'Too Individual an Artist to Be a Mere Echo: Female Pre-Raphaelite Artists as Independent Professionals

By Taylor, Helen Nina | British Art Journal, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

'Too Individual an Artist to Be a Mere Echo: Female Pre-Raphaelite Artists as Independent Professionals


Taylor, Helen Nina, British Art Journal


This article examines the relationship between Pre-Raphaelitism and the emergence of female painters working as professionals in the 53 years between 1848 the year of the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB)--and 1901, the last year of Queen Victoria's reign. By focusing upon seven of the female Pre-Raphaelites who were working in a largely 'fine art' style--Anna Blunden (1829-1915), Joanna Boyce (1831-61), Rosa Brett (1829-82), Anna Mary Howitt (1824-84), Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62), Rebecca Solomon (1832-84) and Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927)--this article will show how these women used Pre-Raphaelitism to become recognized as professional artists in their own right, with 'a style of painting that encouraged imagination and expression rather than erecting criteria of correctness', (2) and that in so doing they enjoyed greater freedom than their female Royal Academy-style counterparts.

Professionalism was 'a new identity in 19th-century Britain... most vociferously claimed as masculine by the upper strata of middle-class men'. (3) Professional 'status anxiety ... was particularly strong among painters', (4) with male artists fearing that allowing females to operate as professionals would lead to 'a loss of territory but also ... a cheaper product of a lower standard which would bring down the ... prices that artwork commanded'. (5) When women exhibited at the RA, 'most criticism was unashamedly essentialist, commending the qualities culturally ascribed to women: delicacy, feeling, sentiment', (6) in other words, conforming to Victorian bourgeois domestic ideology. The term 'domestic ideology' signifies the deliberate separation of the functions, or 'spheres', of men and women, a characteristic of Victorian culture that the RA upheld. The PRB, by contrast, set themselves against the values, content and techniques of the RA. Rather than aiming for a professional status based upon the sale of paintings as a luxury commodity, its adherents forged a new artistic identity of fidelity, exacting detail and high-minded content. In aligning themselves with the Pre-Raphaelite style, female painters could simultaneously operate outside expected academic genres, and make a statement that they wished their art to be taken seriously for its technical detail and serious content, rather than sentiment. The imaginative content and awkward anatomy of male Pre-Raphaelite paintings allowed 'the female artist ... without a Classical education, without training in anatomy, without unlimited access to scenes of modern life' (7) to paint in the same style as the men and not be judged harshly by comparison. William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) believed that 'in the present day, when vigorous brush-work and calculated "values" are more thought of than inventiveness or sentiment, Siddal's performances would secure little beyond a sneer first, a glance afterwards, and a silent passing by ... But ... in the Pre-Raphaelite environment.., things were estimated differently'. (8)

In the content of Pre-Raphaelite paintings there 'was a new respect for landscape painting, an invigorated religious art, and a modern literary pantheon to replace the old inspirations'. (9) This article will focus upon these three elements literature, nature and religion--in order to demonstrate three particular ways in which female painters adapted the Pre-Raphaelite style to suit their own ends.

Literature

The PRB sought inspiration in literary sources such as the Romantic poets or medieval ballads but also in the work of contemporary writers, such as Thomas Hood or Alfred Tennyson. Throughout the PRB's existence, literature provided both a stimulus and a context for paintings, evoking a place, time, or emotion that the painters were moved to convey. It would be fair to say that 'nearly every Pre-Raphaelite painting and drawing is related to literature', (10) with many nonliterary scenes using a quote from contemporary poetry as a gloss. …

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