Update 4: Victorian Visionaries – The End of a (Painting) Era

While my previous post discussed the technical aspects of Pre-Raphaelite painting, I’m now returning to the intrinsic themes of their art: that of Romance, History and Literature, Nature, Beauty, Spirituality, and Modern Life. I attempted to refashion these concepts in my final product, to adapt them for a contemporary audience.

My concept was a set of three paintings of the same size (11 x 14 inches). They would be framed in rounded gold corners, a hallmark of Pre-Raphaelite canvases (They were most likely channeling the gothic arch frames of the early Renaissance. The shape lends their work unusual historical flair). For subject matter inspiration, I repeatedly returned to the solitary female figures found in PRB compositions from the later half of the 1850’s. Millais’ portrait of Sophie Gray (below) and Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata represented the consummate Pre-Raphaelite style. They present fleshed-out, powerful characters; some are goddesses or monarchs, while others are quite modest, just a portrait of a young Victorian lady. The figure of Joan of Arc became a sort of ideal subject to them; she was warrior for a just cause, a true Christian, and a leader of her people. I found this rejection of cultural feminine expectations provocative and resonant with current societal movements.

Sophie Gray by John Everett Millais (1857)

Sophie Gray by John Everett Millais (1857)

My study of a detail from Rossetti's Bocca Baciata

My study of a detail from Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata

I was also pleasantly surprised by how the Pre-Raphaelites championed beauty in all female forms. In a time where beauty standards were just as rigid as their corsets, they painted prostitutes, migrants, and non-caucasians. The PRB depicted individuals rather than pitiful tropes, and rejected racial prejudices; one favored model, Fanny Eaton, was a black jamaican and daughter of a slave. We continue to confront the narrow definitions of appearance imposed by our media and society. Our modern models are retouched by the subjective strokes of photoshop. So I hoped that my paintings would also resist cookie-cutter standards and present unique women in the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelites.

In addition, I intended my paintings to address inequitable artistic norms that have remained since the Victorian era. Female artists seem perpetually underrepresented, with only 28% of museum solo exhibitions spotlighting women in eight selected museums throughout the 2000’s (1). The work of organizations like the Guerrilla Girls, a group of female artists who fight discrimination in the arts through humorous activism, have made tremendous strides. Yet additional support for women artists, and in many other professional fields, is always beneficial. The compositions I’ve worked on are a contribution to legitimizing our work.

As a sort of random inspiration, I had this fanciful idea of channeling the Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (the Pre-Raphaelites did love “The Bard”!). In the play, they criticize faith, brew a little chaos, and suggest the destruction of established order. The witches point their fingers at Macbeth as they call out his fate, whereas my painted figures direct an insinuating gaze towards the viewer. The literary nod is just a way for my paintings to ask a few questions and, in my mind, poke fun at the “witchy ways of womanhood”.

I created some preliminary sketches for my paintings with these objectives in mind. I realized about three weeks into the project that I likely wouldn’t be able to complete three canvases in the remaining weeks. As I mentioned in my previous post, many of the Pre-Raphaelite artists completed only a square inch of canvas a day. I’m also a pretty slow painter, so I decided to focus my final product on quality over quantity. I prepared two compositions and had a couple of good friends model individually over the course of a month. (The patience they had for lengthy periods of rigidly sitting was excellent; I’m glad they’re still my friends). I dressed them in kind of ageless outfits; I didn’t want them to be sporting Nike logos or looking like they were headed to a Renaissance Fair. I placed a few props here and there to suggest some symbolism and create a sense of space. I also repeated colors and textures between the two, specifically jewel tones and floral motifs, to make them more cohesive.

My first piece, Untitled

My first piece, Untitled

I began by drawing directly onto the canvas with a graphite pencil, and then used very small paint brushes to build up the figure. The Pre-Raphaelites rejected the rule that the artist should paint the figure first and the background second. Often I would only work on the portrait while my friend was sitting, so I could give it the most attention, and then finish the surroundings when alone. I also tried to avoid chiaroscuro, which tends to encourage the viewer to read the painting in terms of important and subordinate parts. My finished style lies somewhere in between the PRB styles of the 1850’s and 60’s; it’s not intensely sharp and is occasionally awkward in its inexperience, but not too loose to have lost the initial inspiration. Obviously mine are nowhere near as technically brilliant as the Pre-Raphaelite source material (Some of them began art school at age 12 and were painting massive masterpieces by 19! I won’t ever live up to that!). I also would have liked to varnish the final product, so as to protect the surface and emphasize the use of oil paints. Unfortunately, this can only be done six months after the painting has dried.

My second piece, Untitled

My second piece, Untitled

Despite the deliberate composition of the paintings, I never intended a specific meaning or story behind each piece. There are concepts, like the progress of female artists in our era or the status of belief, that I suggest. But most importantly, I’d like the viewer to interact with the paintings; for them to find a commonality or resonance with some aspect of the work. I don’t know, perhaps that’s a bit grand. But at the very least, I hope some pleasure is gained by looking at them, because at it’s surface level, every Pre-Raphaelite painting is a delight. I think that aesthetics, supported by passion, effort, and intention, is always valuable.

That’s all for now, but I’ll hopefully have my summary post up in the next week! Thanks for reading!

Till then,



Work Cited

 1) The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium, 2013