Aesthetics, Exploitation and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement

Georgia Perkins
Aug 12, 2014 6:14am
The origin of the name Pre Raphaelite came from the brotherhood’s appreciation of ‘Italian art of the 14th and 15th Centur[y]’, which showed expressive art rather than what they considered Raphael and the painters that followed him to be: ‘unimaginative and artificial historical painting[s]’[1].  Which is what Pre Raphaelites literally stand for pre-Raphael painters. They desired to show something that had ‘vitality and freshness of vision’[2], by doing this it would have been controversial because they were using ‘artistic licence’ and breaking away from the traditional artwork.  Although, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood reconceptualised artistic licence by exploiting models for their art, it could be suggested that these models were portrayed in the paintings as ‘seductive rather than oppressed’[3], to suggest that these women were “asking for it“[4] rather than the Brotherhood been seen as sexist.
 Moreover, the Pre Raphaelites have been described as portraying ‘rebellion, beauty, scientific precision and imaginative grandeur,’[5] yet the stereotypical view of a ‘religious and serious’[6] Victorian society would have been that the Pre Raphaelite subject matter was rebellious, ‘unchristian’[7] and immoral. This was because their subjects included the depiction of mistresses; women outside of the domestic sphere, and forbidden subjects such as suicide which remained illegal in the Victorian period.  Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ did this most poignantly. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were considered to be ‘intellectual[ly] questioning’ and subversive in their views.   However, women are shown to be exploited in their paintings, and an element of immorality is clearly shown in the way they (for example Rossetti and ‘Lizzie’ Siddal) controlled and took advantage of the women’s illnesses – vulnerability was seen as sign of beauty.
Also, Beauty was represented in Pre Raphaelites; through the ‘obsession’[8] with women’s hair, especially golden, as it was supposed to represent ‘wealth and female sexuality’[9], this is shown in the painting  ‘Lady Lilith’[10] by Dante Rossetti.  The portrayal of her combing her hair, and her dark blue fur cloak suggests the ultimate ‘femininity’ of the Virgin Mary (dark blue traditionally being associated with her), and connotes ‘knowledge, power, integrity, and seriousness.’[11] Rossetti wrote about Lilith in his sonnet, which went with the painting. The roses in the background are mentioned:
‘The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where                          Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent                               And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?’[12]
These flowers traditionally represent passion, romance and death, and the fact that she is combing her hair – a stereotypical feminine image suggests that she is constructing a ‘web she can weave’ to ‘draw[s] men’ in.  This suggests Lilith, along with her unusually masculine features, is both a thing of beauty but also a predator, a ‘dangerous beauty’[13] much like a siren.  This shows the way in which the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood were able to portray both rebellion and beauty, because at first glance you see an innocent woman wearing white, which suggests purity but then also after researching the context of Lilith from different accounts it portrays her as a femme fatal and ‘a dangerous killer of’[14] children.  
When reading Jennifer J. Lee’s thesis on ‘VENUS IMAGINARIA: REFLECTIONS ON ALEXA WILDING, HER LIFE, AND HER ROLE AS MUSE IN THE WORKS OF DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI’, there is an obvious suggestion that the Pre-Raphaelite painters were dependent on exploitation of the model’s ailments; one of the models who posed for Lady Lilith, Alexa Wilding, was said, by Rossetti, to have been “alarmingly ill.”[15] A letter from Rossetti to Dunn: ‘Alice W. now in good earnest to begin a picture from her. Her last account of herself was “ill in bed.” Do you know how she is now?’[16] Many of the models chosen were ill, especially ‘Lizzie’ Siddal this makes me question whether Rossetti was really concerned about her health or perhaps he was more concerned about how her changing appearance would affect his desired artistic outcome of the painting. The former would be a sign of a caring individual, and the latter would indicate an exploitation and pure self-interest.   This therefore suggests a sign of wanting to control Wiling’s health, an exploitation of her illness and vulnerability being a sign of beauty.
