I receive many positive emails through this blog because, for the most part, people in the world are great. The negative ones stand out, though, and occasionally eat at me. In a recent message, someone (I assume not a regular reader of this blog) questioned my feminism because I am devoted to Pre-Raphaelite art. They seemed to think that my studying imagery of the Victorian era meant that I longed to live like a Victorian woman, “old-fashioned and weak-minded”, as they put it. They asked how writing about women that appeared in paintings in the 1850s could possibly be relevant today. They suggested I do something more helpful. I quote, in part, ” Don’t modern women face more important pressing issues?”
It’s an idiotic question. There’s always value in studying the past, it’s what informs our future. I had to ask myself, though, what’s behind this email? Why would someone take the time to reach out to a stranger and ask this? My instinct is that they meant to be combative. But maybe, just maybe, their question was serious and they really wanted to know. I’ve thought about their comments off and on for two weeks now.
If I look beyond the rude way they chose to express it, I can understand their initial hesitance. After all, a Victorian woman’s circumstance is far removed from our own. My life is nothing like any female depicted on a Pre-Raphaelite canvas. Yet I feel we owe it to them and to ourselves to explore their stories. If they were an artist I want to study their work. If they were a model I want to look at the work they appear in with an understanding of the contemporary context. I want to ponder the inherent meaning of the piece, what they may have felt about it, and possible reinterpretations. I look at these images and think, what did the artist intend? Is there a broader implication? What do we feel about the painting now? What was going on in their life when they painted it? Did they intend a social meaning or does it reflect a personal experience?
There are a wealth of questions behind of every blog post. I thrive on the fact that the more I learn, the more questions there will always be. I think. I read. I pursue. Yet I get the feeling that is not what my emailer wants me to do. Their dismissive language implies that they feel my endeavors are a waste of time. For whatever reason, my interest does not mesh with their idea of what I should be doing.
I will always do it, though.
What good does it do? For the painters and models, none. They are long dead and gone. For us, however? There is great potential. I have always found images of Pre-Raphaelite women inspiring. This may not be a particularly popular thing to say. Pre-Raphaelite art is often derided as ‘kitschy’. While it has its many critics, I find it glorious. I revel in its symbolism and to my mind, there is nothing more enjoyable than a Pre-Raphaelite painting with a strong narrative. Exploring the mythology and literature so often depicted in Pre-Raphaelite art is profoundly rewarding. Images of The Lady of Shalott and Ophelia, for example, can be reclaimed and reinterpreted into an inspiring story for today’s women. I’ve previously shared my thoughts in this post about my own modern reading of The Lady of Shalott here.
To go forward you have to understand where you have been. For womankind, I shudder when I see women who live blissfully unaware of the struggles their grandmothers endured. So many women longed to write, to create, to paint, to do anything other than what they were expected to do. Women who are long gone, but at one point in their lives wanted to achieve something only to come to the crushing realization that they could never have it simply because of their gender. Generations later we have to admit, sadly, there are people who live in ignorance of that pain. We exist in the reality TV generation and that’s fine, I can accept that. What I cannot accept is that we be only that. We can delight in the latest meme and hilarious viral videos, but let’s share history, art, and literature too. Let’s prompt each other to think. With so much information literally at our fingertips, we have unique opportunities every day to deepen our understanding of both ourselves and the world. I hope that in some way, this site contributes to that.
The women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle captivate me. Often painted as goddesses and muses while clad in flowing Pre-Raphaelite gowns the images of these women came to personify an age. An age that future generations would look upon with scorn. In the past several decades there have been books, exhibitions, films, and television programs that indicate that perhaps the tide is turning. Pre-Raphaelite art has been mocked and misunderstood but it has always had its champions. I think it has begun to appeal to a wider audience. Based on my involvement in social media I see exuberant, passionate lovers of Pre-Raphaelite art who are genuinely interested in sharing and learning more. Those Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts have always been there, but the internet makes the gaps that separate us smaller. The world wide web tears down walls, making artwork immediate and accessible. It is through that access that I have devoted twelve years to sharing Pre-Raphaelite art in an attempt to connect with my tribe, others who understand and see its beauty and relevance.
In sharing Pre-Raphaelite art and my pursuit of it, I hope to inspire people who are drawn to it to look at it deeply, to learn about the artists, to understand their inspirations and their work. It’s important to see their work within the context of the time they lived in. After that, though, it’s essential to see how its lasting influence fits into our own modern culture (and it does, darling, I find references everywhere).
I feel like this post has been one bulky digression. I could have shortened it easily, I think. Perhaps I should have simply said this: Someone asked why I bother writing about Victorian women artists and models and my answer is, “Because I can.”