The Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters pushes the focus that has for decades been dominated by the men of the brotherhood and of the movement to the more obvious and pressing matter of the story behind the sitter: the women. What many have overlooked and failed to see is that although much success has come as a result of the men’s work , it was a result of their connections and relations to the strong women in their lives that made their work as renowned as they are now. 

The Pre Raphaelites, formed in 1848, were a rebellious group of artists who set out to revolutionise the world of art from the dooming concepts of old traditions and rules set out by that of Raphael. Paintings of Raphael and his followers were presented as “fanciful and idealised figures in quaint settings” which the Pre Raphaelites wanted to restore back to a more accurate reflection of the world around them. Their work was more realistic and was drawn from real life models and muses that of whom they were in close connection with, for example their lovers. Ultimately, it resulted to women being at the forefront of the Pre-Raphaelite work. But instead of just focusing on the men and women as their ‘subjects’, the exhibition is set out to focus on each woman involved in each aspect in relation to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. It displayed a section devoted to each one of the 12 women: starting with Effie Gray Millais then progressing to Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth, Joanna Boyce Wells, Fanny Eaton, Georgia Burne Jones, Maria Zambaco, Jane Morris, Marie Spartali Stillman and ending with Evelyn De Morgan.  

Naively, before attending the exhibition, I expected all the women to be the sitters of the men’s work and to only display what relations they had to the men artists . It was shocked and surprised to see that some of the women were artists, sculptors, embroiders and more. It was humiliating to say the least to know that I automatically assumed all the women would just be models and to not even consider that they themselves were artists. However, I feel that this demonstrates the lack of representation the women of the Pre- Raphaelite’s had in a male dominated society and art world. However, this perception towards the women being the ‘sitter’ and not the ‘artist’ also provoked the idea that we may still hold these stigmas in a modern-day society which define the way in which perceive women and their roles in society still. This then further stresses the importance of the main question: who were the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters? 

The men of the Pre-Raphaelites, who have used the women presented in the gallery, used reoccurring themes of social concepts such as women from lower backgrounds, ideas of marriage, lust and female sexuality, and the attempts of exploration of the women’s mental state. What the Pre-Raphaelite men managed to do successfully is break the traditional themes displayed in art at the time by including more realistic narratives/scenarios and themes that didn’t satisfy a glorified image of reality which the followers of Raphael aimed to achieve. But what makes their work so influential and impactful is the fact that the subject matter of their pieces were a reflection between the relationship between the women/ model and the painter. Therefore, creating this parallel world of symbolism and meaning of society through the use of their own narratives they live and exist within. This is what makes the women, who were models for the men, so significant; it’s not only a portrait but an insight into their lives. Their work therefore can be seen to be this microscopic insight of women’s place in society through realistic narratives between the sitter and painter that create such an outstanding parallel to the fictional narratives that are created in their work and the narratives of the artists reality. Therefore, crediting the women in the paintings should be equal to the men. It could also be argued that the women, being the men’s inspiration for their masterpieces, should be given more credit for the men’s work. Without the women, the men would never had created the work that changed the art world and it’s systematic artistic ideas. Would the men of the Pre-Raphaelites be as profound and well known if they didn’t have these relationships with these women? 

One example that really stuck out for me was a piece by Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘Proserpina’ which follows the story of a mythological goddess who was taken to Hades where she had eaten a forbidden fruit, as a result of this she was destined to remain 6 months of each year in an underground prison. Despite the painting depicting this mythological tale, it shares truth into the sitter Jane Morris and the relations between her husband, William Morris, whom she was discontent with and how she was involved in a love affair with the painter – Rossetti. The painting therefore highlights the pain and torture of the situation Jane Morris was in, both in conflict between lust and love and the confinements of her marriage and society. Her thought heavy expression which is exaggerated by her lifeless eyes and hands ,which seem to be positioned to suggest her feelings emptiness or despair, all combine together to display the conflict women feel towards the rules of society and how restricted her sexual desires were because of society’s expectations. Rossetti’s use of the pomegranate ,to suggest the forbidden fruit, evokes a feeling of possibly guilt or humiliation within society and acts as a symbol ,or reminder, to women of the burden ‘reputation’ in a Victorian society – which was highly regarded , empahsising the idea of what was right or wrong. This displays the men of the Pre-Raphaelites to delve into the ideas of women’s sexuality in society which at the time proved to be extremely controversial and artists were usually either looked down upon for displaying it or women were to be a prostitute or the artist’s lover – which meant that life for the model would prove difficult as being a sitter for a painting. Personally, out of the whole exhibition, this painting really stood out to me the most. This painting, to me, really highlights what the Pre-Raphaelites we’re capable of; combing their lives with a fictional tale to explain life as it was, and the struggles women had to face as a result of society’s hypocrisy. Both the paintings ability to capture such a vulnerable and intimate insight that feels like they’re able to psychologically see through and understand what the model is feeling, the painting marks such an interesting event in the artist and models lives that is so perfectly matched to the meaning of the story behind the painting. Because of this, this painting stood out amongst the others because of how it portrays their relationship with women in their lives and women in society as a whole. 