 Also,  ‘imaginative grandeur’[17] has been presented as the ‘foundation of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood’[18], as noble and heroic subjects shown through ‘expression rather than beauty’[19]. However, some critics of the art movement, such as Charley Hunt (Millais’s brother) in 1851, thought the Brotherhood was not innovative enough and that they ‘should do something striking, no matter on how small a scale’[20], which contradicts the Pre Raphaelites intentions of using ‘Artistic License’. Charles Dickens didn’t like the fact that the Brotherhood presented an idealistic approach, preferring instead an ‘uncompromising realism’[21] which portrayed ‘reality.’ Dickens commented on the ‘Pre-Raphaelly[s who are] considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.’[22]  This perhaps suggests that Dickens saw the subject matter of their paintings – including the exploitation of women and merely painting for the male gaze. The models who came from a ‘lower class… [were] often represented [as] wealthy, high cultured females’[23] were highly idealised in the portraits.    In some instances the sensuous decadence in the paintings were in sharp contrast to the realism of the women’s lives. [24] The majority of the Pre-Raphaelite models came from poor backgrounds, which inevitably would mean they would have had a propensity to illness.  For example ‘Annie Miller was what Victorians would have called “of lowly birth”…. Annie Miller’s childhood…[was] horribly poor and unhygienic, [she was described to be] “dirty and covered with vermin”…and that Annie’s hair [was golden,] “wild and filthy”.’[25] This is interesting, because as we have found out earlier on women with golden hair, in the Victorian period, would have connotations of ‘wealth and female sexuality’[26]. Moreover, Jane Morris was poor as a child and Fanny Cornforth was working as a house servant in 1851. Lack of medical treatment and effective cures for many illnesses were common during the Victorian period, meaning that more people would be likely to catch diseases and life expectancy was low. The Pre Raphaelite paintings show some of the symptoms of an over active thyroid gland because of their ‘long necks and prominent thyroid glands, strikingly exemplified’[27] by the Brotherhood.  This could suggest that the Pre-Raphaelites were re-conceptualising artistic license by taking advantage of these women’s condition. 
A feminist viewpoint might be that it portrays women in a patriarchal society, a ‘monstrous regiment of women: one after the other, all the same, including the so-called portraits, with their square jaws and centre partings, their swollen necks and blood-leeching lips.’[28]  This suggests that women are being oppressed through idealized stereotypical paintings that do not show the reality. Moreover, the famous author of The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer dislikes the way in which the Brotherhood exploited their models by wanting people to think of them as mistresses: “If they hadn’t had sex with their models, they wanted you to think they had. They realised pretty early on that nudes are not erotic; their languorous models drooped, swooned, gasped and died in ever more elaborate, flowing gowns shot through with new synthetic colours: arsenic greens, cobalt blues, alizarin crimsons.”[29] This suggests that women’s vulnerability was more erotic than women painted in the “nude”[30].  However, Paramvir Sawhney argues that the ‘focal point of the movement was undoubtedly the Pre-Raphaelite body.’[31]  Also the fact that the ‘Pre Raphaelite body was a focus for public and private pleasure, puzzlement and disquiet’[32] this suggests why the Brotherhood were seen as controversial because of the ‘critical reaction’[33] to them showing women in an immoral light, which could suggest them taking advantage of women. However, despite it being immoral it is likely that there was a private pleasure in seeking pubescent images, at this time. Whether this was an unethical approach is up for debate because the subject matter of the paintings was to show unethical problems in their contemporary public, which does not necessarily mean that the Pre-Raphaelite paintings are unethical themselves. 
In the exhibition ‘Art Under Attack’ at the Tate Britain, it was mentioned that due to the ‘Pre Raphaelite works are celebrated for their representations of beautiful, idealised women and the overt sexualisation of the female body’[34], this perhaps was one of the reasons to why the Suffragettes damaged the paintings, which shows that the Pre-Raphaelite movement was still controversial.  
