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Reframing the Pre-Raphaelite movement: from brotherhood to sisters

A celebration of the female Pre-Raphaelites opens at the National Portrait Gallery, but who were they really?

By Olivia Bailey

Curator Jan Marsh calls the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery an acknowledgement of the agency and contribution of the women surrounding the famous brotherhood, a 19th century trio formed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millias, and Holman Hunt as a reaction against the conventional and affected style of painting promoted by the Royal Academy. There is a tendency to romanticise the Pre-Raphaelites as an inspired group of male artists whose creativity was sparked by the female form. Pre-Raphaelite Sisters promises to debunk this cliché, fleshing out a beloved movement to give all its members the recognition they deserve.

However, the narratives of 12 women seem incomplete, condensed into limited gallery space – half that devoted to Cindy Sherman’s recent solo show. There is an inevitable paradox in telling the stories of 12 women together in a small gallery, where previous shows celebrating the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood have occupied much larger spaces at the Tate and the neighbouring National Gallery. We are still yet to see pre-twentieth century female artists credited with the same blockbuster shows as their male counterparts.

Photography by Olivia Bailey

The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites over their lovers, wives, and sisters is central to the narrative of the exhibition. Despite the efforts of the curators, our accounts of these women come mostly from male critics whose opinions were formed in relation to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. At the gallery’s entrance, a sign praises the women as Model, Muse, Wife, and Artist. It is into these restrictive categories that the curators sort the women throughout the exhibition, and in doing so expose not only the limited gender roles of the 19th century, but also the lasting perceptions historians have held of the women since. By opening the exhibition with portraits of Effie Gray – the dutiful wife of domineering John Ruskin – curators Jan Marsh and Alison Smith attempt to introduce the notion that the women surrounding the Pre-Raphaelites were more than muses. But Gray’s contribution as a sort of secretary for her second husband Millais is significant of the message communicated throughout the exhibition: that women’s contributions to a crucial artistic movement were that of aiding or emulating their male superiors.

Those who visited Lee Krasner at the Barbican this year were pleased to find that the show was not dominated by references to Jackson Pollock. The same cannot be said of Pre-Raphaelite Sisters. The Brotherhood are alternately portrayed as sympathetic heroes who rescue the women from poverty or stale marriage, or hopeless romantics such as the philandering Rossetti and Burne Jones, whose creativity seems partially dependent on their numerous affairs. The lives of the female creatives in the exhibition are related through a string of interactions with brothers, husbands, and lovers, and provide an insight into the artistic outputs of the group which is mediated by the overwhelming influence of their male teachers.

Elizabeth Siddal’s unsung passion for art and poetry is revealed in the exhibition, and her drawings capture the ideas of pre-raphaelitism as well as any male. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s influence is inescapable in Siddal’s works, populated by medieval knights and maidens; her watercolour, Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear, is contextualised as a ‘companion piece’ to his Before the Battle. Fanny Cornforth’s exhibited work is a copy of her lover Rossetti’s renowned Lady Lilith, whilst Georgiana Burne Jones’ cartoon-ish early works indicate that her preexisting interest in art was eclipsed by her husband Edward Burne Jones’ influence, progressing to subjects like King Arthur. Even Christina Rossetti, the only writer of the group, does not escape the shadow of Dante. Examples of collaborations between the two in her illustrated works seem to make her greatest achievements seem improved by his inclusion. A central space displaying portraits of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood contextualises this women’s movement in the world of male painters, a sentiment that permeates the whole exhibition.

Joanna Boyce and Maria Spartali Stillman are arguably the most refreshing revelations of the show – both successful artists during their time, whose work perfectly captures Pre-Raphaelite themes without the same sense of sexualisation; rather than gazing seductively at the viewer, their female figures are pensive dreamers (as in the Stillman’s The Lady Prays Desire) or defiant warriors (as in Boyce’s Elgiva). Boyce is credited as partner and leader of the art company founded with her husband George Boyce, and Stillman as a professional commercial artist. Even if the praise of both Boyce and Stillman’s works by Pre-Raphaelite painters feels like pedagogical condescension, their success and individuality indicate that the exhibition might begin to celebrate differences between the Pre-Raphaelite men and women.

However, the final room, hosting a handful of Evelyn De Morgan’s works, disappoints. While Edward Burne Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s works dominate entire walls, De Morgan’s large Night and Sleep feels like an afterthought crammed into the exhibition in the last possible wallspace. The fascinating influence of her spiritualism, which can be felt in all her works, including The Queen and Fair Rosamund, becomes a footnote in the exhibition. A photo of De Morgan is also tucked between paintings and her Symbolist approach to later work is not acknowledged. Consequently, as an artist whose work begins to depart from Pre-Raphaelite styles, the exhibition traps De Morgan firmly in their world.

The exhibition reveals the artifice behind the Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunners’ – the seductresses reproduced in half figure, full bodied portraits. The perception of Fanny Cornforth as a fallen woman is the result of Rossetti’s casting in paintings such as Found and The Blue Bower. Interestingly, her lifelong devotion, caring for Rossetti when he fell sick after her marriage, is not mentioned, and her submission to an asylum at the end of her life seems like a neat continuation of the fallen woman narrative. Similarly, model and artist Maria Zambaco’s recurrent appearances as a predatory lover in Burne Jones’ work is exposed as a derogatory interpretation of her heartbreak, though the serious effect of this on her mental health is not explored. Fanny Eaton’s presence in portraits by male and female Pre-Raphaelites reveals the antiquated world views of the group, who cast Eaton as Jewish, Egyptian, or Indian at will. However, text panels around the exhibition state that “none of her words or thoughts are known.” The selected works show the fetishistic reality of recasting these women in fantasy roles, including one portrait which Effie Gray declared “the most lovely piece of oil painting but much prettier than me” and Christina Rossetti’s manuscript for In an Artist’s Studio, which reveals Dante’s obsession with Elizabeth Siddal: “not as she is but as she fills his dream.” While the fallacies of the Pre-Raphaelite male gaze are exposed, a lack of biographical information prevents us from understanding the realities of their female subjects.

That said, the exhibition gives unprecedented access to the female gaze of the Pre-Raphaelites. The tenderness of the relationships between the women shines through, notably in the portraits of Jane Morris in her later years by Maria Spartali Stillman and Jenny Morris by Evelyn De Morgan. We also learn about the creative projects between Georgiana Burne-Jones, Jane Morris, and Lizzie Siddal, and as the first exhibition to display these women together, the curators are the first to recognise them as a vital part of the unified collective of Pre-Raphaelites –, a feat that has taken 170 years. Unfortunately, however, the women in the exhibition remain framed by the cultural monopoly of the Pre-Raphaelite men.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 26 January 2020

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