A New Exhibition Shows Women as Artists, Not Muses

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, at London’s National Portrait Gallery, moves female creatives from the margins of a historical era and puts them at the center.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan. (National Portrait Gallery)

The meaning of art is in the eye of the beholder. To straitlaced Victorians, John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia epitomized the shocking new ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of rebel artists who rejected the prevailing style of the period. To feminist art historians, however, Ophelia represents something else: the brutal limitations placed upon women by the artistic establishment.

Surrounded by flowers, Shakespeare’s tragic heroine—exploited and rejected by Hamlet—floats lifelessly in the water in Millais’s rendering, an image of silent, still, passive beauty. The story of the painting’s creation is notorious: The model was Elizabeth Siddal, who later married another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. For four months, she spent several hours every day in a tepid bathtub, heated by lamps, as Millais captured the scene. One day, the lamps went out, the water went cold, and she caught a severe chill. Not just a passive beauty, but also a suffering one.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (National Portrait Gallery)

Siddal died in 1862, having overdosed on the narcotic laudanum after the stillbirth of her daughter with Rossetti. He buried a collection of poetry alongside Siddal, only to dig it up a few years later when he decided it was too good not to publish. In the century and a half since then, her place in history has been fixed as the tragic muse of brilliant men.

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.

Joanna Boyce Wells worked on canvas, yet she resisted exhibiting her art, because she felt it was improper for a woman to do so. After her father’s death, she fretted in letters that it was her “plain duty to give up all hope of improvement in painting rather than in any way neglect Mamma.” (These extracts are included in the exhibition catalog). Her future husband, Henry Wells, also insisted that domestic duties should come before her art, prompting her to write to him that “I have talents or a talent and with it the constant impulse to employ it.” In 1861, after completing several major works, Boyce Wells died from an infection caught during the birth of her second daughter. Rossetti sketched her on her deathbed.

The exhibit also gives space to women who worked in forms regarded as “crafts.” Jane Morris excelled at embroidery, as did Georgiana Burne-Jones, the wife of the painter Edward Burne-Jones. Maria Zambaco, another model for the Brotherhood, made portrait medallions cast in metal. In the 19th century, crafts were not considered as prestigious as fine art, but looking at the women’s work, it seems hard to argue that these disciplines require less skill than painting.

Although the show’s curators have collected as much art by the women as possible, there’s simply more art that is about them. This leads to odd juxtapositions: Viewers see a male artist’s representation of a woman, alongside a caption that aims to represent her as more than a muse. For me, the most striking picture is Evelyn De Morgan’s pastel study of Morris from 1904. Morris, then in her mid-60s, still has the full, pursed lips that captivated Rossetti and the other male artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but her thick hair is now gray. The portrait transforms the often cloying representations of female beauty so loved by the Brotherhood into something else: one woman’s tribute to another woman as she approached old age.

In 2016, the Grand Palais, in Paris, displayed dozens of works by the 18th-century portraitist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Jan Marsh, the London exhibition’s curator, hopes to continue this work and the work of Pre-Raphaelite Sisters by staging a solo show of Boyce Wells’s art in the future. London’s National Gallery will devote a whole exhibition to the Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi next year (Gentileschi famously used the face of her rapist as the model for her portrait of Holofernes being beheaded by Judith). Little by little, the history of art is being rewritten to include women as artists—as well as influential collaborators—rather than merely muses.