In Memoriam Ernest Normand, Henrietta Rae’s husband

Ernest Normand (1857–1923), Vashti Deposed (1890), oil on canvas, 161 x 244.5 cm, Gallery Oldham, Oldham. Lancashire, England. Wikimedia Commons.

A century ago today, the artist Ernest Normand (1857-1923) died. For once, he has faded from the history of art in favour of the achievements of his wife, Henrietta Rae (1859–1928). Perhaps we should refer to him merely as Henrietta Rae’s husband?

Normand trained at the Royal Academy Schools in London, where he met Rae, a fellow student, who had fought her way into training there after applying at least five times. They married in 1884, but quite unconventionally for the day she chose to keep her maiden name. The couple set up studios in their house in Holland Park in London, then a focus for artists including Frederic, Lord Leighton, Sir John Everett Millais, Val Prinsep, and George Frederic Watts.

Like Rae, Normand was primarily a figurative painter, and almost as fleshly as she was.

Ernest Normand (1857–1923), The Bitter Draught of Slavery (1885), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1885, the year after they married, he painted The Bitter Draught of Slavery, an orientalist fantasy of a new female slave being offered to a rich master.

Ernest Normand (1857–1923), Pygmalion and Galatea (1886), media and dimensions not known, Atkinson Art Gallery and Library, Southport, Merseyside, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, he tackled the popular story of Pygmalion and Galatea (1886). Pygmalion was a legendary Cypriot sculptor who developed a dim view of women as being harlots, so sculpted his own statue of a perfect woman. She came to life, as shown here in her head and bust. They married, and according to some versions even went on to have children.

Ernest Normand (1857–1923), Esther Denouncing Haman (1888), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Normand also painted some stories from the Bible, among them Esther Denouncing Haman, from 1888. Esther is at the left with her accusative gesture towards Haman, cowering at the right, and behind them is Ahasuerus, King of Persia. Esther is accusing Haman of his plan to have all the Jewish subjects in Persia killed. The King instead has Haman executed, and reverses the plan by telling the Jews to kill their enemies.

In 1890, Rae and Normand went to Paris, where they studied at the Académie Julian, under Jules Lefebvre and Benjamin-Constant.

Ernest Normand (1857–1923), Bondage (1890), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Bondage (1890) is another fantasy of naked women slaves in the Middle East, perhaps on the bank of the Nile this time.

Ernest Normand (1857–1923), Vashti Deposed (1890), oil on canvas, 161 x 244.5 cm, Gallery Oldham, Oldham. Lancashire, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Normand’s Vashti Deposed, also from 1890, returns to King Ahasuerus of Persia to tell the story before he took Esther as queen. The King held a banquet for his court, and while that was going on, his first Queen Vashti was feasting the women. On the seventh day of their feasting, the King summoned his Queen for her beauty to be displayed to his group, but she refused. After taking advice, he replaced her with Esther.

Following their return from Paris, in 1893 they moved from the centre of London out to leafy Upper Norwood.

Ernest Normand (1857-1923), Pandora (1899), further details not known. The Athenaeum.

Normand is one of the few painters to show a later moment in the story of Pandora (1899) and her ‘box’. Here she bends low to duck beneath the swirling grey clouds of evils as they spread out into the idyllic world beyond, causing blossom to fall as petals to the ground. Her jar (or box) is only hinted at, behind her billowing white robes, almost depriving the viewer of this vital cue to the original story.

Ernest Normand (1857–1923), Evil Sought (date not known), oil, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

His undated painting of Evil Sought might perhaps show Pandora before she opens the large jar.

On 23 March 1923, Ernest Normand died. Even the critics had been forced to admit that his paintings seemed rather bland compared to those of his wife. Rae died five years later, on 26 January 1928, yet again doing better than her husband.

Henrietta Rae (1859–1928), Miss Nightingale at Scutari, 1854 (1891), chromolithograph of oil on canvas painting, dimensions and location of original not known. Chromolithograph by courtesy of Wellcome Library, no. 9983i, via Wikimedia Commons.

Miss Nightingale at Scutari, 1854 (1891) is a chromolithograph of what was probably Rae’s best-known painting, showing the pioneer nursing performed by Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, giving rise to Nightingale’s epithet of the lady of the lamp.

Henrietta Rae (1859–1928), Psyche Before the Throne of Venus (1894), oil on canvas, 193 x 305 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons. (Monochrome image of full colour original.)

Rae intended her huge painting of Psyche Before the Throne of Venus (1894) to be her masterwork, but when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy the critics were belittling and misogynist, one calling it “a glorified Christmas card”, so dashing her aspirations. She was still successful in selling it, though.