It seems nearly impossible to see an exhibition at Tate Britain without stumbling across yet another piece from their large Pre-Raphaelite collection. I set out to see the new exhibition, Queer British Art, 1861-1967, but amongst the late Victorian art I was startled to recognize a sketch of Medusa by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon, despite never having seen it before. I was excited to realize this was clearly the inspiration for a short story I had read recently, “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” by Patricia McKillip.
In the story, Harry Waterman, a young painter aspiring to fame, unintentionally summons Medusa into his half-finished painting. Meanwhile, Jo Byrd, a destitute woman grieving for her family and her child, returns to the city hoping the scatterbrained artist will re-hire her to be his model. Harry’s Gorgon encourages him to support Jo and learn to see her as a real woman, not just something to be painted. Confronting the agonized eyes of Solomon’s Gorgon, I felt admonished to find out more about these dynamic women McKillip’s story introduced me to.
I detoured to the 1840 room of Tate Britain’s permanent collections, a room designed to mimic a Victorian art gallery that I knew from previous visits had a large collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and I delved into the museum’s online resources to find out more about the women behind the gilt frames.
The Pre-Raphaelite “brotherhood” was a society of young artists and writers founded in 1848 in opposition to the Royal Academy’s philosophy that the artistic ideal was embodied by the work of Raphael. They were inspired by the writer John Ruskin’s philosophy, urging artists to deal with more serious subjects, work straight from nature, and to aim for as much realism as possible. The movement began by exploring religious themes, but were also inspired by literature, poetry, and the themes of love and death.
To attain more realism, the Pre-Raphaelites began using life models, including women, during a time when modeling was not a socially acknowledged profession. Coming from mainly poor families, these women were in a difficult position: they needed the pay to support their families, yet “modeling” retained an association with “loose morals” and prostitution. More than one model also found herself in extended, socially unacceptable love affairs with these painters, holding out hope for an offer of marriage.
McKillip draws parallels between her characters and the complex interpersonal relationships of the Pre-Raphaelites, creating for the reader a window into the inner worlds of these men and women. Particularly recognized the two great loves of Dante Gabriel Rossetti within her characters. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal was a working-class girl “found” in a hat shop by another painter. After working for a few different Pre-Raphaelites, she eventually caught Rossetti’s eye.
For ten years she was his mistress, he made her the subject of many of his paintings and encouraged her to pursue her own art. She struggled with a laudanum addiction, which eventually led to her death. In his grief, Rossetti stylized her as the beloved Beatrice to his Dante, two lovers separated by death.
Rossetti also carried out an affair with Jane Morris, wife of his friend William Morris. Hers is the face I associate with the Pre-Raphaelites most, so it was unsurprising to find out that Rossetti was obsessive about painting Jane. He made eight paintings casting her as Proserpine (Persephone), for he saw her as a tragic goddess held captive by an unhappy marriage. But how much of that was true, and how much Rossetti’s jealous imaginings? How did Lizzie feel about living so long as a “fallen” woman?
In “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” Jo and the older models bond over the feeling of being unseen. The wife of one artist says to Jo: “They’d see how pretty you are and how wonderful and mysterious the expression is in your eyes. But they wouldn’t have any idea how that expression got there” (McKillip 2016:90).
Well, I wish to know more about the expressions behind their eyes, to know more about these women who lived unconventional lives despite the rigid and prudish Victorian social norms. Standing in the center of the 1840 gallery, these enigmatic, pouty mouthed women seem to almost be in conversation. Seem to say, “They painted us, you look at us, but only we understand each other.”