The Pre- Raphaelites were an influential artistic movement with members of the 19th century brotherhood including artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne – Jones. Their art imitates the simplicity of the work of Italian artists before the time of Raphael.
Their extensive use of Arthurian legend, theological imagery and mythology presents an opportunity to place the female as sentient.
The Pre-Raphaelites were focal in conceiving the identity of women through new beautiful, exotic and desirable paintings.
John Melhuish Strudwick: When Apples Were Golden...
Despite this new surge of the depiction of luring females, they are always positioned as the object of desire – a demure Madonna without any desires of their own.
The lady is painted as never looking at the spectator. Instead the artist often assumes her position as having her head bowed, asleep or dead.
The absence of the requited gaze between observer and lady reduces the lady to an objectified idol rather than cooperating in the intimate relationship that the artist has partly established.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Prosperine 1874
The censorship of the female’s eyesight is significant predominantly from the observer’s inability to attain the knowledge of her that could be attained through it.
Thus, the lady becomes the epitomised object of desire since she herself is without desire, which is depicted through her unwillingness to engage in the gaze between herself and the observer.
Edward Burne – Jones The Mirror of Venus exemplifies this. The only gaze the females in the painting requite are those of their own which are reflected in the ethereal pool. The focalisation of this pool mocks the observer who lustfully looks on at the celebration of female beauty.
The doubling of their reflections doesn’t give away any background as to the actions they are partaking in. This mystery and elusive behaviour of the females is something that the Pre – Raphaelites adored; the unattainability of the woman in question.
Edward Burne-Jones: The Mirror of Venus 1898
The only gaze that is requited is between Venus and her companion on the left which is demonstrative of the significance of the portrayal of female beauty. As some women don’t seek their own image but look up to a more corporeal impression of beauty.
Christopher Wood describes the barren landscape as “strangely lunar” which isolates it from many Pre-Raphaelite paintings of women in which it is the background that moves in replacement of the immobilised female in order to fill the chasm of vivaciousness which is missing.
John William Waterhouse: The Lady of Shallot 1888
The admirer of these paintings is positioned as a male gazer who can watch the lady but who doesn’t look back. This unrequited attention is familial of the Arthurian legends of which many of the paintings are derivative of.
Edward Burne-Jones: Study for the 'Mirror of Venus'
Subjecting the women to these gazes depicts the hegemony of the phallocentric society in which they were painted. Thus, through understanding these art works we can observe the oppression that being idolised and put on a pedestal entails.
The artist suggests that for a female to be craved by a man she must be stripped of all her libido and desires, becoming a hapless Madonna.
Sir John Everett Millais: Ophelia 1852
This poses the question of what happens if the female dares look back – a question D.H. Lawrence attempts to answer in his progressive novels. Lawrence’s novels embody a lot of Pre-Raphaelite features such as using pastoral, floral and imagery of light to extenuate the female beauty.
D.H. Lawrence’s novels conclude that when the female look back the males look away, rejecting their affections. This is apparent in one of his early novels The Trespasser in which the male protagonist has two females ‘gazing’ at him and he ultimately looks away by committing suicide. This fuses together the macabre matrimony between erotica and death that ultimately overwhelms the Pre – Raphaelite imagination and paintings – a relationship which females become subject to the whims of.
Written by Emily Quli