I suppose it’s not very fashionable to say this, but I really like the Pre-Raphaelites. Not the men themselves, you understand; they seem to have been quite a callous bunch, all told, especially towards their models.
I like works of art I can understand. I don’t want to try and find meaning in a red dot on a white background. I don’t know that that’s supposed to be. I don’t know what the artist is trying to say. With the Pre-Raphaelites there will always be little details in the background that will have allegorical significance that passes me by, but on the whole when I look at the painting, I understand what is happening.
This is Mariana, by Millais. When I first saw this painting in a book, in my teens, I didn’t know that Mariana was a character in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, pining for her lost love. I didn’t know that Millais displayed this painting with a quotation from a Tennyson poem next to it. I saw my own story in it – a young woman standing up from her work, stretching her back to work the aches out and looking plaintively out a window. As I was someone who was revising for exams at the time, and spent long amounts of time bending over a desk and wishing I was anywhere else, I felt a little kinship with the woman in the picture.
I had William Holman-Hunt’s Lady of Shalott on my wall at university. I loved the colours and the wild abandon of her hair. God only knows what she was doing with that massive embroidery loop, but you can see the mirror being crack’d, and Lancelot moseying by outside, unaware that the Lady’s life is now forfeit after she snuck a glance at him out of her tower.
In modern tumblr-talk, I suppose the Pre-Raphaelites are ‘problematic’ to like today. They tended to portray women as weak and feeble, pining for love or the loss of it. The artists themselves behaved terribly to their wives, mistresses and models, who often held all three positions at some point in their lives.
I like the pretty paintings, though. I understand what the artist was trying to say, mostly. I adore the red hair so popular with the artists and have spent most of my life since the age of twelve dying mine to look like it. There’s always something going on in the paintings, something new to catch you eye. They’re not at all modern and not at all sympathetic to modern women’s experiences of the world, but I do like them.