As much as it can be seen that the men of the Pre-Raphaelite works were revolutionary and marked a step forward for the representation of women to be included in art in a more sensual matter, I couldn’t help looking from a modern day attitude and question whether they really valued women’s position in society or just aimed to comment on it. I felt that when I was in the exhibition, the work seemed to reflect contemporary life and society very well and reflected the true position of what women had, but it didn’t seem to appear that they aimed to improve women’s position in the patriarchal society they lived in; if anything it made me think that they aimed reflect on it but not do anything about changing these views . Hunt’s painting of Annie Miller, who was born into the lower class and whom he stubbles upon in a pub, depicts a woman who is having sexual relations with her partner who is perceived to be a wealthy gentleman. However she has a realisatio ; shown by a discarded glove on the floor, she realises that she will be discarded by the man and what she has done has brought her shame and guilt as she then realised that she was stuck in her ‘low’ societal position as a result of being born into a lower’ class of society and as a result of having sexual relations and being promiscuous. Despite him demonstrating the fact women can only exceed in life by the help of men – Hunt then follows on to continue in the same manners that he is criticising in his painting. Hunt paid for Miller to be educated and live a more ‘prosperous’ life than what was intended for her. This felt like Hunt was merely supporting this idea that men could only help fallen women. It made me think whether the well-loved Pre Raphaelites were worthy of praise if what they created and how they acted, was in a way that contradicted each other, and whether it could be argued, that their work was hypocritical.  

After walking into a room where the artist wasn’t by one of the men and realising that the exhibition also demonstrated that some of the women were also artists – one thing became apparent. The women’s work were equal to the men’s work and was created with the full capacity of a professional artist – their work was so similar in quality; it was hard to distinguish the difference between which paintings were by the men or women. 

 What this showed in comparison to how the men perceived women in society was that the social rules imposed on women, essentially by men’s fantasy of society, was not a construct that should limit women. This was displayed by the women rising to the same levels of the men and creating art that was no different from the men , potentially better, and becoming vital players of the Pre- Raphaelite movement with their artwork. It also challenged the repetitive idea that the Pre Raphaelite women were just a product of muses, lovers and discontented marriages by displaying the fact that the women were more than what the men perceived them to be as if they were always facing a  ‘dead end’ of society’s rules . Whereas, the women artists broke these social constructs of women and pushed their role within life into a new light. There was one painting in particular, painted by a man called Henry Tanworth Wells who captured an image of his wife ,who was a very successful painter Joanna Boyce Wells, which I felt captured this rare image in this exhibition of this strong self-confident women who felt content with her position in society which was painted by a man . This piece really stood out because the exhibition felt restricted with by a deception of a confined woman, but this piece broke away from what the other men painted of the women and conveyed Boyce’s defiant attitudes. Boyce’s work proves to be the most prominent of the movement and of the women , her work is fearless to the ideas of what society expects of her and she embraces the challenge of her being an emerging women artist by committedly practicing her work and exploring themes that question what is expected of women such as beauty and marriage in her most renowned piece Elgiva.  

To me, the exhibition seemed to just explain the women painter’s life’s and their origins of finding creative talent and only momentarily touched on how each women shaped the movement as a whole. The exhibition did however include immense detail on each woman who was involved and how they related to one another ,and the men of the Pre-Raphaelite’s, but there wasn’t any written areas or rooms which tied in the significance of the women combined as a whole and how it compared to the men, it felt almost to factual and there were very few areas which analysed the women’s significance as a whole rather than just individually. This made the exhibition still feel slightly in focus to the men’s relations to the women instead of how the women impacted the women. The exhibition felt like it was associating the women to the men. On the other hand the exhibition was very much needed and the representation of the women involved acted as a great insight to the world of Pre-Raphaelite’s . It felt like the exhibition unveiled the curtain to show the other side of the story. Despite there in some cases being limited judgement of their significance overall, with further research and studying over both the women and men, a more analytical judgement over the women can be made. 

The exhibition demonstrates that both the women and the men were mutually exclusive to produce work that reflected the true nature of society rather than a glorified ideal intended to fantasise what life should be like. I think one of the main aspects that can be taken away from the exhibition is that both the men and the women had the need for rebellion in common. The men rebelled the ideals of was expected to be displayed in a painting by exploiting the raw realism displayed by the women whom surrounded them, whilst the women artists broke what society expected of them and they lived up to the same artistic capabilities as the men and contributed immensely within the Pre-Raphaelite movement whilst also succeeding greatly despite the lack of recognition their work had been given. As my naivety has taught me by attending this exhibition; we should not underestimate the impact women have had in the past and the increasing impact women will have as time continues. 

Date visited : 30 December 2019 

Exhibition from: 17 October – 26 January 2020 

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