Finally,  ‘scientific precision’[35] and anatomy may have influenced the Pre Raphaelite Art Movement.  Along with the "divine goitre"[36], and the ‘physiological enlargement of the thyroid gland’[37] shown for example in the painting ‘The Awakening Conscience’ by William Holman Hunt, another symptoms is shown by Dante’s sister, the poet Christina, who is known to have suffered from Grave’s disease, a condition where the thyroid gland is overactive causing ‘unusually prominent’[38] eyes. This could suggest that Christina had an extreme case of exophthalmos due to a lack of known treatment.   Bulging eyes are also obvious in some pictures by Gustave Dore, including the sketch of Bluebeard.  Classically, the upper eyelid is supposed to rest on the top of the pupil, but in exophthalmos conditions the white of the eye above the pupil is exposed.  This is called ‘lid-lag’ and results in a sinister staring expression such as is in Gustav Dore’s painting of Bluebeard;[39] the murderer who hung his dead wives ‘on the wall’[40]. Moreover, the idea of showing any anatomy in a painting was seen as controversial because it was said to be unchristian in that it mimicked, in a Promethean sense, God’s creation.  However, the change in public opinion in two centuries is incredible because when looking at Gunther von Hagen, an anatomist who has created ‘artistic’ human dissections.   He uses the technique, of ‘plastination, a process that replaces body fluids with liquid plastic’ – in a sense his equivalent of a paintbrush. [41] The plastic used by Von Hagens could be seen as similar to the idealized women in Pre-Raphaelite Art because the women could be seen as ‘Barbie dolls’ that are programmed to have emphasised long necks and look a particular way. The difference is Gunther von Hagens’ work is anatomically correct because they are real bodies therefore rather than exploiting these bodies by creating the body in a way that someone should look to become beautiful, Von Hagens’ is showing them the people as they really were.  One of Von Hagen’s most controversial creations was the plastination of a pregnant woman, which some would see as unethical and provoked ‘human rights protests, [and] bitter rivalries between scientists’[42].  Although, on Gunther von Hagens website, his defense was that the bodies ‘belonged to people who declared during their lifetime that their bodies should be made available after their deaths for the qualification of physicians and the instruction of laypersons.’[43]  This defense is similar to that of the Pre-Raphaelite models with allowing their vulnerable state to be ‘available’[44] to the Brotherhood. Therefore, looking at when someone shows clear signs of the ‘hormonal condition’[45] of an overactive thyroid gland, by the Pre Raphaelites and then comparing it to a physical presence of a corpses anatomy, by Gunther von Hagen’s ‘Body Worlds’, they show two extremely different pieces of artwork, both artworks can be still treated as controversial by their contemporary public.  Gunther Von Hagen was influenced to begin this ‘plastination’ because of the famous painting by Rembrandt, ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’.   The fact that Hagen is showing the pregnant woman in a reclining pose shows that even after this woman’s death the generations afterwards continue to show the male gaze as dominant and requires the woman to be in a vulnerable and some might say vulgar state.
