February 4th, 2012, I attended the symposium ‘Treasures of the Collection in Context: The Pre-Raphaelites in the Museo de Arte de Ponce Collection’. Distinguished researchers in the Victorian culture presented papers. Alison Smith, Tim Barringer and Jason Rosenfeld being the curators of the upcoming exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ in the Tate Britain, London. Franny Moyle, BBC producer and author of ‘Desperate Romantics, the private lives of the Pre-Raphaelites’. Together with the speeches of Sally-Anne Huxtable, Madeleine Vala and Cheryl Hartup, the symposium provided interesting strings of thoughts on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They are posing in front of ‘Flaming June’ by lord Leighton; my favourite of the ‘Treasures of the Collection in Context’. My other favourite is ‘Roman Widow’ by D.G. Rossetti. These two paintings had been traveling as part of the exhibition ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and were exhibited in the Gemeentemuseum of the Hague in the Netherlands. It was the first time I saw a painting by D.G. Rossetti since I was given a photograph of his muse Jane Morris. Spellbound I caught the attention of an artist. My identification with her is a metaphor for how I see the image of women in modern media. As a contemporary female artist, my struggles with the beauty myth occupied my mind until I visited the symposium and learned about the female issues in Victorian age. Attending the symposium made me understand that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood did not merely represent their female models as objects for male desire. Their art showed social solidarity with the working classes, with democracy and women rights becoming in debate.
Due to the industrialization, many women left the countryside for the city but could not find a decent job there and sadly became prostitutes or even suicidal. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood wanted to rescue these girls of their poor destiny. With their arms tightly locked in each other they roamed the streets hoping to catch new stunners who would model for them. They painted them as to represent injustice for all women in Victorian time. While members of the royal family were painted as if they came straight out the pub, the working class was modeled after Greek beauty ideal.
Jane Morris, the daughter of a stableman, was one of them. She modeled for D.G. Rossetti’s painting ‘Proserpine’. In Greek and Roman mythology, Proserpine was kidnapped to become the wife of Pluto, God of the underworld. She was destined to stay in the underworld half of the year, because she ate a few seeds of a pomegranate. The myth resembles the story of Adam and Eve after the forbidden bite of the apple but also has an autobiographical touch to it. The painting relates to the unhappy marriage of Jane and William Morris and the extramarital affair between Jane Morris and D.G. Rossetti. They were attracted to each other from the start but D.G. Rossetti was already engaged. So, Jane Morris accepted the marriage proposal of William Morris instead and used her intelligence and creativity in climbing the social ladder.
D.G. Rossetti’s fiancée was another ‘rescued’ working class girl: Lizzie Siddal. She was earning a decent income in a hat shop until she was discovered and became the first Pre-Raphaelite supermodel and an artist herself. But her romance with Rossetti damaged her reputation. Men and women were valued differently concerning sex before marriage and adultery. Even modeling for the Pre-Raphaelite painters was considered as the equivalent of being a prostitute. Out of convenience D.G. Rossetti tried to save her reputation by marrying her. However, after Lizzie Siddal bore his stillborn child, she committed suicide. Years earlier, Lizzie Siddal had modeled for Millais’ painting ‘Ophelia’. It represents a transition into the next world as a sensual experience, an orgasm. It depicts female desire. Together with her self portrait, ‘Ophelia’ will be one of the highlights of the upcoming exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ in the Tate Britain, London. I am also looking forward to see the embroideries Jane Morris made for William Morris’ bed, designed by their daughter May.
After the symposium, the cocktail party at the roof of the Museo de Arte de Ponce was a nice chance to meet the speekers. Days later, a song by the Rolling Stones kept popping up in my mind…You’re just a poor girl in a rich man’s house…I’ll be your knight in shining armour, coming to your emotional rescue…