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The Representation of Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

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Introduction

The Representation of Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood presented various representations of womanhood that existed during the Victorian era. Through opposing images of sexuality and virtue, the artists made their female subjects elevated and yet imprisoned. These women are a metaphor for the position and role that the ideal Victorian female was expected to take. The first prevalent representation of women in the artwork of this period is that of the Holy Virgin. They are the ideal image of piety and virtue. In Rossetti's "Ecca Ancilla Domini", the artist attempts to portray the religious significance of the Blessed Virgin. In this scene, the archangel Gabriel comes to Mary, who is fully clothed in a shapeless nightgown, giving no hint of sexuality. And yet "Mary shrinks back against the wall in maiden modesty, as if trying to evade the violation of the archangel's lily stem, which points directly at her womb" (Marsh, 32). It is significant that Mary was chosen for her maidenhood and spiritual perfection. These are the ideals of femininity in Victorian society. Another female symbol found in art that best represents the Victorian ideal of womanhood is that of the young wife, often called the "Angel in the House". These women have "charming modesty" and are "'amiable and innocent', devoted to connubial and domestic duties, inspiring both husband and children through 'sense and spirit sweetly mixed'" (Marsh, 61). ...read more.

Middle

As Ophelia offers herself to death, she is the ideal image of utter passivity. As a rejected woman, this representation of Ophelia is appropriate, for a jilted girl was expected to remain faithful to her beloved, and death is her only escape. Like the romantic death of Ophelia, the story of the Lady of Shalott was frequently depicted, and Waterhouse's painting reinforces that she is a martyr for love. The Lady loosens the chain that binds her to the island, symbolically freeing herself from her self-imposed imprisonment. Waterhouse places a crucifix and three candles in the boat, emphasizing the funereal tone of her embarkation. She takes with her the tapestry representing her prior life, which she has surrendered for love. The single leaf that has fallen into her lap emphasizes that her life is over. For love of Lancelot, she has renounced her life, and become a martyr and a fallen woman. The muted earth tones and the gray sky that create a melancholy background contrast with the richness of color in the tapestry, which depicts the colorful life she had seen in her magic mirror. Fallen women are another representation of women frequently seen in art in the forms of an adulterous wife, a mistress, or a prostitute. "She stood for illicit sexuality, immorality, vice and lust - the opposite of pure, idealized, romantic love sanctioned by church, state and family" (Marsh, 77). ...read more.

Conclusion

The collapsing cards also emphasize the far-reaching ramifications of the wife's infidelity. In the scene there is a picture of the myth of the Fall, with Eve representing female weakness and natural inferiority. This relates to the Victorian idea that a woman needs protection from a man, the superior being. The apple beside the wife on the floor also symbolizes the Fall. The fate of the wife is depicted in the final scene chronologically. Having caused the destruction of her family, she has been exiled from her domestic sphere, and is left to face the outside world alone. The focus of the eye in this painting is on the Thames, and emphasizes the fallen woman's usual suicide by drowning. The two scenes, that of her at home, and now on the street, "represent a shift between two different representations of femininity: firstly, the image of the middle-class fallen woman, and secondly, the image of the working class prostitute" (Nead, 76). Through the above-mentioned works, one can image the confined and restricted world of the Victorian woman. They are enclosed in the domestic sphere, staring out into the world in which they are forbidden to participate, and imprisoned by a societal-imposed passivity and submission. And through the Pre-Raphaelite artwork, the fate of these women becomes clear: they cannot break free from these binds, and if they do attempt such defiance, they can only hope for exile or death. ...read more.

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