The journal: The Pre Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism by J.B. Bullen by Susan P. Casteras, discusses the reasons why women in Pre Raphaelite art maybe portrayed as ‘more fleshy, sexualized female body in his endless stream of “stunners”.’[46] It is preferred by J.B. Bullen that the women portrayed in the Pre Raphaelite paintings are ‘“sexualized” [rather than portrayed as] “fallen”’[47] which suggests that a contemporary audience view would be less judgmental of the women themselves.   It is said that Rossetti painted ‘femme fatales’[48] which suggests that the women are not seen as weak but as strong and independent, like ‘Lady Lilith’ by Rossetti.  However, it is said that the Brotherhood inevitably thought that the ‘Victorian female body functioned as …[an] object for the discerning and omnipotent male gaze’[49], which is indicated by the fact that they are a Brotherhood (my emphasis).  This suggests that women’s vulnerability, especially during puberty and pregnancy was attractive and that their beauty, as judged by the male gaze, was their only purpose in life. When looking at Rossetti’s first wife ‘Lizzie’ Siddal, Rossetti called her “a truly beautiful girl, tall with a stately throat and a fine carriage, pink and white complexion and massive straight, coppery-gold hair”[50], (my emphasis) this refers to the over active thyroid gland but also it is said that Siddal was ill and this may have been the attraction for Rossetti and what he ‘idealiz[ed]’[51].  It was ironic that Rossetti’s appreciation of Lizzie’s sickliness and desire for control over her health, meant that when she became ‘increasingly ill’[52] their ‘love faded’[53] and she became less prominent in his paintings.  This suggests that the women were attractive when slightly ill and vulnerable, but less so when they were the symptoms became worse.  Rossetti was very controlling over who could paint ‘his’ models; an example of this was when he became ill; Dunn spoke to William Michael Rossetti about whether Alexa Wilding could ‘sit for other[s painters]’, which he knew this would ‘annoy him [Rossetti] terribly’[54]. Although, Lizzie was the model for some of the other Brotherhood members, and ironically she modeled for ‘Ophelia’ by John Everett Millais.   Twelve years after this, Lizzie, ‘a chronic invalid, would take her own life.’[55]   Like Ophelia, Lizzie may have believed this to be the only power she had to take control of her life, that she would end it. This suggests that the Pre-Raphaelite movement had exploited the model’s illnesses and portrayed women’s vulnerability aesthetically pleasing.
 
[1] Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/474248/Pre-Raphaelite-Brotherhood Accessed: 03/11/13
[2] Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/474248/Pre-Raphaelite-Brotherhood Accessed: 03/11/13
[3] Alyssa Liles-Amponsah, first-year MA student in AAADS, “African American Artists: Exploitation and Protest”, 2007, http://www.indiana.edu/~afroamer/archived-events/_0607Protest.htmlAccessed: 01/01/14
[4] Alyssa Liles-Amponsah, first-year MA student in AAADS, “African American Artists: Exploitation and Protest”, 2007,http://www.indiana.edu/~afroamer/archived-events/_0607Protest.htmlAccessed: 01/01/14
[6] Victorian Christianity http://www.npbc.uk.com/pdfs-5min/Victorian%20Christianity.pdf  Accessed: 17/10/13
[8] Gitter Elisabeth G, The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination. PMLA, Vol. 99, No. 5 (Oct., 1984), pp. 936 -954, Modern Language Association, http://www.jstor.org/stable/462145, Accessed: 17/10/2013
[9] Gitter Elisabeth G, The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination. PMLA, Vol. 99, No. 5 (Oct., 1984), pp. 936 -954, Modern Language Association,  http://www.jstor.org/stable/462145 , Accessed: 17/10/2013
[10] In the Bible, Lilith was Adam’s first wife.
Accessed: 18/10/13
[15] Jennifer J. Lee, M. A., 2006, VENUS IMAGINARIA: REFLECTIONS ON ALEXA WILDING, HER LIFE, AND HER ROLE AS MUSE IN THE WORKS OF DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI, Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park, p.40, http://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/1903/6646/1/umi-umd-4045.pdf Accessed:31/12/13
[16] Jennifer J. Lee, M. A., 2006, VENUS IMAGINARIA: REFLECTIONS ON ALEXA WILDING, HER LIFE, AND HER ROLE AS MUSE IN THE WORKS OF DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI, Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park, p.40, http://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/1903/6646/1/umi-umd-4045.pdf Accessed:31/12/13
[21] The editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/474248/Pre-Raphaelite-Brotherhood Accessed: 04/01/14
[22] Charles Dickens, Household Words (1850), http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ARTpreraphael.htm Accessed: 31/12/13
[23] Healey, Caroline, “Rossetti’s Real Fair Ladies: Lizzie, Fanny and Jane, ’05, English and History of Art 151, Brown University, 2004
[24] In The Great Gatsby Daisy is seen as a superficial stereotypical innocent woman; which I think is reflected by the women in the Pre Raphaelite paintings.
