REVIEW | 'PRE-RAPHAELITE SISTERS' AT THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
It is difficult to talk about the Pre-Raphaelites without mentioning women. An all-male Brotherhood may have founded the movement, but it was the women that carried it: Pre-Raphaelite art has long been defined by the models, wives, lovers and mistresses of the young British painters and poets that made up the mid-century trend. Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, however, chooses to draw attention to the achievements of these women outside of their relationships to men; the National Portrait Gallery exhibit exposes and explores the female artists, poets, thinkers and socialites of the early-to-mid 19th century with an explicit nod to the social successes and artistic accomplishments of 12 Pre-Raphaelite women.
The stories of the 'Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood' went untold for a relatively long time: it's no secret that mercurial romances and indecorous affairs were common amongst the Brotherhood and their muses, but it is only within the last few decades that art critics and historians have begun to look slightly deeper into the independant works of these models and mistresses. It makes sense that many of them were not, as one might be inclined to think, simply pretty faces, but rather that their previous standings in the art world were overshadowed by their status as sitters. Hence many of these women were artists in their own right before they became known as sisters, wives or models: Georgiana Burne-Jones's wood carvings, Annie Miller's letters, and Marie Spartali Stillman's portraits are a just few of the works that remind us of the worlds experience by woman often seen as nothing more than lovers, wives and sisters.
Christina Rossetti is perhaps the least obscure of these women. Her poem Goblin Market is touted as one of the greatest examples of experimental form poetry of the Victorian age, and her status as both sister and model of the Brotherhood meant that she was one of the few Pre-Raphaelite women that was recognized within her own right and time. Others were not so lucky: the section of the exhibit dedicated to model Fanny Eaton provides an astonishingly intersectional look into the life of the mixed-raced model that provided inspiration for the female characters of such paintings as The Mother of Moses and A Young Teacher. Much like David Yip was the go-to for any and all East Asian roles in the sixties, Fanny became the it-girl for modeling 'exotic' women of the Victorian art scene, whether the subject be Indian, Middle-Eastern, or African.
One particularly interesting aspect of the exhibit is discovering what models actually thought of the paintings they were featured in. The doe-eyed representations of real women may seem glaringly unrealistic to us now, but there is something immensely comforting in the knowledge that the contemporary subjects thought so too. The sitters were not shy of expressing their bemusement at the transformations they underwent: "It's very lovely," wrote Effie Gray Millais to her mother and sister of John Everett Millais portrait of her, "but it doesn't look like me at all." and went on to joke that he made her look like a "graceful doll".
Challenges to representations of the female form lie at the heart of the exhibition: Evelyn De Morgan's Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund is an antithesis to the traditional male-painted woman of Victorian artworks; the scene, depicting Queen Eleanor following her husbands lover with red string, shows emotions of anger, triumph, and 'oh-fuck'ness with a dedicated voracity that is decidedly unfound in the majority of male depictions of Pre-Raphaelite women. The usual female portraiture of the Brotherhood is so afraid of expressing any emotion other than blank vapidity that there is something insanely sharp and powerful about anything that displays women as being anything other than anemic, milk-and-water willowbroads.
There is clear passion and thought put into the form of the exhibition. It is intelligent of curator Jan Marsh (who has studied the featured women since the early 80s) to have dedicated separate sections to separate women, as it allows for each of their stories, art and experiences to shine individually. The overarching concepts of feminine nuance, strength and representation build a convincing and exhilarating image of many fascinating, intellectual and talented women that were not just background characters to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, but part of its artistic canon. It does great justice to grand characters and should be a vital visit to anybody determined to truly understand the Brotherhood.
Pre-Raphaelite Sisters features the works of 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 and is on until January the 26th, 2020.
Image credits: National Portrait Gallery