In a post a few years ago, I said that my love of Pre-Raphaelite art probably stems from my lifelong love of stories. Much of the Pre-Raphaelites’ work presents a narrative often inspired by literature and myth. I have noticed recently that a number of Victorian artworks are not just the telling of a story, but a depiction of a story being told.
Some paintings depict a moment in which a story is shared with an audience. In the example above, Dante Gabriel Rossetti rapidly sketched Tennyson as he read his poem Maud to a group of friends. Rossetti focuses only on Lord Tennyson, not the members of the audience. In the Alma-Tadema paintings below, we have two examples of a narrator/listener dynamic. The threesome listening to a reading of Homer is rapt and engaged. However, the single listener in The Favourite Poet presents a sort of languid attitude. Does the poetry inspire her or provoke thought and emotion? We can’t tell.
Perhaps my favorite example of storytelling in art is Sir John Everett Millais’ The Boyhood of Raleigh. You can see that the man is sharing the tale with gusto and physicality, he gestures strongly towards the sea. The two boys lean forward attentively and are absorbed in his words.
The Boyhood of Raleigh is not merely random boys listening to a story. It’s an example of how stories inspire and lead to great things. One of the boys is intended to be a young Sir Walter Raleigh listening to an adventure of the sea and exploration. This story will excite him and influence his life. F.G. Stephens, art critic and a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, described Millais’ painting in a review the year it was released. “This work glows in the warm light of the Devonshire sun, and shows the sunburnt, stalwart, Genoese sailor – one of those who were half pirates, half heroes, such as Kingsley has delighted countless boys by describing – seated, with his brawny, bronzed shoulders towards us, on a sea wall, while before him, and at ease upon the floor, are Raleigh and his brother, listening eagerly and with rapt ears to the narration of wonders on sea and land.” (The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, vol. II) In The Boyhood of Raleigh, the teller is recounting his experiences and reliving his own memories, which will influence the young boy who grew up to be a great explorer, poet, and politician.
In contrast to paintings of stories being told to an audience, there are many Victorian examples of lone readers. In fact, there are too many to possibly include in this post. These paintings evoke feelings of solitude and introversion. There may seem to be no action, but those of us who are passionate about reading know what is hidden behind the stillness. The action in internal and unseen, yet familiar to anyone who has been absorbed in a book. The readers in these paintings are indulging in the purest form of escapism: the written word.