Sunday, 9 November 2014

Victorian women represented in Pre-Raphaelite paintings

Picture 1: (Left) "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" (George F. Watts)
Picture 2: (Right) "Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt" (George F. Watts)

The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a society of artists who painted with “maximum realism” and “explored modern social problems” (Tate). I will show you how the Victorian women were represented in these types of paintings by looking at two painters; Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. They both have many beautiful paintings, and represent women in different ways. However, I have chosen to use Rossetti’s “Lady Lilith” and Millais’ “The Bridesmaid”. 

Picture 3: Isabella Grace
(Victoria & Albert museum)
Before looking at the paintings, we need to think about the Victorian women. How were women supposed to act, what should they wear and what made a woman beautiful? Rachel Adams, a student at Roehampton University, mentions in her blog entry that femininity was split into four virtues: ‘Domesticity’; they were supposed to stay at home, ‘submission’; subject themselves to men, ‘purity’; stay a virgin until married and ‘Piety’; devote themselves to God (Adams). So, not much freedom for women.

Moreover, I think we have all seen the dresses the Victorians had to wear. Either in a museum or in movies. The dresses were big and covered the woman, usually with a corset underneath. The dress in the picture to the right is what the rich would wear, but the poor would use the same style, but less expensive (Victoria and Albert Museum). The fashion, however, did not make women perfect. According to Jan Marsh, a Victorian portrait researcher, women were supposed to be petite and have a “delicate prettiness” (24).

Now that we know a little bit about the Victorians perspective on beauty and women, we can look at the paintings. The first one we will be looking at is “Lady Lilith”. Now, the title says a lot about this woman. She is supposed to be Lilith, who was, according to Jewish folklore, Adam’s first wife (Witcombe). Supposedly, Lilith, left Adam because she meant they were created as equals, and she would not be inferior to him. This is the opposite of what a Victorian woman should behave like; they should be submissive to their husband. Dominant women like her can be found in Victorian literature as well; Shirley, in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, is a strong woman given more dominance in the way she runs her business. Because the powerful woman can be found in both paintings and literature, it makes me believe people enjoyed them.
Picture 4: "Lady Lilith" (Rossetti)
Her long, flowing hair, also seems to be the opposite of what the Victorian women should look like. Flowing hair is “an emblem of female sexuality in Pre-Raphaelite panting”, according to Marsh (23). If her hair is showing off her sexuality it would explain why the Victorians did their hair in the way they did: uptight. They would not want to seduce men with their loose hair, and by looking at her dress I imagine that might cause a problem to the Victorian society as well.

When it comes to her dress, we are faced with a problem. The colour of the dress is white, symbolizing chastity, however, it is barely covering her body, which seems to be showing us her sexual side. If we look to Brontë’s Villette, Lucy Snowe, the main character, examine a painting of a barely covered Cleopatra, in which she thinks Cleopatra should have covered herself up (Brontë, 198). However, M. Paul Emanuel reacts to Lucy looking at the painting, which gives us a clear impression of the Victorians view on half-naked women: “How dare you, a young person, sit coolly down, with the self-possession of a garçon, and look at that picture?” (Brontë, 199). I could imagine a similar reaction when looking at “Lady Lilith”, because of her dress.

As we can see, Lilith represents everything the Victorian woman ought not to be. However, Marsh claims that the models were not only models, but a representation of the artist’s soul which was “elaborated in a metaphor of the male artist and his ideal woman” (12). If Lilith represents Rossetti’s soul and perhaps his ideal woman, he would want the opposite of what the Victorian society thought a woman should be like.

Picture 5: "The Bridesmaid" (Millais)
 “The Bridesmaid”, by the first look of it, seems to be a more acceptable painting than “Lady Lilith” to the Victorians. One of the reasons for this is that she is properly dressed. Her dress goes almost all the way up to her neck and the only visible skin is her face and neck, which does not seem to be a reason for a sexual attraction. She is getting married, submitting herself to her husband, which is what a good Victorian woman should do.

There are, however, several traits that are similar to “Lady Lilith”, and her hair is one of them. Her hair is loose, which it would not be if she was out in public. This means that she is either rising in the morning or retiring for the evening, which gives us a more intimate connection to her. We are allowed into her private space, where she is free from the rules of how a woman should behave and look like. Her loose hair, as we remember, represents sexuality (Marsh, 23), but the bride also shows signs of “fear and fascination” for the sexual, according to T.J. Barringer (92). Her fear for the sexual might come from her inexperience with it. However, her fascination for the sexual might come from this as well. Uncertainty gives her a chance to imagine what will happen. Marsh says it looks like she is about to kiss, which we can see by the way her lips are parted and her face leaning forward (48). Her eyes seems fixed on something that is not there, which makes it look like she is thinking of something (or someone) and getting ready to kiss it.

At first, I believed that this painting would be a very good opposite to “Lady Lilith”, however, they have more traits in common than I thought they would. Lilith who left her husband because she wanted to be equal, and the bride who seems to be looking forward to marriage, are both very sexual. This is either being shown through a loose dress or through a facial expression. Both Rossetti and Millais represent the women as sexual, in beautiful ways. The Victorian woman can either be like Lilith, the independent, powerful, sexual woman or the bride, the good, but sexually fascinated wife. Either way, they both have one thing in common; they represent the Victorian woman as sexual.


Adams, Rachel. “Vicious Standards for Victorian Women”. Reframing the Victorians. 02.10.2014. Web. 05.10.2014. <>

Barringer, T.J. Reading the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Calmann and King Ltd., 1998. Web. Google Books. 08.11.14. < >

Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. London: Oxford University Press, 1971. Print.

Marsh, Jan. Pre-Raphaelite Women. London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1987. Print.

Millais, John Everett. “The Bridesmaid”. Tate. 1851. Web. 09.11.2014. <>

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. “Lady Lilith”. Rossetti Archive. 1868. Web. 09.11.2014. <>

Tate. Tate. {Pre-Raphaelite}. N.d. Web. 05.11.2014 < >

Victoria and Albert Museum. Victoria and Albert Museum. {Victorian Dress at the V&A}. 2014. Web. 05.11.2014. < >

Watts, George Frederic. “Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt”. National Portrait Gallery. 1871. Web. 09.11.2014. <>

Watts, George Frederic. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti”. National Portrait Gallery. 1871. Web. 09.11.2014. <>

Witcombe, Chrispoher. Eve and he Identity of Women. {Eve and Lillith}. 2000. Web. 05.11.2014. < >

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