The Women of 

Pre-Raphaelite Art

Elizabeth Siddal is the model in Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1865-66.

Private Collection
Elizabeth Siddal is the model in Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1865-66.
More than just muses, the models that made Pre-Raphaelite art a success had artistic ambitions of their own.

More than just muses, the models that made Pre-Raphaelite art a success had artistic ambitions of their own.

The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Fanny Cornforth is the model for The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1865.

Female models played key roles in the making of Pre-Raphaelite art. In fact, while still not on the same level as professional beauties, they operated on a level similar to a performer.

Tumbling locks, a pale complexion, a soulful gaze in the distance, and a loose gown: these are but a few of the characteristics of the women portrayed in Pre-Raphaelite art, women who, starting in 1848, would portray Biblical heroines, goddesses, historical, and literary figures.

The art and lives of the Pre-Raphaelites retain immense popular appeal, with aesthetics that are pleasing to the eyes, an utterly romantic spirit of their world and a penchant for the depiction of myths, legends, and historical events.

On the surface level, the women portrayed almost appear as an ornamental element, brought to the fore by the artistic genius of painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, and their peers. However, what is oftentimes overlooked in the mystique of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood is how much its advancement in the arts and in culture depended on the endeavors of women not only as models, but also as artists and creative partners.

Unlike most models featured in previous artistic movements, Pre-Raphaelite models transformed their own lives through active engagement in art. They became lasting celebrities in their own right, the de facto figureheads of a movement that owes much of its appeal to the beauty of the subjects that were portrayed. “The great female models were, at the start, in the 1850s, plucked from non-artistic backgrounds because of their beauty, which did not correspond to Victorian canons of beauty,” explained Aurélie Petiot, author of the new book The Pre-Raphaelites (Abbeville Press). For example, Elizabeth “The Sid” Siddall worked at a dressmaker’s and at a millinery shop, Fanny Cornforth (real name Sarah Cox), was a house servant, while Annie Miller was working at the Cross Keys pub when Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt spotted her.

Elizabeth Siddall is perhaps the most notable Pre-Raphaelite muse. While not a traditional beauty (she had an overbite) she could hold difficult poses and had no problem playing “unflattering” roles. She wore male attire for a tableau portraying a scene from the Twelfth Night, and a burlap sack when portraying a British girl in the time of the Druids. In spite of this, her particular beauty became more and more acknowledged over time. She was praised by painter Ford Madox Brown for “looking thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever.”

“Young women in the 19th century were all concerned with shaping their destinies through marriage—in all classes,” said Dr. Jan Marsh, “Participation in art was one attractive avenue, just as today aspiring actresses and fashion models hope to create more glamorous lives for themselves. They certainly knew what they were doing and why, but conventionally concealed ambition”

Female models played key roles in the making of Pre-Raphaelite art. In fact, while still not on the same level as professional beauties, they operated on a level similar to a performer. They participated in the creative process, and they tended to be cast in a specific range of roles. The sensuous Fanny Cornforth played roles such as the whore and the courtesan. By contrast, Annie Miller could play both the bashful lass and the remorseful harlot, while Jane Morris could interpret noble figures such as Guinevere, Iseult, and Dante’s Beatrice, but did not like her role as Venus Astarte.

Annie Miller is the model in Il Dolce far Niente by William Holman Hunt, 1866
Private Collection, c/o Grant Ford Ltd.

Annie Miller is the model in Il Dolce far Niente by William Holman Hunt, 1866.

Jane Morris is the model for Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1877.
Private Collection

Jane Morris is the model for Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1877.

Study of Fanny Eaton by Joanna Wells, 1861. 
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

Study of Fanny Eaton by Joanna Wells, 1861. 

Effie with Foxgloves in her Hair (The Foxglove) by John Everett Millais, 1853.
National Trust Collections, Wightwick Manor and Gardens, Warwickshire. © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

Effie with Foxgloves in her Hair (The Foxglove) by John Everett Millais, 1853.

Evening Bag Stitched by Jane Morris, c.1878.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Bequeathed by May Morris. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Evening Bag Stitched by Jane Morris, c.1878.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan, 1878.
De Morgan Collection, courtesy of the De Morgan Foundation

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan, 1878.

Christina Rossetti is the model in Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849-50.
Tate: Purchased 1886. Image © Tate, London 2019

Christina Rossetti is the model in Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849-50.

Thou Bird of God by Joanna Boyce Wells, 1861.
Private Collection

Thou Bird of God by Joanna Boyce Wells, 1861.

Marie Zambaco is the model in The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward by Burne-Jones, 1872-7. 
National Museums Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery

Marie Zambaco is the model in The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward by Burne-Jones, 1872-7. 

Marie Spartali by Ford Madox Brown, 1869.
Private Collection

Marie Spartali by Ford Madox Brown, 1869.

Embroidered Shoes by Marie Spartali Stillman.
Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Eugenia Diehl Pell, 2016

Embroidered Shoes by Marie Spartali Stillman.

The First Meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman, 1889.
Private Collection. Courtesy of Peter and Renate Nahum

The First Meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman, 1889.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, with Philip and Margaret by Edward by Burne-Jones 1883.;
Private Collection Image courtesy of Sotheby's, London

Georgiana Burne-Jones, with Philip and Margaret by Edward by Burne-Jones 1883.

