way of viewing women is often referred to “the virgin and the whore” and it is something which sprang out of a period in which society was unable to view woman in other way than fitting into one of these roles, it is also a concept that dates all the way back to the Bible with the Virgin Marry and Mary Magdalene, and is present throughout many literary sources and artistic images.
But of course there was a gray area as the members of The Brotherhood knew quite well, for they lived in that space between the virgin and the whore if you will. Their views and ideas about women would be challenged and confused, in a society which on the outside had such a rigid morality, while beneath also had a dark underbelly. They were left to struggle with their anxieties as well as their sexuality in relation to women. Not only where they in close contact with women who went against the grain. Strong, intellectual, intelligent, well educated women who worked as artists, poets, writers, and challenged their “proper” place in society, but there was also their own personal exploits to consider. The members of The Brotherhood were lovers, and affairs between artist and model were not uncommon occurrences.
In considering the values of the society and the tug-a-war between different worlds in which the Pre-Raphaelites often found themselves we will give a deeper evaluation of their works to try and uncover a fuller meaning of just where women truly fit in, and what might be revealed of their true thoughts upon the subject of women. Perhaps these spectacular works of art are their own way of trying to make sense of their confused thoughts, and trying to seek that middle ground, like the era itself, and their lives, there is nothing simple in their paintings.
Now to take a closer look at some of the types of images previously mentioned. As stated above, many of the figures of strong, powerful, and independent women that appear within these paintings seem to have some quality about them which is not quite human, or unnatural in someway. These are women that are not fully of our world. Their physical attributes seem to reflect their nature, for they are acting in a way that was not seen at the time as “natural” for women to act. They are thus cast outside of the norms of accepted society.
To further explore this idea and the meaning which lies behind it, we will examine some specific paintings and explore the symbolism behind them.
This is one of the most well known images of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee. Let us look at some of the most interesting elements of it. First the interesting status of the woman being placed “above” the man by having her upon the horse, and he upon foot below her. This places her in a position of dominance over him. The horse itself is portrayed as a rather powerful animal but with its bowed head, it can be seen what full command she has of him. Most notably though is her bold direct state into the man’s eye. She is being quite forward, and her free unbound hair falling wildly about her. In examining the posture of the male, we can see that he is taken aback by her, startled at her bold actions, and perhaps even apprehensive. Though transfixed by her gaze, he does not appear to be completely receptive. Also interesting, the position of his arms, almost Christ like suggesting a sort of martyrdom in the face of this temptress. In spite of his armor and his sword, he is rendered helpless before this woman.
Another interesting one worth a look The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones
The title in itself with the use of the word beguiling is suggestive of the intentions behind this painting, and once more we are dealing with a woman enchantress. There are some strong similarities between this painting and the other. The male is again placed at a disadvantage from the female. He is left lying upon the ground, while she stands tall before him. Towering over him. There is also the same unashamed dead on, bold stare and hard set of the face. The holding of the book here is suggestive of wisdom, knowledge, education, traits generally at this time associated with men. So in both these paintings there is a hint of role reversal. Now looking at the figure of Merlin, he appears pitiful, limp, at her mercy. He cannot bring himself to look at her, and the pallor of his face suggests something sickly, possibly even death.
A really telling, and personal favorite image of my own The Fisherman and the Siren by Frederic Lord Leighton.
This image is bursting with sensuality, the rather bold figure of this inhuman female creature thrusting herself upon the figure of innocent youth. The poor young lad, who clearly does not stand a chance in the face of such temptation. The allusions to Christ and martyrdom is very overt in this image in the pose of the lad, and even the tumbling basket of fish falling into the water. There is also something particularly serpent like about the sirens tale. It is ensnared around the poor lads leg, as if she is ready at any moment to drag him down into the watery depths of his doom. With his close eyes, and arms spread out he can be seen as impassive, unreceptive to her charms. The look upon his face having something of a serene calm to it, yet he is left helpless to resist her. He is caught within her clutches. After all what chance could he possibly have against such a foe?
Of course I had to include one of the marvelous works of Waterhouse, who may be one of the most easily recognized painters from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
This image reflects many of the same elements as seen in the image of the Siren and the Fishermen. There is depicted a young innocent lad who has fallen asleep, when unknown to him there comes up creeping out of the waters a nymph with a hint of sultry suggestion upon her face. She appeared ready to prey upon the sweet innocents of the sleeping boy. The fact that he is asleep puts him in a position of vulnerability and at the mercy of this watery maid. In her posture, and pose, and the hint of her expression there is some tale tale signs of predatory intention. Her position between the trees, and the leaves which crown her head suggest that she is something wild, and untamed, and the fact that she is emerging out of the depths of the water is filled with symbolic meaning of its own. There is also something peculiar that seems to be occurring below her waist, something which offer the possibility of the not quite human. What is she hiding just behind the rivers bank? It could almost be a satyr’s haunches or some fishy or serpent like tail? Or is she as a dryad, and made of the trees, rooted in and made a part of them? There is also offered the juxtaposition of the “tamed” wildness of the young lad. There is something significant in the animal skin draped across his midsection. It suggests something perhaps of the wild within him, but it is also a civilized and controlled wilderness. The skin coming from an animal that has fallen under the dominance of man and the fact that he is modestly and decently covered, while she herself is not.
While to the modern eye these images might at first appear to be done in great praise of women, in an understanding respect of her power, independence, and strength, beneath the deeper analysis a different possible story is revealed. In fact these images may serve as a warning to men to avoid the very sort of women that are depicted here. They are women who are not quite human, not to be trusted, but post a threat and some possible danger to man. Men of the Victorian world should beware of women who step out of their proper role, who become too forthcoming, or bold, too direct, express their sensuality. For they may corrupt man and lead the innocent victim astray down a frightful path, which may seem tempting but in the end lead to his destruction.
