Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery
‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ highlights twelve overlooked women, but rather than underline their contributions somehow promotes the artistic talents of men.
In her 1856 poem “In an Artist’s Studio,” Christina Rossetti offers a cutting critique of how women are painted by male artists: “He feeds upon her face by day and night…Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.” Since many of the male Pre-Raphaelite artists shared models — most frequently their sisters, wives, or lovers — there is a tendency to talk about the women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle only in terms of their superficial attributes. With this focus on roles as muses and models for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the women behind the movement rarely have their own work as artists, makers, and partners acknowledged as more than a breathy aside.
Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, the newest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, attempts to remedy this by highlighting twelve women associated with the movement: Christina Rossetti, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Effie Millais, Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddal, Maria Zambaco, Annie Miller, Fanny Eaton, Joanna Wells, Fanny Cornforth, Marie Spartali Stillman, and Evelyn de Morgan. All these women had an undeniable impact on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but the exhibition struggles to separate who they were as people in their own rights versus who they were to the men.
Each section is organized after a different woman, theoretically giving them space to tell their stories. However, this means that while the Pre-Raphaelite men are talked about in aggregate, the same is never true of the women. Each woman follows the next in isolation. We never learn what their relationships with each other were.
These women are also all the celebrated objects of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s gaze. Wandering through the exhibition means that we are treated to the men’s paintings of the women while the exhibition text describes their relationship to the men. Instead of underlining the women’s contributions, it somehow serves to promote the talent of the men, both in art and in seduction. But the women deserve recognition on their own.
Take Christina Rossetti (1830-1094), who was widely considered one of the finest poets of her time. During her career, which spanned more than half a century, she authored numerous books of poetry, including Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), The Prince’s Progress (1866), A Pageant (1881), and The Face of the Deep (1882). She also wrote the lyrics to two well-known British Christmas carols, “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Love Came Down At Christmas.” The Eclectic Review hailed her as “a true and most genuine poet,” and she was considered the natural poetic successor of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Her friend Jane Morris (1839-1914) rubbed shoulders with famous poets, novelists, politicians, and aristocrats. She was both heavily involved in the foundation of Morris & Co., a furnishings and decorative arts manufacturer, and did much of their embroidery. As the company grew, she headed up their embroidery arm and her work won the firm a prestigious award at the 1862 International Exhibition. This drew the attention of new clients and popularised the company. However, needlework has historically ranked at the bottom of the aesthetic hierarchy thanks to gender associations that have devalued the domestic and Jane Morris’ work still has not received the attention it deserves.
Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919), the final subject of The Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, was one of the first three women to enroll in the Slade School of Art where she won a prestigious scholarship and several awards. She was also one of the first artists to exhibit at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. She was determined to not be defined by the men in her life and fiercely resisted the idea of getting married, famously declaring that “No one shall drag me out with a halter round my neck to sell me!” She spent her life dedicated to art, writing in her diary: “Art is eternal, but life is short… I will make up for it now, I have not a moment to lose.” She did eventually marry and the profits from her art kept her husband’s business afloat.
Christina Rossetti, Jane Morris, Fanny Eaton, and many of the other women in the exhibition, are preserved for posterity through the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s paintings but those same artworks have exacted the price of silence. The women are ethereal and ageless. Even in just the past few years in London, we have seen numerous exhibitions flaunt the beauty of the young Pre-Raphaelite women with their distinctive hair and piercing gazes, as painted by the men. Yet, after her husband’s death, Jane Morris also chose to sit for Evelyn de Morgan, a close family friend, who painted Morris as she looked in 1904 — complete with furrowed brow and shock of white hair. This image of the Pre-Raphaelite’s aging muse stands in sharp contrast to the youthful paintings decorating the exhibition walls up till this point and offers a much-needed visual counterpoint of the Pre-Raphaelite women forging their own artistic path separate from the men.
The exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 17 October 2019 – 26 February 2020. For more information, visit npg.org.uk.