Jane Morris at Tudor House
National Portrait Gallery, London

Jane Morris at Tudor House (Mrs William Morris posed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1865), John Robert Parsons, 1865.

Sophy Gray by John Everett Millais, 1856.
Private Collection

Sophy Gray by John Everett Millais, 1856.

On a merely visual level, their performances outshone both the source material they portrayed and, at times, even the artist: we remember Millais’ Drowning Ophelia, for example, mainly for Elizabeth Siddall’s compelling portrayal of the tragic heroine—she remained immersed in a tub to a point where she became severely ill. Similarly, Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti strikes the viewer not because of its subject matter (femmes fatales had been a popular subject in art since the 1800s) but because of the ethereal features of the model, Alexa Wilding—funnily, Rossetti originally used Fanny Cornforth as a model, but then overpainted her features because his patron, Frederick Leyland, considered Cornforth’s features too earthy for the subject.

Pre-Raphaelite models were, oftentimes, artists in their own right too. “The works of what has been called the ‘Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood’ display a greater melancholy and not an assertive sensuality, as did those of their male counterparts, thus moving to the female gaze,” said Aurélie Petiot. Elizabeth Siddall, of course, was an artist in her own right: she started painting and drawing under the tutelage of Rossetti in 1852, and then leading art critic John Ruskin became a patron of her art, which favored Arthurian legends and other medieval subjects. “You must take care not to rival The Sid,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote to his sister Christina, who had similar artistic aspirations.

Marie Spartali Stillman, hailing from the moneyed, London-based Greek diaspora, was an accomplished painter who tended to portray Arthurian and Italian subjects. She used techniques and references to characters of the Italian Renaissance: for example, she painted the first meeting between the poet Petrarch and his muse Laura, and a Madonna who had a characteristically Botticelli-like appearance. Unfortunately, according to art collector and benefactor Charles Fairfax Murray, she “ruined her reputation by running down her own work with characteristic self-denigration.”

Evelyn De Morgan was an accomplished painter whose works combined Pre-Raphaelite art with Aesthetic and Symbolist elements. She was fond of mermaids, medieval subjects and allegory and used personification to articulate spiritualist concepts. Famously, the signature of her painting Aurora Triumphans, which she initialed as EP, was overwritten to the initials of Edward Burne-Jones. “She was full of mischief, told a story delightfully and her laughter was irresistible, but wherever painting was concerned she was all eagerness, seriousness and absorption,” a fellow student at the Slade School recalled. Several of her works were bought by William Imrie of the White Star Line.

The models also influenced fashion. “Garments worn or seen in Pre-Raphaelite pictures were counter to the prevailingly corseted and be-ribboned fashions, and sometimes worn by models in everyday life,” said Dr. Jan Marsh, curator of the exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery in London. She particularly referred to the fashion displayed in Burne-Jones and Spartali Stillman families. “Despite a brief vogue for loose Aesthetic dress, as satirized in cartoons and musical theatre like the opera Patience, other women regarded the ‘hippyish’ styles as hideous and unstructured, but that may have been partly envy of unconventionality.”

It is, however, a stretch to make comparisons with “it” girls and muses from the 20th century, who enjoyed 360-degree fame as personalities, artists, and performers (see, for example, Edie Sedgwick or Zelda Fitzgerald). “With the exception of Jane Morris, whom Henry James wished to meet as the epitome of the Pre-Raphaelite woman as early as 1867, Pre-Raphaelite models were not generally public celebrities in their lifetimes,” said Dr. Jan Marsh. “But from 1860s art patrons asked artists for any new ‘Queen of Beauty’ and certainly they were forerunners of the Professional Beauties like Lillie Langtry in 1890s.”

What’s more, their accomplishments were always overshadowed by gossipy or salacious anecdotes on their personal lives. Elizabeth Siddall embodied the notion of tragic muse: after an all-consuming love affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, marked by social isolation and rejection from his family due to her being from a working-class background, and by depressive episodes due to Rossetti’s infidelity, she died of a laudanum overdose following a stillbirth. Similarly, Euphemia “Effie” Gray Millais is mostly known to the public for her humiliation in her marriage to John Ruskin, which was never consummated, and her leaving him for John Everett Millais. “He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason,” she wrote to her father. “He had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening.”

Starting in the 1920s, Modernism erased Pre-Raphaelism: it was seen as kitsch. Their renaissance in the 1960s was due to the fact that Pre-Raphaelite artists were seen as forerunners of the exponents of the counter-culture movement, and to the fact that rich collectors such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Seymour Stein, both influential figures in the music world, enabled the translation of Pre-Raphaelite imagery into pop culture. Now their popularity is at an all-time high, mainly because Pre-Raphaelite imagery is versatile. ”The Pre-Raphaelite female figure such as depicted in Ophelia had become a sign which signification varies through time,” said Petiot. During the 1920s, the rise of psychoanalysis transformed her into a hypersexual figure; in the 1960s, the flowers that often adorned her, her use of laudanum to fight depression, and her artistic talents were reread from a hippie perspective. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, she became the embodiment of patriarchal oppression and protofeminism. Finally, starting in 1989, she and her fellow Pre-Raphaelite models started being formally acknowledged as artists and performers in their own right, regardless of the metrics through which we define “artistic merits.”

About the Author

Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. She writes about art, culture, and food.

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