National Portrait Gallery
17 October 2019 - 26 January 2020
Rejecting an era of industrial revolution and the strict Neo-Classical ethos of the Royal Academy, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded by Gabriel Dante Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848, sought to develop a modern genre of painting that placed beauty, spiritualism and literature at its heart. This exhibition is a brave, or foolish (I am currently undecided) contemporary tackling of the pre-Raphaelite movement’s unacknowledged Sisterhood. The National Portrait Gallery readdresses the role of twelve central women, some you may have heard of - Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris and Evelyn de Morgan - and others who’s voices have been further neglected from the history books. Some established themselves as models, artists, craftswomen and published poets with ambitions equal to the men, whilst others sustained their engagement with the art world as partners in production. Each room dedicates it’s institutional walls to rewrite and confirm the remarkable contributions of these Pre-Raphaelite women. However, does it succeed?
On one hand yes. The lives of these women are beautifully detailed in the wall texts, photographs, letters, and personal artworks. I was particularly moved by a lock of Elizabeth Siddal’s dark red hair, which in the Victorian tradition would have been taken at the time of her tragic death in 1862. Perhaps more potent than a drawing or painting, the artefact placed ‘Lizzie’ - the model, artist and woman - directly in the room. On the other hand (here comes the rub) the vast majority of works on display were by the Brotherhood. This is not to say that these works aren’t worth seeing. On the contrary, I was blown away by their astonishing beauty. Rossetti’s ‘The Blue Bower’ 1865 depicts Fanny Cornforth as a lustrous Medieval beauty. Her sensual green eyes, voluptuous lips and cascading red hair burns in a symphony of emerald and cobalt blue. However, the image is more of a psalm to beauty than a portrait of Fanny. The male gaze is inescapable! As ‘The Times’ art critic Waldemar Januszczak perfectly put it, ‘Instead of challenging the patriarchal beardiness of the pre-Raphaelites, the show manages somehow to prove that we have underestimated it.’ Of course, it would be wrong to completely ignore the Brotherhood’s crucial role to the Sisterhood, and some of the artworks did feel contextually relevant. For example, Rossetti’s intimate and touching final portrait of artist Joanna Wells on her deathbed in the summer of 1861. She is not immortalised as a fictional maiden, but as the artist, young mother, and human that she was. Too often however, the curator’s efforts to humanise these women were distractedly punctured by images of dreamy eyes and bow shaped lips.
Ignoring the men for now.
There were many barriers for women to overcome in the pursuit of a fine art career. The privileged few who did receive a formal training, such as Marie Spartali Stillman, Evelyn de Morgan and Maria Zambaco, were often confined to drawing sculpture casts or copying masters. (It would be another thirty or so years in 1893 when women were allowed to draw from the male model - and then only if his genitals were obscured by voluminous lengths of fabric) Additionally, the social and domestic expectations of Victorian women meant that fewer artworks were made or survive today. Despite this gendered disadvantage, I would argue that although outnumbered by the male painters, the sensitivity and ambition displayed in their drawings, paintings and crafts matched those of their pre-Raphaelite brothers. In particular, I was drawn to Joanna Wells’ talents of observation in the exquisite profile portrait of Jamaican-born model Fanny Eaton. The small painting details the light interacting with Fanny’s luminous shawl and pearl earrings, as well capturing the subtle highlights of her brow and cheekbone. In contrast, Evelyn De Morgan embraces the pre-Raphaelite manifesto and explores literature and mythology in vivid colour and dramatic scale. Defying social standard, the determined Evelyn gave up the leisurely life expected of an aristocratic woman and became one of the first women to be admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art. The final painting of the show, ‘Night and Sleep’ 1878 depicts two figures clothed in billowing robes reminiscent of a setting sun, floating through air, scattering poppies and dragging a brooding night sky behind them.
If you’re a long-term lover of the pre-Raphaelites then the National Portrait Gallery’s attempt to highlight the achievements of the little known sisterhood won’t wholly disappoint. Visually the artworks are breathtaking and showcase a diverse range of skills that encompass the powerful colours and symbolic markers of the movement’s style. The fascinating research highlights the crucial role each woman undertook in her life to contribute, support and inspire the pre-Raphaelite era. The exhibition’s curator, Dr Jan Marsh was brave to embrace the contemporary shift in female empowerment and challenge art history’s prolific silencing of female voices. However, as a viewer I felt caught in a struggle, trying to fight my way behind each voluptuous and sensual staring goddess to meet the incredible lives of each pre-Raphaelite sister. The topic did not pose solely a research challenge, but also a display. In a bid to involve the classical ‘show stoppers’ the exhibit relied heavily on the brotherhood’s Victorian examinations of beauty and gendered morality. Unfortunately, the male gaze hung between each female contribution like an inescapable shadow.
Female Artists: Joanna Wells, Fanny Cornforth, Marie Spartali Stillman, Evelyn de Morgan, Christina Rossetti, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Effie Millais, Elizabeth Siddal, Maria Zambaco, Jane Morris, Annie Miller and Fanny Eaton.
National Portrait Gallery: https://www.npg.org.uk