[26] Gitter Elisabeth G, The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination. PMLA, Vol. 99, No. 5 (Oct., 1984), pp. 936 -954, Modern Language Association,  http://www.jstor.org/stable/462145 , Accessed: 17/10/2013
[27] Perkins P, Art and the thyroid gland. J R Soc Med 2011: 104: 185
[28] Laura Cumming, Too much of a bad thing, The Observer, Sunday 21 September 2003, http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2003/sep/21/2 Accessed:31/12/13
[29] Germaine Greer, ‘Desperate Romantics? The only desperate thing about the pre-Raphaelites was their truly bad art’, The Guardian, 16 August 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/aug/16/pre-raphaelite-brotherhood-germaine-greer Accessed: 01/01/14
[30] Germaine Greer, ‘Desperate Romantics? The only desperate thing about the pre-Raphaelites was their truly bad art’, The Guardian, 16 August 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/aug/16/pre-raphaelite-brotherhood-germaine-greer Accessed: 01/01/14
[31] Sawhney, Paramvir, “The Pre-Raphaelite Body”, ’08, English/History of Art 151, Pre-Raphaelites, Aesthetes, and Decadents, Brown University, 2006, http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/prb/sawhney.html Accessed: 03/11/13
[32] Sawhney, Paramvir, “The Pre-Raphaelite Body”, ’08, English/History of Art 151, Pre-Raphaelites, Aesthetes, and Decadents, Brown University, 2006, http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/prb/sawhney.html Accessed: 03/11/13
[33] Sawhney, Paramvir, “The Pre-Raphaelite Body”, ’08, English/History of Art 151, Pre-Raphaelites, Aesthetes, and Decadents, Brown University, 2006, http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/prb/sawhney.html Accessed: 03/11/13
[34] Tabitha Barber and Stacy Boldrick, Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, Tate Publishing, p. 117
[36] Perkins P, Art and the thyroid gland. J R Soc Med 2011: 104: 185
[37] Perkins P, Art and the thyroid gland. J R Soc Med 2011: 104: 185
[38] Rossetti Christina G., The Works of Christina Rossetti
Accessed: 16/10/2013
 
[46] Casteras, Susan P.,“The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism by J.B. Bullen Review”, Modern Philology, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Aug., 2001), pp. 143-146
[47] Casteras, Susan P.,“The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism by J.B. Bullen Review”, Modern Philology, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Aug., 2001), pp. 143-146
[48] Casteras, Susan P.,“The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism by J.B. Bullen Review”, Modern Philology, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Aug., 2001), pp. 143-146
[49] Blanchard, Mary W., Boundaries and the Victorian Body: Aesthetic Fashion in the Gilded Age America, The American Historical Review, Vol. 100, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 21-50, Accessed: 03/11/2013
[50] Healey, Caroline, “Rossetti’s Real Fair Ladies: Lizzie, Fanny and Jane, ’05, English and History of Art 151, Brown University, 2004
[51] Healey, Caroline, “Rossetti’s Real Fair Ladies: Lizzie, Fanny and Jane, ’05, English and History of Art 151, Brown University, 2004
[52] Healey, Caroline, “Rossetti’s Real Fair Ladies: Lizzie, Fanny and Jane, ’05, English and History of Art 151, Brown University, 2004
[53] Healey, Caroline, “Rossetti’s Real Fair Ladies: Lizzie, Fanny and Jane, ’05, English and History of Art 151, Brown University, 2004
[54] Jennifer J. Lee, M. A., 2006, VENUS IMAGINARIA: REFLECTIONS ON ALEXA WILDING, HER LIFE, AND HER ROLE AS MUSE IN THE WORKS OF DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI, Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park, p.38, http://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/1903/6646/1/umi-umd-4045.pdf Accessed:31/12/13
[55] Healey, Caroline, “Rossetti’s Real Fair Ladies: Lizzie, Fanny and Jane, ’05, English and History of Art 151, Brown University, 2004