Usually, when I view Pre-Raphaelite paintings, it comes at the end of a long museum visit. My feet are aching, my head is full, and all I want is the cafe so I can sit down and gather the strength I need to continue sightseeing.
There is no denying the paintings are exquisitely beautiful, but they always leave me feeling somehow untouched. It’s a little like flipping through a fashion magazine in a beauty salon. Your eyes are briefly treated to sumptuous colors and textures, an idealized version of beauty that evaporates as soon as you walk out and get into your car. Compare that to seeing an Edward Hopper painting. The painterly virtuosity is absent, but the images somehow seep into your bones and make your soul ache.
So, when I saw the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Seeing so many Pre-Raphaelite works in one place, without the burden of comparison with more significant art movements, allows a visitor to enjoy fully the colors and astounding technical skills of these painters. It’s a bit like watching The Great Gatsby in 3D. Sure, there is an underpinning of high brow literary themes, but what we really want is to be blown away by the dazzling visual beauty.
Take this, for example.
This painting has no connection to reality and yet it is thrilling to look at. It captures the moment the Lady of Shalott is condemned to die because she looks out of the window at Sir Lancelot, galloping by on his horse. Under the terms of her curse, she was forbidden to look at the outside world except through a looking glass. She is undone in this moment. The glass cracks, her hair blows in a gust of wind, and the tapestry unravels, the threads loosened and swirling.
The Victorian men who painted these images were from a different world themselves. Their morality was so unlike our own. They adored sentiment and artifice, whereas, in the modern world, I think many of us have an acute allergy to such things. But I think my real problem is my pesky feminist leanings. Romanticized, tragic, idealized women dominate the Pre-Raphaelite movement, just as they preoccupied the Victorian mind, in general.
I have always been fascinated with the way women’s roles and sexuality have been variously circumscribed throughout history. That’s why, after I saw the show in Washington, I decided to read Suzanne Fagence Cooper’s book, Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin, and John Everett Millais. The book promised to show a different side of the Pre-Raphaelite movement all together. The story (not necessarily taken from the book) has been made into a movie starring Dakota Fanning to be released later this year.
Cooper’s biography tells the story of Euphemia “Effie” Gray, a high-born woman who was married to two men associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The first was the critic John Ruskin, a champion of the movement, and the second was John Everett Millais, one of its most sensitive and talented artists. Now, this doesn’t sound like a terribly big deal, but in Effie’s England, it took an Act of Parliament to get a divorce. She is one of just a handful of women able to break off a marriage during the reign of Queen Victoria and she did it so she could marry someone else. Unthinkable!
Someone from the 21st century might be forgiven for assuming sex was at the heart of it but, nope, unless you mean the complete lack thereof. Effie dissolved her first marriage to John Ruskin on the basis that she was still a virgin. For years, Ruskin had refused to consummate the marriage. It is a famous incident in British history because Ruskin later admitted something about Effie repelled him on their wedding night, leading scholars to speculate she had fallen short of some womanly ideal in Ruskin’s mind. To avoid any further scandal, Effie waited for the dust to settle to even see Millais, let alone cultivate a romantic relationship with him. It seems, by far, to be the most squeaky-clean love triangle in history. And yet, it was still a massive scandal that rocked British society and dogged Effie for the rest of her life.
Millais met Effie while painting a portrait of Ruskin and was immediately taken with her. She soon began to model for him and is in some of Millais’s most well-known paintings, such as The Order of Release 1746. For Millais, Effie embodied the ideal of the hale, beautiful Scots woman.
Looking at many of his other paintings, it is clear that Millais was preoccupied with capturing women and girls in the fullness of life. His most arresting painting is of Sophie Gray, Effie’s younger sister. She, too, modeled for Millais on many occasions.
Cooper outlines an interesting theory about the effects modeling had on Sophie. Effie’s young sister embodied ripening girlhood in many of Millais paintings. She is virginal yet awakening, a real flesh-and-blood girl, but pure and perfect. In essence, an ideal. Cooper offers that, because they spent so much time together and his portraits of her were so striking, there may have been feelings between the two. Sophie suffered mental health issues when she grew up and eventually died of anorexia. Did she starve herself in order to reclaim the girlish innocence and purity celebrated in the paintings?
The idealization of young girls was widespread in Victorian culture. John Ruskin had a tendency to fall in love with very young teenage girls, which could be why he was so disappointed with the 20-year-old Effie on their wedding night, despite a very tender and effusive courtship. Though it seems like Millais did love Effie, his use of her as a model declined after they were married.
The Pre-Raphaelites, in their attention to nature, painted young women who looked real enough to step off the canvas. But that is as far as they took their realism. They did not paint mature women who were tired, stretched, happy (or otherwise), surrounded by grandchildren, chatting with friends, or performing mundane tasks. No, they were frozen in time, personifications of noble qualities or heroines of long-lost legends. Is it any wonder the Lady of Shalott was such a popular subject, frozen at the moment when she’s condemned to death?
Thankfully, times have changed. Cooper takes pains to describe how limited life was for women in England at that time. They were not allowed to own property and could not vote. If they were in society, as Effie was, any wrong move could affect their prospects to marry well or make good marriages for their children. Effie took the brave step of seeking an annulment to her first marriage in a time when most women in her shoes would have quietly accepted a loveless life. Cooper suggests Effie’s case was a harbinger of change for women in England. By the time Effie’s daughters were grown up, women were experiencing more freedom than ever before. Suffrage was becoming a pressing issue. Women could move around unchaperoned. They could seek better educational opportunities, and even find respectable work, thanks to a rising middle class. Effie’s position as a Pre-Raphaelite muse becomes a little ironic when cast in this light.
Unfortunately, the book does not fully reveal Effie’s character and thought processes, perhaps because Cooper does not quote her letters at length. There are also parts of the book that feel disjointed, taking the reader back and forth decades in the span of a few pages. I kept wondering about the potential of this story in the hands of a talented historical novelist. I wanted to know Effie better, particularly in the second half of the book, where she gets somewhat lost. I hope the movie and Dakota Fanning’s considerable talents as an actress will succeed where the book could not.
Then again, I wonder if the mindset of that era could ever be totally comprehensive to us. The New York Times review of the show at NGA affirms the Pre-Raphaelites were not avant-garde. They did not alter either society or the history of art itself, the line of which is typically drawn through the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, to the Cubists and beyond. I believe this is because the Pre-Raphaelites were in love with the mores and sensibilities of their time and they (mostly) worked within those rigid frameworks rather than challenging them. It was not merely women who were locked in gilded cages, it seems, but many of the men, too.