It was a surprise to me, then, to discover that Siddal was a technically accomplished artist in her own right: Her works are now on display in Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, an exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Siddal painted watercolors of medieval scenes in the unmistakable faux-naive style of her husband and his contemporaries. Her pencil-and-ink sketch Lovers Listening to Music shows four figures, drawn with skill and precision.
Why has Siddal’s story been reduced to that of the pale figure in the bathtub, or of the tragic addict who inspired Rossetti’s masterpiece, published as Poems in 1870? Because it doesn’t fit the accepted view of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as, well, a bunch of men. It was a formal group whose members all signed their work “PRB.” They exhibited their art at the Royal Academy, in London, which systematically excluded women as students, fellows, and exhibitors throughout the 19th century. “Though its goals were ‘serious and heartfelt’, the PRB was founded in a spirit of waggish male camaraderie which expressed itself in pranks, late-night smoking sessions and midnight jaunts around London’s streets and pleasure gardens,” wrote Dinah Roe, a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, in an article for the British Library. In other words, it was a boys’ club.
Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, which runs until January 26, rewrites that story by focusing on a dozen women who orbited the Brotherhood. It is revelatory: Visitors see these women’s own art, and their roles as collaborators and business partners, not just as lovers and wives. The captions restore names to the faces gazing placidly from postcards and posters. Everyday objects reveal their lives further, such as the hospital records documenting the death of Rossetti’s mistress and housekeeper, Fanny Cornforth, in an asylum. The exhibition is an attempt to reverse conventionally accepted ideas of both the Brotherhood and the concept of the “muse.” It turns the women from objects, seen only from the outside, to subjects. Yes, Siddal’s pale skin and red hair inspired several of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite artworks, including Millais’s Ophelia and her husband’s Beata Beatrix. But the exhibit shows that Siddal took up modeling only to fund her own artistic practice, rather than to be “discovered” by a man. Being a model was far from a passive role, in any case. Like a silent actor, Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris, helped to create the mythical characters she embodied, such as Proserpine and Pandora.
Effie Gray, who married the art critic John Ruskin when she was 19, is also revealed as a more interesting character than history has allowed. She had her marriage to Ruskin annulled because the couple never had sex—and also, the exhibition suggests, because she had already fallen in love with her second husband, Millais. She became not just the mother to Millais’s eight children, but also his business partner. There is something moving about the juxtaposition of two portraits of Gray on opposite walls. An 1851 oil painting by Thomas Richmond shows her at 23, as blandly pretty as a doll, but her husband’s portrait of her 22 years later has her staring unselfconsciously straight out of the frame. The latter is a picture of a real woman, not an idealized one—and while she is still subject to the male gaze, it is at least a well-informed one.