Gender and Sexuality - Ideal Women
Created by Amelia Yeates
21 May 2009
This is a learning resource on Gender and Sexuality. This is the third of seven parts.
Many, if not all, of the Pre-Raphaelites had their own ideal of beauty. From the 1860s Rossetti produced many images of idealised female beauties, increasingly influenced by Venetian painting, whilst Burne-Jones represented an increasingly singular female type.
Rossetti’s paintings and ideals were influenced by his real life loves, Lizzie Siddal, Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris, and by his models, for example Alexa Wilding. Many of the portraits represent the sitter as distant, suggesting a degree of untouchability. Jane Morris was the subject of perhaps Rossetti’s most abstracted and stylised images of ideal beauty.
Burne-Jones too would experience desire for a beautiful woman when he had an affair with Maria Zambaco, of whom he produced several sketches.
The ultimate story of ideal beauty, and one that was very popular with Victorian artists and writers alike, was the classical myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his own creation, made because no existing woman was perfect. Burne-Jones treated this theme in a set of four paintings Pygmalion and the Image and a set of drawings.
Burne-Jones, Pygmalion and the Image: The Soul Attains: In this final scene of the series, Pygmalion is united with his transformed statue which Venus has brought to life.
What kind of relationship between the two figures does the painting set up?
Pygmalion kneels to greet his statue, suggesting an attitude of veneration and worship and reminiscent of the traditional marriage proposal position. He takes both her hands close to his mouth close. Hands were very important in Victorian non-verbal languages of love – a touch of a hand was enough to let a woman know a man was romantically interested in her and suitors traditionally asked a father for his daughter’s ‘hand in marriage’. A single rose is on the floor, left from Venus’s visit in the preceding scene, The Godhead Fires, but also a symbol of love and beauty.
Rossetti, Proserpine: What features of the work contribute to the sense of this character as unattainable and distant?
The woman has a distant expression as she gazes out of the picture. Her body is turned away from the viewer and her arms are brought across her body. The smoking lamp in the foreground adds an air of exoticism to the image but also rests on a ledge which forms a barrier between the viewer and the figure.
Kern, Stephen, Eyes of Love: The Gaze in English and French Paintings and Novels 1840-1900. London: Reaktion Books, 1996
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