Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery
17 October 2019 - 26 January 2020 Catalogue by Jan Marsh and Peter Funnell
This is a problematic exhibition on several levels, but one which is enjoyable none the less. One may legitimately ask whether we need another Pre-Raphaelite exhibition when there seem to have been so many recently, most notably the Burne-Jones show at Tate Britain last year. However, the focus here is unusual, and one for which the curators should be applauded. For too long the economic and social reality has been that much of our significant art heritage was produced for men by men, a fact which is often either ignored completely or marginalised as of little relevance. What this exhibition attempts to correct is the spurious notion that the women connected with the male Pre-Raphaelite painters were only present in their constructed images —a false view of them and their artistic relevance.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this exhibition concerns its central premise, that there is a legitimate argument to make for considering the lives and activities of these women apart and distinct from their relationships with men. While evidence is presented that the women were clearly more than the male artists’ acolytes, there is little attempt to allow them to stand in their own right as significant artists. It is quite correct to look at the lives and careers of these women independently of the men, but it is, paradoxically, questionable whether such a collective exhibition would have been put together were it not for that association. The attempt to relocate some of these artists is admirable, but in so heavily emphasising their connection to the male Pre-Raphaelites, the curators reinforce the contentious trope that women artists only achieve prominence through their relationships with the supposedly higher-achieving men.
Of all the women associated with this group of painters, perhaps the best-known is Lizzie Siddal. The myths surrounding her biography are well-known and only need to be recalled briefly: the lamps going out under the bath in which she lay for hours modelling for Millais’ Ophelia, and her father’s subsequent threat to sue over the doctor’s bill; the tragic marriage with Rossetti and her apparent addiction to laudanum; her idealised depiction after her death in the Beata Beatrix by Rossetti; the exhumation of her grave to retrieve Rossetti’s notebook of poetry; and, of most relevance in the context of this exhibition, the virtual neglect of her own artistic efforts.
Lizzie modelled for most of the artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Besides the paintings of Rossetti and Millais, her image appears in works by Deverell and Holman Hunt, and for many she is the face of the Pre-Raphaelites. Her long red hair, pale face and half-closed eyes all contributed to the commonly held assumption that she represented the tragic muse, and her subsequent unhappy marriage and early suicide seem to vindicate this viewpoint. As with most artistic myths there is some truth to this, but also much that can be disputed, since the reality of her life contains much more than this simplistic account would suggest. Lizzie was a poet of some note, and her drawings and watercolours are worthy in their own right.
The 1984 Tate exhibition The Pre-Raphaelites re-ignited interest in the movement but only contained two works by a female artist, and that was Lizzie Siddal. All the others were ignored. Some of Siddal’s best works are on display here, but they are small watercolours or drawings which, while showing clear talent, are not the work of an artist with complete mastery of the chosen medium. Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear (1856) is of the most interest, yet when compared to some of Rossetti’s watercolours of the same period --The Tune of Seven Towers (1857) or The Wedding of St. George and Princess Sabra (1857), for example— it is clearly derivative in both the style of execution and the subject matter. Again, this suggests to the viewer that her work, while of some merit, is still heavily dependent upon her association with her male companion: her own voice cannot be heard without his talking over it.
Altogether twelve female artists, models, and companions are represented here. One of the most fascinating, both for her art and for her relationship with Burne-Jones, is Maria Zambaco. Her torrid affair with him, which lasted several years, unsurprisingly altered the artist’s relationship with his wife Georgiana. In her otherwise admirable memoir of her husband she failed to mention Maria at all, although the latter’s intervention came close to ending the marriage. At one point the two lovers intended to run away to France, but at the last minute Burne-Jones changed his mind and returned to his wife. Shortly after there was a notorious incident in which Maria attempted to throw herself into a London canal, and had to be restrained by the artist and a passing policeman. The ensuing scandal upset everyone concerned, and Burne-Jones withdrew from his social circle and devoted himself entirely to his work.
However, although Zambaco is ostensibly the focus in this exhibition, a great deal of attention is taken up by Burne-Jones’ The Tree of Forgiveness (1882), a later version of Phyllis and Demophoon (1870), which also featured in the Burne-Jones show at Tate Britain and was extensively discussed in this magazine. This depiction of a story from Ovid is about the debilitating reality of the possessive love between Burne-Jones and Zambaco, and it has the unfortunate effect of completely overwhelming the alloy medals and small sculpture produced by Zambaco some years later: the Burne-Jones painting, two meters by one meter, dominates the space not only with its size but also with its great beauty.
Evelyn de Morgan is one of the few artists on show at this exhibition who did not have an emotional tie to one of the male Pre-Raphaelite circle. Relatively unknown now (she does not feature at all in the Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, nor does she appear in many books on Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian painting), she was one of the first female students at the Slade school. Her paintings contain elements of narrative form which can be found in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, combined with the Aesthetic approach extolled by Pater and others. A painting from 1904-5, The Hourglass, is amongst her finest, and is on display here.
The painting is full of references to the Pre-Raphaelites: the mediaeval tapestry in the background, the winged musician draped with flowers, the highly-decorated, archaic chair, and the head-dress and excessive drapery of the central figure. Obviously the object of the title represents the passage of time, and as such is a momento mori. However, what gives this work its special resonance is not just the hourglass itself, but also the model for the figure. This was de Morgan’s close friend Jane Morris, a fact which adds meaning to the whole enterprise. Jane had been one of the great beauties of the early Pre-Raphaelite movement. Married to William Morris and simultaneously the lover and confidant of Rossetti, to many she represents a feminine ideal. In this melancholy piece she is portrayed as recently widowed and in poor health, contemplating the passing of time within an interior which the friends of her youth would have used for the settings of their own artworks.
It is perhaps worth noting here that in 1905, when this painting was finished, Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck were exhibiting their paintings at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, earning the sobriquet Fauves or ‘wild beasts.’ The art world was changing, and the very English Pre-Raphaelite forms were looking increasingly out of step with the modern world. This dilemma is still argued about today, and shows no sign of resolution. While the earliest Pre-Raphaelite works could make significant statements about contemporary society — think The Awakening Conscience, or Work — the later, more decorative aesthetic works could seem out of touch.
The final chapter in the catalogue, The Sisterhood and its Afterlife, is an admirable attempt to both describe and challenge the accepted role of women within the Pre-Raphaelite circle. As Alison Smith so rightly states, for far too long the women associated with the mythology of this male group have been dismissed as either models to be displayed from the male artist’s perspective, or as derivative artists whose own work is unworthy of serious consideration. Sadly, this exhibition, although it obviously set out with the best of intentions, fails to adequately address either of these offensive standpoints.
It is an unfortunate fact of art history that women have been perpetually sidelined as either second-rate, or unduly influenced by their supposedly better male peers. Artemisia Gentileschi is about to have her first ever show at the National Gallery, the Lee Krasner exhibition at the Barbican recently did much to demonstrate that she was very much her own artist and not a poor imitation of her husband Jackson Pollock, and female art historians —most notably Griselda Pollock and Mary Garrard— have worked tirelessly to ask us to view female artists as artists in their own right, and not as accompaniments to their better-known male contemporaries. This show would have accomplished so much more if it had been possible to display the work of these women without the constant references to their male lovers, friends, and artistic influences, and without the work of their male counterparts occupying so much of the available space.--Paul Flux