The Pre-Raphaelite Paintings (The Tate- London)

Over spring break I spent a glorious four days in London visiting family, but I was able to pop to several museums all the same. I decided it was about time I finally see the Tate. One of the things the Tate is most famous for is its expansive collection of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I am hoping to write my senior thesis on this group of artists, so it was fun to get a little forecast of the next year and a half of my life(!).

Quick history lesson: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or PRB, was a group of English painters who opposed academic painting. The founders, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, sought to portray a moral seriousness in their work that recalled the style of painting before the High Renaissance, and specifically, Raphael. Many of their subjects were religious, because religion was thought to be more direct and to evoke deep spiritual feeling. Their subjects frequently display hyper-detailed, almost claustrophobic portrayals of women. The PRB felt that sharp and photographic attention to detail, for example, painting every scrap on the floor, created more realistic and moral works of art than the art featured in the Royal Academy.

ANYWAY, on to the art! All of the PRB paintings are held in one, giant, tear-inducing room. (I literally started crying when I saw “The Lady of Shalott.” I cried so hard I decided that painting needs its own post, coming soon). I also recognized a bunch of the paintings from art history courses at Tufts. It was marvelous to see these paintings in person!

Here’s “The Beloved (The Bride),” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1865-1866). It was very difficult to photograph, so look it up online for a sharper image. “The Beloved” features one central female, encircled on all sides by several other females. Engraved on the frame below is a phrase from The Song of Solomon. It reads. “My beloved is mine and I am his. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.” The central female appears to be a bride who has just pushed back her veil to reveal her face. Four bridesmaids and a page surround her. What I first noticed about this painting was the untraditional outfit of the bride. And when I say untraditional, I mean untraditionally western, because her physicality is pointedly very western. Her pale skin, light eyes, and soft red lips all fulfill western standards of beauty, and yet she wears a Peruvian veil and a dress sewn from Japanese fabric. The integration of these nonwestern cultures to a wedding scene signals exotic references that are hyper-sexualized from the western perspective. While she conforms to western standards of beauty, the bride is exorcized and eroticized by her garments. The inclusion of the African page enforces the ties with the Oriental. However, the components of this painting do not entirely line up. It is awkward and stuffy due to the overcrowding of figures within a small frame and the bizarre placement of the page below the bride. If the Bride has just lifted her veil, are WE, the viewers, the groom? And if so, why does it feel like we are not only fetishizing our bride-to-be, but the page and the bridesmaids as well? Femininity is on display here, but it is not given space to thrive and flourish. Rather, it is crammed into a frame that bursts with sexuality. The Bride’s face is blank- she has given herself up for her groom. Since we are in the footspace of the groom, then she is giving herself up to us, and we are put in the uncomfortable position of voyeur.

However, this does feel like a very modern interpretation. A viewer in the 19th century may have marveled at this painting for its “trendy” oriental elements. Furthermore, he may have enjoyed the voyeuristic position the painting put him in. After all, this discomfort felt by the viewer is a product of the feminism that allows us to see how objectifying this image is.

After ranting talking about how overly sexualized Rossetti portrayed the women in this picture, it may seem kinda confusing why I love Pre-Raphaelite paintings so much. The truth is, I find the seemingly dated perspective towards women in these works very relevant today. “My Beloved” paints a story of gender roles and issues that is just as prevalent today as it was in 1865. I also find the paintings aesthetically beautiful to look at- which seems to contradict my feminist standpoint here, but really supports it. People know that the media feeds us idealized images of female beauty, through photoshop in 2015 and through oil paint in 1865, and yet we as a society still idolize these images.

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Edward Burne Jones was a later member of the PRB. He painted “The Golden Stairs” in 1880. Again, terrible picture. I swear it’s heavenly in person. There is no backstory here. Jones left the identities of the eighteen women up to interpretation. They seem to me to be angelic; the staircase is the staircase of heaven. Several are playing instruments. The fluidness with which the women walk and the drapery of their dresses evoke musicality as well. The entire scene seems to have been lifted from a dream. It is undoubtedly a male’s dream. While the women are not obviously sexualized with low-cut garments and puffy red lips, the mass of women still has a tantalizing effect. I have to wonder how this painting reflects the morality that the PRB sought to attain through painting. “My Beloved” upholds the sacredness of the marital bond, despite the sexualized bride. There does not seem to be much here to uphold; we do not even know who these women are. It is easier that way. One does not think too hard while looking at this painting, but relaxes in its elegant pleasures.

