The National Portrait Gallery, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters Exhibition

Written by: Tommaso Hoger

Pale skin and long ginger hair enclosing the most sensual and youthful features. Does it sound familiar? We are talking about the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, an artistic and cultural movement born in England in 1848 and aimed to bring art back to a more pure and sober beauty inspired by the Italian masters of the 15th century. The brotherhood, who counted as founders great names as Millais, Waterhouse and Dante Gabriele Rossetti, gave birth to some of the most admired and influential paintings of the 19th century, focusing on a still heavily idealized but also more passionate and human female beauty standard. The subjects these painters used to attain from could vary from Shakespearean plays all the way to reinterpretations of the classical world.

But at the National Portrait Gallery, London, a past exhibition titled “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters” shows once again how behind every great artist there’s a great woman. The curator Jan marsh wanted the audience to focus on the role that women as Elisabeth Siddhal, who modeled for Millais’ masterpiece Ophelia, Maria Zambaco, who entertained an affair with artist Edward Bourne-Jones as well as a sculpting career, and Christina Rossetti (sibling of the Italo-British painter founder of the movement) had on their fellow males in developing this “new” form of representation.

The latter in particular was a writer, and her poem Goblin Marketen countered a fair success at the time, thanks also to her brother’s illustrations. In another of her poems, largely quoted on the exhibition walls, she claims that the artist portraits the woman “Not as she is, but as she fills his dream,” addressing how manipulative and most of the times reductive the extol of the female figure can be by male artists, and how her aesthetic presence is often taken for granted, without leaving any space to a more personal development.

Many fellow sisters were in fact amatory painters themselves, like Jane Morris, Zambaco and Fanny Eaton. Each one of them was model or wife to one or more of these famous artists, and only a few of them received a professional training. Modeling was at the time considered a dishonors more than a profession, but for many girls coming from lower classes families, this was the only way to enter an art studio, sometimes risking their own life and health, as Siddhal did by modeling for Ophelia in a bathtub in the middle of the winter for hours straight.

Evelyn De Morgan, ‘Queen Eleanor and the Fair Rosamund,’ 1901 - 1902.

Amongst the most interesting pieces of the collection rises for sure Eveline de Morgan’s “Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund” with its colorful and almost anti-Victorian allure.

Nevertheless, most of the pieces exposed, including major works borrowed from private collections, still remain executed by men, making this exhibition a bit more of a miss than a hit, since it could have been easily  called simply “Pre-raphaelites”