I’ve seen Pre-Raphaelite paintings of women dismissed as ‘languid’ or ‘vapid’ and many critics view them as sensual images created solely for the male gaze. That’s a fair argument, of course, but I feel it’s a point of view that barely scratches the surface. To me, Pre-Raphaelite women are not shallow objects of beauty, but women focused more on their own contemplation than their surroundings. I see them as works of introspection rather than objectification.
‘Proserpine’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
‘The Day Dream’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1880)
Images such as these are less narrative, more mood. They evoke an almost claustrophobic feeling, placing the viewer in close proximity to a woman whose gaze will never meet theirs. We feel a part of the intimate setting as if we are intruders on her reverie, watching her as she contemplates thoughts and emotions that are impossible to read on her face. We have caught her in a period sustained by intellect and introversion. The Pre-Raphaelite woman is beautiful, often sensual, and we can certainly objectify her. Yet neither should we dismiss her as vapid. She is depicted in private moments of thinking and feeling and it is this sense of deep inner reflection that appeals to me. These are the women whose experiences remind me of my own private hours, moments that belong to me where I explore inner workings that are sacred because they are mine and mine alone.
‘Reverie’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Jane Morris
Fazio’s Mistress, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth
You are free to enjoy a woman’s aesthetic beauty, but there are things about her that you can’t know, can’t touch, can’t explore unless she deems you worthy and chooses to share them. We control our private world. This is something that many Pre-Raphaelites may have never considered when creating their work, yet I see it here so clearly. Languid and vapid? Not in my view. I see and feel a world of depth here.
Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti