The National Portrait Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition in London, ran from 17th October 2019 – 26th January 2020, was arguably much overdue. Jan Marsh first published her seminal text, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood in 1985, shedding light on the women that worked around the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This exhibition expands this work, looking at a large range of women who served as models or artists alongside them.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an artistic movement formed in 1848. At its conception it included painters William Holman Hunt, John Evert Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the often forgotten, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and sculptor Thomas Woolner. Later followers of the group included William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The group were radical in their rejection of the art in the Royal Academy at the time, desiring a return back to the ‘pre-Raphaelite’ time before the fifteenth century. Their stunning depictions of Medieval culture, through dazzling colour palettes and extreme attention to detail and study of nature, although controversial upon first reception, have made them very popular today. Another aspect of their popularity is their frequent depictions of beautiful women with their long flowing hair, whom this exhibition aims to identify.
The exhibition looks twelve ‘sisters’: Joanna Wells, Fanny Cornforth, Marie Spartali Stillman, Evelyn de Morgan, Christina Rossetti, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Effie Gray Millais, Elizabeth Siddal, Maria Zambaco, Jane Morris, Annie Miller, Fanny Eaton. The large exhibition space gives each of these women a section, spanning roughly chronologically from Millais’ wife Effie to artist Evelyn de Morgan. One might argue this offers a full circle development: from Effie as model to her artist husband, Millais, to de Morgan, an artist in her own right who instead paints her husband William.
This exhibition did an excellent job of displaying a wide range of Pre-Raphaelite work, and offered a very interesting insight into the lives and works of these ‘sisters’. One of the most interesting women who I wasn’t really aware of was Fanny Eaton, a Jamacian-born model who was problematically used by the brotherhood to depict any kind of ‘exotic’ character. Somewhat disappointing, however, was the section dedicated to Elizabeth Siddal, one of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite models for paintings such as Millais’ Ophelia, wife of Rossetti and artist in her own right. I thought the display of work by Siddal was somewhat lacking, as was the display of work that she’d modelled in (for example, there was no Ophelia). I know it is sometimes difficult to arrange loans for exhibitions, but I felt like what was on display didn’t really highlight Siddal’s importance to the Pre-Raphaelite movement or her skill as an artist.
However, the concept behind the exhibition itself was what troubled me the most. Although I understand its aims to highlight and foreground women, I think the concept of ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ is lazy. The brotherhood was a group of men, who formed their movement based on similar ideals and artistic endeavour. To suggest that there was a parallel ‘sisterhood’ of women artists and models working together is simply not true. In reality, most of these women would probably not have met each other, and with the exception of Evelyn de Morgan were not professional artists. Even more problematic I felt, were the categories of women, written above each of their names, which were explained at the beginning of the exhibition: model, wife, artist, muse. The term ‘muse’ I particularly thought outdated. Although attempting to showcase and individualise these women, which the exhibition does achieve, it still felt like they were very much defined by their relationships to the brothers. For me, I would like to see these female narratives and artworks incorporated into more interesting exhibitions on the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian Art, that makes a more interesting comment on the presence of women in art that isn’t that they were just all women.
Girl Museum Inc.