But to gain the fullest understanding of this complex subject, let us now explore the other side of the coin, the fair maidens of purity and virtue.
You can hardly talk of The Brotherhood without mentioning Rossetti himself, so this painting of his The Marriage of St. George and the Princess Sabra offers a perfect example of the other side of women in Pre-Raphaelite art.
The differences in the posture and pose in this one can be seen distinctly from the others we have viewed. One important factor which will be seen time and again in these paintings is the fact that here the eyes of the maiden are closed, opposed to the direct stare down previously seen. As well her head is turned slightly away from him rather than pointed straight on at him. Another important detail, in this painting it is she who is clearly in the vulnerable one, not him. Her weight is being supported by him, and while he is seated within a chair she is kneeled devoutly before him. Now the man is the dominant and has elevated position over the woman. Her clothing is also much more conservative and concealing. Even her hair, while still quite long can be seen as more orderly, more “tamed” than the hair of the previous maidens which often was much more of a wild mane. In the male figure there is an aspect of complete confidence and strength. He is comforting and supporting her.
This image of Tristan and Isolde by Edmund Blair Leighton is one of which I am quite found of
In this painting we see the male being the pursuer as it were. He is leaning in toward her to seek her favors, while she in all proper modesty does not meet his gaze, but has her head turned coyly just so off to the side. She is showing her humility by looking away from him, keeping a chaste distance between them. Instead of returning his affection she keeps the space between them. Also once more her more elaborate and lady like manner of dress can be noted. She is shown as much more civilized then the previous women we have examined. That is another important difference. She is not out alone in some woods somewhere, but rather she is within human society, and again her hair is nearly and orderly kept. Adorned here not with leaves but with gold.
In both of these paintings we can see examples of the wild, of nature being firmly conquered. St. George has the dragons head severed and stored away within a box and Isolde has her feet firmly planted upon what looks to be a wolf skin rug. They are not part of the natural world, nor do the posses any unnatural elements, but they are conquers over nature, with their humanity firmly established.
Here we have another image by Dicksee to view how the same artist can portray women in two completely different ways.
The woman seen here is a far cry from La Belle Dame Sans Merci. There is something almost fragile looking about this maiden, she appears frail as well as being quite pale, particularly in comparison to her suitor. Indeed it looks as if she is about the faint at any moment, while it is only the act of his hands holding her own delicate hands that keep her supported. Once more it can be noted that while she is facing him her eyes are closed, and so she does not meet his gaze. Another interesting factor in this image, is that though we see the man kneeling before the woman here, while she is seated, she appears almost to be upon a pedestal to reinforce the idea of the way women were “worshiped” under the rules of chivalry. As being chaste virgin maids not to be despoiled or touched, but to have their virtue protected at all costs. There is also the heavy drapery of her clothing, and the way in which here her hair is in fact completely restrained.
To offer one last example this image by John William Godward
There are here many of the same things we have seen in prior images. The tilted head, and closed eyes. The appearance of vulnerability and weakness within the woman, relying upon the man to support her. In this case she appears as if she is about to fall, she does not look to be truly standing by her own volition, but one of her legs is bent and kneeling upon the stone wall, while her suitor has one hand supporting her just against her neck, another hand holding her own. She appears to be quite overwhelmed. While he is the picture of strength and assurance, and in the position of being above her. Her hair here can be seen as being visible bound up by ribbon.
Hair and how hair is treated and approached is a powerful symbol. The image of a woman’s hair has a long term association with sensuality and sexuality within women. For a woman to wear her hair down, and completely free, long and unadorned through history was to suggest something of loose morality within the woman. There are striking differences in the preparation of the hair between the powerful, independent “wild” women and the much more docile and submissive women. It is interesting to note, that in the images of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Nimue, and the nymph of Waterhouse the hair is bond with something of nature, flowers, what appears to be vines or tree branches, and leaves, while in the previous images, it is some much more civil and man made adornment within the hair.
This of course only scratches the depths of the symbolism and meaning behind Pre-Raphaelite art, and all that their paintings convey, it is not in the least cut and dry, or black and white. There are other works of art that can be seen as being contradictory to these very ideas, and throw ones attempt at understanding into doubt, but in this we can begin to better grasp their own struggles with trying to comprehend women and how to view women within their world.
One interesting analogy is to view the paintings of women within The Brotherhood in the same light as the American romantic pastoral paintings, at a time when the west was not yet fully conquered and men were stricken in awe be the vast nature they saw, coming from Europe which by this time has already been civilized, they were filled with a sense of the sublime. Their paintings were then their way of taming the wild frontier of “framing” it so it would be within their control in which they could put some human order to it. Through capturing the images on canvas they dealt with their awe of what they were confronted with. So perhaps it is with the Pre-Raphaelites, they create these larger than life women, who look as if they are about to break free and they cage them within frames where they are frozen without the ability to truly escape. Upon the canvas they work out their own awe for these women. Contain them where they can safely study them.
Within their works there is a mix of both admiration and fear. It just may be that during a time in which women were treated little more than children, rarely taken seriously in intellectual pursuits, (and often according to the science of the day, thought too much education would be overtaxing on their minds) and viewed as fragile and delicate creatures, often little more then commodities for displaying their beauty and producing heirs, that the idea of women gaining power and independence could strike such fear within men, is itself a form of respect all of its own.
The Pre-Raphaelite’s may not have been great forbears of women’s liberation and may have had their own skewed ideas and perceptions regarding women, but nor would I venture to say they were complete chauvinists, they struggled with societies view of women, and where they themselves fit into the spectrum. In their paintings they try to make sense of their own fears and anxieties, while still showing through an appreciation for the goddess that lives within woman.