When we think on Pre-Raphaelite art many names come instantly to our minds, such as John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, John William Waterhouse to name just a few. But the images that come to our mind are always the idealised image of a delicate woman.
As in other movements of art, women are often associated to the creation, the muse who inspires the artist, not as the creator behind the work. In the Pre-Raphaelite art is not different, however, there a significant number of female artists whose works were relevant to the movement.
The Pre-Raphaelite Movement
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of young and idealistic British artists founded in 1848. Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt founded the brotherhood in opposition to the more traditional art approved by the Royal Academy. The members of the brotherhood rejected the Academy’s promotion of the Renaissance art, as well as the genre painting, very popular at the time. Their work had the focus, especially, on religious and medieval themes painted with maximum realism, and they were inspired by the Italian art of 15th century, especially by the painter of Siena and Florence.
And unlike their name, their lives and works were shaped, indelibly, by the women of their circle. These women have gone down in the history of art as muses, even though they were artists in their own right. They were painters, poets, and models. In the case of the last ones, they were at the centre of the creations, as the protagonists of the paintings, but some of them used their roles as models to fund a career of their own as painters.
They’re less famous than their male counterparts, nevertheless they played an important role in the Pre-Raphaelite art, such as the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the poet Christina Rossetti, the painters Evelyn de Morgan, Louisa Anne Beresford, Marie Spartali Stillman, Annie Louisa Swynnerton, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, and Lizzie Siddal whose importance is not limited to her role as a model for famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings such as Ophelia or Beata Beatrix, but for her own work as a painter and a poet.
There were other women, especially painters, whose works can be included in the Pre-Raphaelite Art. They were Sophie Gengembre Anderson, Rosa Brett, Kate Bunce, Anna Lea Merritt, May Cooksey, Noel Laura Nisbet, Lucy Madox Brown, Louise Jopling, Emma Sandys, Joanna Boyce, Anna Blunden. We can also include in this list Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris, and the Pettigrew sisters.
Lately, the importance of these women to the Pre-Raphaelite art and to the British art of 19th century has been recognised. There are books about these women and their role in the movement such as Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh or Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang by Kirsty Stonell Walker.
But in my opinion the major proof of this it was that in 2019, the National Portrait Gallery in London held the exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, which explored the overlooked contribution of 12 women. The exhibition featured new discoveries and unseen works from public and private collections, revealing the women behind the paintings and their active-creative roles in all the phases of the Pre-Raphaelite art between 1850 and 1900.
Despite their contribution to the success of the movement, nowadays most of these women are still remembered as muses, lovers and wives, rather than creators, collaborators or business partners.