Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery Review: An Ode to Sisterly Solidarity?

An exhibition aims to give voice to the ‘fallen women’ at the heart of the Victorian brotherhood

Elizabeth Siddal is the model in Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1865-66, oil on canvas, 76 x 110 cm. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth Siddal is the model in Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1865-66, oil on canvas, 76 x 110 cm. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, London

Think ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ and you picture luminous paintings of waify maidens with copper-coloured hair, tantalizingly loose clothing and a far-off look in their eyes. Prostitutes, mistresses, sorceresses and other ‘fallen women’ in need of masculine intervention. But who were the models playing these prescribed roles and how did they become involved in this 19th-century movement? What were their ambitions, artistic or otherwise? A new exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery seeks to return agency to the women at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: models, muses, mothers, lovers; and artists in their own right.

Among the most notable and literal of the ‘sisters’ was the poet Christina Rossetti, sister to the artist Dante Gabriel. As well as posing for her brother, she also laid down the subject matter of his works. Her bold and lavish poem ‘Goblin Market’ (1862) – which tells the tale of Lizzie and Laura, tempted by the magical fruit of menacing goblin merchants – is presented in a manuscript her brother illustrated and can be read as an ode to sisterly solidarity.

Christina Rossetti is the model in Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 73 x 42 cm. Courtesy: Tate, London

Christina Rossetti is the model in Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849-50, oil on canvas , 73 x 42 cm. Courtesy: Tate, London

A lucky few, including Marie Spartali Stillman, Evelyn de Morgan and Maria Zambaco, received formal training and were themselves professional artists. (Zambaco studied under Alphonse Legros in London and Auguste Rodin in Paris.) Elizabeth Siddal, known for her starring role in John Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52), was an aspiring artist and the only woman to exhibit in the 1857 Pre-Raphaelite exhibition that toured the US. A small lithograph shows her drawing Rossetti’s portrait as he perches awkwardly on one chair with his feet propped up on another. And there we have it: gender roles reversed.

If only it were that simple. Alongside the works made by women are too many images of female archetypes painted by men. Annie Miller, for example, rising from the lap of her older, moneyed lover and gazing out of a window into a sun-dappled garden in Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853). Even in an exhibition that succeeds in exploring the lives of forgotten women, the male gaze seems inescapable. Or almost inescapable. There’s a portrait by Joanna Wells of her son Sidney, painted in 1859; Wells describes him as ‘a new sort of baby – my own peculiar and exquisite invention’. Hope for the future, then.

'Pre-Raphaelite Sisters' is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 26 January 2020.

Chloë Ashby is an associate editor at Monocle and a freelance arts writer based in London.

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