Pre-Raphaelite Painting and the Medieval Woman
By Erin Frisch
Honors Theses, Trinity University (2013)
This thesis examines the intersection of medievalism and Victorian ideals of womanhood. Case studies of three Pre-Raphaelite works, Ecce Ancilla Domini! by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mariana by Sir John Everett Millais, and Ophelia by Millais, chart the specific use of medievalism employed in each work and connect it to a broader nineteenth-century context. Each painting demonstrates the ways in which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) used medievalism to both deny and perpetuate Victorian social and artistic conventions. Within this denial or acceptance, gender comes into play.
Although medievalism and gender have a prominent role in any analysis of Pre-Raphaelite work, no previous research so closely examines how medievalism shapes the gender dynamics within Pre-Raphaelite painting. In an era known for sexual self-consciousness and rigid gendered lines, issues of masculinity and femininity inevitably interact within Pre-Raphaelite works; a very clear gendered dynamic occurs within Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Speaking in general terms, the PRB was composed of a group of male painters who often took a Romantic interest in the unknowable woman whose sexuality represented the irrational which the Romantics valued over rational thought.
For this reason, the PRB used their paintings to explore femininity. The Pre-Raphaelites expressed fascination with female sexuality, beauty, and madness. Speaking specifically of Millais’s iconic Ophelia, Kimberley Rhodes states that Millais used the female subject “much as the Romantics did: to fulfill aesthetic needs and address the complexities and attractions of femininity in all its guises.” Archetypal women fill Pre-Raphaelite paintings—in the examples within of this thesis, the Virgin Mary and two of Shakespeare’s heroines—who offer case studies of women in states of psychological turmoil. The depiction of their stories facilitated the Pre-Raphaelites in creating a prescriptive doctrine of how these women should be viewed. Ultimately, the amalgamation of the gendered commentaries within these works guide the female viewer in modeling her behavior, and the presence of medievalism only clarifies these messages. Despite the Pre-Raphaelites’ conception of their movement as a rebellion, the ways in which their paintings confirm traditional gendered norms contrasts with the technical innovations made by the Brotherhood. Ironically, the primitive works that helped them execute a “new” art that rejected pervading conventions of the High Renaissance also supplied these artists with female tropes which their imaginations (and the prevalent historical inaccuracies of the time) only made more exaggerated. This thesis explores the contradictory interaction between the progressive aims of the PRB (for both their paintings’ technique and content) and its affirmation of the rigid definitions of womanhood of Victorian England. Ultimately, their work, as represented by these case studies, severely limits the acceptable behavior of women and affirms patriarchal control over their sexuality.