In front of every great Pre-Raphaelite man were great Pre-Raphaelite women: their muses and models. In this article and its sequel tomorrow, I look at some of the women who not only shaped what the men – and women – painted, but exerted great influence on their art. This isn’t a social or moral history. There are several books which reveal who slept with whom, and whose parties they each attended. Instead, I’d like to celebrate some of those who made Pre-Raphaelite art through their patient posing and sometimes physical hardship.
John Everett Millais’ masterpiece Isabella (Lorenzo and Isabella) from 1848-49 is much more than a composite of different references to Keats’ poem and Boccaccio’s story. It’s a Pre-Raphaelite group portrait.
For example, Lorenzo, actually William Michael Rossetti, shares a blood orange with Lisabetta, in reality Mary Hodgkinson. We see Dante Gabriel Rosetti drinking wine at the far end of the table, and the old man wiping his mouth is Millais’ father. There are two stories here, one from Keats and Boccaccio, the other more contemporary.
Less than fifteen years later, Millais shows us how their lives had changed in his Eve of St Agnes (1863). In addition to referring to another of Keats’ poems, here about the elopement of Madeline and her lover Porphyro on Saint Agnes’ Eve, we see more Pre-Raphaelite relationships.
Millais painted this in the King’s Bedroom in the Jacobean house at Knole Park, near Sevenoaks in Kent. His model is his wife Effie, formerly Euphemia Gray, who married John Ruskin. That marriage resulted in annulment on the grounds that it was never consummated. Millais found Effie totally beguiling, and was obsessed with her after – at Ruskin’s insistence – he painted her in 1852. When Effie was finally free to marry Millais, they must have realised that her previous marriage would exclude her from many of the social functions which she loved, including any event attended by Queen Victoria.
Immediately before Millais painted his future wife, he spent many days painting Elizabeth Siddal in a bath, when she modelled for his Ophelia (1851-2). For this, one of the most famous of all Pre-Raphaelite paintings, he painted its background en plein air near Ewell, Surrey, England, then put Siddal into a bath full of water while he painstakingly painted her figure onto the canvas.
Millais tried to warm the water in the bath using the flames of lamps and candles against its outer surface. One day he failed to notice that they had gone out, and Siddal became ill as a result of her prolonged cold immersion. Her parents threatened Millais with her medical bills, and tried to stop their daughter from further modelling.
It’s just as well they failed, as Lizzie Siddal next modelled for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who became obsessed with her even as he pursued torrid affairs with other ‘stunners’. Rossetti and Siddal married, and for almost six months he seems to have remained faithful. But on 11 February 1862, Lizzie died of an overdose of laudanum (tincture of opium) at the age of only 32.
A couple of years later, Rossetti embarked on an unusual post-mortem portrait of her, in the role of Dante’s beloved Beatrice. Although Dante never revealed her true identity, many have believed her to represent Beatrice di Folco Portinari, who died even younger almost six hundred years earlier, at the age of only 25. Beata Beatrix (c 1864–70) is one of Rossetti’s major paintings.
Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England (1852/55) brings another tale of modelling fortitude. Inspired by the emigration of the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner to Australia, Brown’s middle class couple is another family portrait. The husband is a self-portrait, his wife is Emma Brown, the artist’s wife, and tucked under her weatherproof hooded travelling cape is their infant son Oliver (Nolly), who was only born in 1855, just in time for the completion of this painting.
Adhering to Pre-Raphaelite ideals, Brown painted this largely outdoors, and had his models sit outside in all weathers, even during the winter. His aim here was to recreate “the peculiar look of light all round” which he considered prevailed when at sea, in particular.
Another very familiar masterpiece is William Holman Hunt’s Awakening Conscience from 1851-53. A ‘problem picture’ about an extra-marital relationship with a ‘kept woman’, this small house was in the leafy London suburb of Saint John’s Wood. Hunt’s original model was Annie Miller, who had started her working life as a barmaid, before the artist spotted her as the model he needed for this work.
Hunt rashly promised to teach Miller to be a ‘lady’ along the lines of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, with the goal of them marrying. When Hunt returned from a working visit to the Middle East, Miller had succumbed to the desires of Rossetti. Hunt then scraped Miller’s face clear and replaced it with that of his wife Fanny Holman Hunt.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was dependent on a succession of beautiful women – ‘stunners’ as he called them – as both muses and models. This unashamedly sensuous portrait of one of his better-known flames, Fanny Cornforth, is something of an apogee, even for him.
By modern standards, Bocca Baciata may not appear particularly sensuous or shocking. At the time, her loose hair, unbuttoned garments, and the abundance of flowers and jewellery were seen as marks of the temptress. These are reinforced by the one obvious symbol: the apple, harking back to the Fall of Man. And staid viewers such as William Holman Hunt were shocked, writing
It impresses me as very remarkable in power of execution – but still more remarkable for the gross sensuality of a revolting kind, peculiar to foreign prints
by which he referred to imported pornographic prints.
Lizzie Siddal’s death in 1862 did nothing to reform Rossetti’s conduct. In 1868, he met the beautiful Alexa Wilding, who immediately became his next obsession. Four years later, she was his model for Veronica Veronese (1872), which was commissioned by Frederick Leyland, a shipping magnate from Liverpool. It then joined Leyland’s collection of Rossetti’s images of women in the drawing room of his Kensington, London, residence.