Side note: What is the statue in front of “The Golden Stairs” doing? Stretching? Posing? Whining? Having a temper tantrum? I’m conflicted.

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“The Awakening Conscience,” by William Holman Hunt (1853) is an extraordinarily interesting painting. The woman’s face was actually painted over after the painting was initially displayed. Infrared technology has shown that her expression used to be one of horror. That might make more sense once I talk a bit more about “The Awakening Conscience.”

The female protagonist’s ringless fingers suggest that she is this man’s mistress. She is in the midst of jumping off her lover’s lap due to a moment of revelation; her awakening conscience, so to speak. Lots of symbols point to this interpretation. The cat is a symbol of sexuality, the yarn represented a tangled mess, the dropped glove suggests impropriety.

The technical details of the painting create a claustrophobic mood. What seems to be a window is revealed to be a mirror when we notice the woman’s reflection in the corner of it. Without access to the outside world, the world of this one music room suddenly shrinks. There is no space to move about; every surface is covered with a detail that brings us back to this couple’s indiscretions. Every surface is heavily detailed in the Pre-Raphaelite style, from the patterned wall to the strands of her hair to the threads of the rug. The overwhelming specificity of the room is agonizing, which would match much better with the agonized facial expression this woman used to bear. Her moment of awakening conscience is the moment she has a realization of her wrongdoings. This facial expression is too calm, too dull, to portray such an epiphany. It is more beautiful, which was likely Hunt’s motivation for the change, but it does not have the same intensity of feeling as it would have if she looked aghast.

Regardless, “The Awakening Conscience” is a typical PRB painting in that it upholds the virtue of a moral life. The female is offered redemption for realizing the error of her adulterous ways.

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You may recognize “Ophelia” by John Everett Milais (1851-1852). She is the same Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who drowns after a branch breaks on a willow tree she is climbing.

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“Ophelia” weaves together themes of life and death. Ophelia’s floating body seems to have experienced accelerated decay. Her legs have lost all substance. Below her waist, there is a swatch of grey paint meant to indicate her dress, but it has no sense of weight, no three-dimensionality. It is as if, in her death, Ophelia is receding from existence. And yet, her eyes are slightly open and her mouth parted. It looks as if he could be awake. We have to wonder, is she asleep? Or is the taking her last breath before dying? Or is she truly dead, despite her open gaze? Her hands are prettily perched, palms up. They float limply in the water but maintain a liveliness- if the painting were turned sideways, she could be standing upright, reaching out to hug someone. The contradiction between Ophelia’s upper and lower body point to a questioning attitude towards death. Millais seems to be exploring death and its effects on the human form. He also paints Ophelia beautifully, leaving her lips rosy red, and hinting at her lush red hair. He even surrounds her with flowers. If she were not portrayed as dead (or close to dead), then these choices would sexualize Ophelia. But since she is dead, it makes the viewer uncomfortable to know that he finds a dead woman even remotely appealing. I doubt this was done on purpose- necrophilia would hardly be considered “moral” by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood- but it points to the male-dominant gaze that prevailed in the 19th century. Even in death, women are meant to be lovely.

I also have to stress how insanely DETAILED this painting is in person. I tried to take close-up photographs, but they don’t fully do the painting justice. Every individual blade of grass is highlighted, every flicker of light on the water defined to the atomic level. It has a photographic effect, and also serves to create the claustrophobic mood I mentioned before. One starts to feel death creeping up on them, despite the fact that life flourishes all around.

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I would have written about every single painting in this room if I had time/thought a reader could stomach it. As it is, I’ve given you the best of the best. Just know there’s tons more if ya want it! Check out the Tate website for some more… “Christ in the House of His Parents” is really interesting and worth a look.

I feel super accomplished for finally writing about the Tate! More current exhibits to come, as well as some more flashbacks. Until then…

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

 

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