LONDON — In 2019, museums ostensibly wrote women back into art history. In London we saw Dora Maar (Tate Britain), Lee Krasner (Barbican), and Dorothea Tanning (Tate Modern) all step out from behind their lovers’ shadows and into the spotlight. The National Portrait Gallery sought to finish the year in the same vein, rounding out 2019 with an exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of artists famous for founding a brotherhood in 1848. Notable names in the group include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, with several others, like Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, adopting its guiding principles — namely to return to the style of 15th-century Italian art (literally pre-Raphael). However, this exhibition, titled Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, aimed to give these men a back seat to their female counterparts. Yet, despite the fact that many of these women were artists themselves, for the most part they are framed as muses, sisters, and lovers.
Painters, poets, needleworkers, and sculptors account for 10 of the 12 women featured (Georgiana Burne-Jones, Fanny Cornforth, Annie Miller, Evelyn de Morgan, Fanny Eaton, Effie Gray Millais, Jane Morris, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, Marie Spartali Stillman, Joanna Wells, and Maria Zambaco), but they are presented here as models and wives first. They were historically revered for a certain type of beauty — porcelain skin, large round eyes, and voluminous hair — prioritizing their physical qualities. “A Pre-Raphaelite wife was housekeeper, studio manager, costume maker and social secretary as well as model and portrait sitter,” an exhibition text reads. “She led the ‘behind-the-scenes’ team on which her artist-husband’s professional practice depended.” Such descriptions relegate the women to subservient positions.
The audience is welcomed into a series of galleries dedicated to each woman associated with the movement, with a short biography — most of which include a comment about her romantic relations with her male counterpart(s). While the exhibition arguably succeeds in recognizing women’s roles beyond that of model and muse, there are twice as many artworks by male artists as by female artists. Moreover, in the paintings by members of the brotherhood, women are reduced to objects of desire, evoking fantasies from legends (as in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1877 painting of Jane Morris in the role of Roman goddess Proserpine) or serving as warnings against liaisons with mistresses and prostitutes — or the fallen woman played by Annie Miller in William Holman Hunt’s 1853 “The Awakening Conscience.” Meanwhile, the men are presented giving the women art instruction, rescuing them from lower-class families, lifting them out of poverty, and transforming them into models, some of whom (like Annie Miller) subsequently married into social status.
Often smaller in size than the men’s large-scale oil paintings, the works by women are mostly sketches or watercolors, implicitly positioning them as secondary. (Embroidery, by Jane Morris and Marie Spartali Stillman, and poetry, by Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, are also displayed.) It is not until sections dedicated to Marie Spartali Stillman and Evelyn De Morgan that these women are really seen as serious artists, with the inclusion of vast paintings like De Morgan’s “Night and Sleep” (1878) and Spartali Stillman’s “The First Meeting Of Petrarch and Laura” (1889). The exhibition’s most interesting work may be De Morgan’s 1909 portrait of her husband William de Morgan; it is the only piece on display in which a male lover is the subject of a female artist’s gaze. Even so, he is painted as a ceramicist, as opposed to an object of desire.
Despite occasional moments in which the “Pre-Raphaelite sisters” are praised for their artistic talents, they are also disrespected: for instance, Georgiana Burne-Jones’s work is exhibited beside that of her husband’s mistress, Maria Zambaco. The treatment of Fanny Eaton was particularly problematic: as a Black Jamaican woman, she was a model in a number of “exotic” scenes, playing characters from India, Libya, and Egypt. Her children, meanwhile, were cast as everything from the baby Moses to the offspring of enslaved mothers.
While Pre-Raphaelite Sisters does write the female characters of the Pre-Raphaelite era into art history, it falls short by relegating these talented artists to the roles of lover and muse. I felt, walking through the show, that these women artists were not championed as much as snubbed.
Pre-Raphaelite Sisters continues at the National Portrait Gallery (St. Martins Place, London, UK) through January 26.