Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists / the Victorians: British Painting

Article excerpt

JAN MARSH AND PAMELA GERRISH NUNN

Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists Manchester, Eng.: Manchester City Art Gallery, 1997-98. 159 pp.; 65 color ills., 163 b/w. 19.95

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART

The Victorians: British Painting

1837-1901

Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1997. 156 pp.; 68 color ills., 99 b/w. $49.50

There has been a spate of important exhibitions and accompanying catalogues in the realm of Victorian art in 1997. Among the most notable were exhibitions focusing on British Symbolism (Tate Gallery, London), fairy painting (Royal Academy, London), PreRaphaelite women artists (Manchester City Art Gallery), and a general survey of Victorian art (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Catalogues published in conjunction with the last two in particular offer insights about the state of scholarship in the field, despite the obvious differences in scope.

Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists was curated and the text written by two established experts,Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn, on the topic of British women artists of the Victorian era. Their groundbreaking scholarship over several years not only reflects their often uphill struggle in research (tracking down photographs and facts about women artists often proves unbelievably frustrating) but also attests to their tenacity in finding objects of quality to enlighten both viewers and readers. (Unfortunately, there is no North American venue for Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists, a comment, perhaps, on how hard it still is to find museums willing to showcase historical exhibitions of work by women artists-hardly a controversial subject after more than two decades of "progress.")

This effort adds significantly to the proverbial canon of literature and knowledge about Victorian art and fulfills the authors' mission to reveal that, in terms of Pre-Raphaelitism, women were active in all stages and "played a crucial role in shaping, defining, developing and perpetuating the movement over its halfcentury" (p. 9). Accordingly, the duo impressively marshals new facts and brings attention to twenty artists and eighty-six objects that not even their previous publications (notably their joint 1989 book, Women Artists and the PreRaphaelite Movement, the first treatment ever of this subject) mentioned either at all or in much detail. In this category can be included artists such as Marianne Preindelsberger Stokes, Christiana Jane Herringham, and Jane Benham Hay.

Moreover, Marsh and Gerrish Nunn rightly point out how very different the phenomenon of Pre-Raphaelitism would have been without the visual input of various women. In the first wave of influence, the adherents included Elizabeth Siddal, Rosa Brett,Joanna Boyce Wells, and Emma Sandys. Otherssuch as Marie Spartali Stillman, Evelyn Picker ing De Morgan, Stokes, Kate Bunce, and Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale-belonged more to the so-called second and third generations, which drew inspiration from the fantasies of femininity created by Dante Gabriel Rossetti or the visual lyricism of Edward Burne-Jones, who arguably reinvented (and reinvigorated) Pre-Raphaelitism according to his own poetic visions.

In Marsh's essay, the period 1850 to 1900 is discussed, concisely chronicling key (if at this juncture well-known) issues like the importance of family support for many women, the gendered restrictions imposed by society and the art world, the impact of marriage and motherhood, as well as the challenges women faced obtaining art training (with study from the nude a salient crusade), patronage, membership in professional organizations, and critical exposure in exhibitions and galleries. In addition to providing an overview, Marsh raises a new point about how many women artists of the period were intrepid travelers: "Of first generation Pre-Raphaelites, it was Jane Benham, Howitt, and Boyce who most energetically studied outside Britain, not John Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or Arthur Hughes" (p. …