when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began in mid nineteenth century England, its founders promoted an anti-academic brand of art which combined moral messages with hard edged realism. Originally created by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the movement expanded to include more followers over time, and eventually traded its exacting precision for symbolic mood with the arrival of Edward Burne-Jones. The morality which obsessed the early Pre-Raphaelites, especially Hunt, became secondary to a quest for beauty as the movement progressed. The three artists founded the Brotherhood because they believed that contemporary academic art had become too artificial, and strove to replace it with the 'naive traits of frank expression and unaffected grace' of early Italian art" (Wagstaff 3). This involved the intense study of nature encouraged by John Ruskin rather than working in generalizations. William Hogarth's satirical engravings provided the moralizing inspiration for the founders of the movement. The subjects depicted varied depending on individual artist, but often incorporated generalized themes such as tragic love or religious subjects. Artists also found inspiration in literature of both the past and present. Lord Alfred Tennyson's poetry became particularly popular among the Brotherhood, and all three of the founding members as well as many other Pre-Raphaelite followers contributed woodcut prints as illustrations for Moxon's compilation of Tennyson's poetry in 1857. Both Hunt and Rossetti chose to illustrate "The Lady of Shalott", a poem by Tennyson, although they depicted two separate narrative moments. The poem tells the story of the Lady of Shalott , who must remain in her tower and separated from the outside world; she seals her fate the moment she decides to escape, and she must die as a result. although Tennyson's poem describes tragic love, its depictions by Pre-Raphaelite artists often assumed meanings of their own within the context of Victorian society. In their depictions of the Lady of Shalott, Pre-Raphaelite artists illustrated the role and conditions of women in their contemporary culture. The individual artists' decisions to depict specific narrative moments within the poem suggests their differing interpretations of the status of women. As women became the saviors of the increasingly important domestic realm, paintings such as The Lady of Shalott illustrate the tension between their private desires and the reality of their social responsibilities as well as the artists' position on the matter. Tennyson's poem of "The Lady of Shalott" (text) relates the story of a woman cursed to remain inside a tower on Shalott, an island situated in the river which flows to Camelot. No others know of her existence, as her curse forbids her to leave the tower or to even look outside its windows. Instead, a large mirror within her chamber reflects the outside world, and she weaves a tapestry illustrating its wonders by means of the mirror's reflection. As the poem progresses, the Lady becomes increasingly aware of the love which abounds in the outside world, and she tires of her lonely existence in her tower, saying she is "half sick of shadows" (l. 71). Then seeing Sir Lancelot riding down to Camelot, the Lady leaves her loom to look down on him directly from her window, which immediately fulfills the curse. Her tapestry begins to unravel and the mirror cracks as she recognizes the consequences of her impulsive action. She flees her tower and finds a boat in the river which she marks with her name and loosens from its moorings. She dies before her boat reaches Camelot, where she would have finally found life and love, and Lancelot muses over the beauty of this unknown woman when the inhabitants find her body. The tragic love illustrated by Tennyson's poem appealed to the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers as one of the themes they favored most, and over fifty depictions of her story exist from the latter half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth (Poulson 173). The Lady of Shalott "had become, by the end of the nineteenth century, a concept rather than even a narrative archetype; she is a romantic idiom, a quotable catch-phrase" (Pearce 71). Many aspects of "The Lady of Shalott attracted Pre-Raphaelite painters, including its emphasis on: spiritual nobility and the melancholy of the more sorrowful aspects of love, such as unrequited love, particularly the embowered or isolated and therefore unattainable woman; the woman dying for love; the fallen woman who gives up everything for love; the special "tainted" or "cursed" woman; and the dead woman of unique beauty" (Nelson, Victorian Web) The Lady of Shalott embodies the woman who abandons her social responsibility in her pursuit of love. But different moments in the story evoke different visual implications, as demonstrated by the many versions of the painting. For instance, Hunt chose to depict the moment at which the mirror breaks and the curse descends; Waterhouse shows the Lady loosing the chains of her boat; John La Farge's Lady has already died in her boat in his version; and Lancelot finds Rossetti's Lady as she arrives in Camelot. Each of these individual moments involve slightly different emotions which the artist then emphasizes. Despite the various interpretations by Pre-Raphaelite artists, at its most basic level Tennyson's poem describes the time old tale of dying for love, as the Lady of Shalott becomes a martyr for a love she never actually experiences. Notably, Tennyson's poem places much more emphasis on the Lady's surroundings, her tower and the outside world, than he does on the Lady herself. He leaves the cause of the curse and its meaning unknown, and only allows her to speak through her own voice twice in the poem: once when she makes the conscious decision to look out of her window, and again when she realizes what she has done. Tennyson makes her a passive figure, subsumed into her surroundings and defined by her task. He focuses the reader's attention on the physical situation of the Lady, and "the contrast between her interior world and the exterior world, between stasis and movement, between the active and the contemplative lives encourages the reader to consider thoughtfully the differences between the two worlds" (Nelson 4).This emphasizes the Victorian belief in two separate private and public realms, with separate genders assigned to each. The domestic interior belonged to women, while the active exterior world belonged solely to men. The poem "replicates in a medieval setting the Victorian ideology of separate spheres... woman's work is inside the home, while active work in the outside world remains a male preserve" (Barringer 142). The principles in the poem apply to Victorian society, although the medieval setting separates the story from the contemporary day. The Lady of Shalott preserves her safety by staying within the confines of her tower and not participating in any sort of active pursuit. This fits perfectly with the concept of the actual Victorian woman, whom society expected to accept her role as protectress of the home. The Lady of Shalott "perfectly embodies the Victorian image of the ideal woman: virginal, embowered, spiritual and mysterious, dedicated to her womanly tasks" (Nelson 7). She exists as unthreatening and proper, and therefore unable to harm herself or disrupt the realm of men, as long as she remains within her tower, not only forbidden to exist within the outside world but even forbidden to contemplate it directly. However, "in her look towards Camelot and the outside world, the Lady has dared to seek the substantiation of her identity in a space which is reserved for the male" (Pearce 73). Death becomes only acceptable consequence of the Lady's impropriety. The changing social setting for women in the time period in which the majority of these paintings were executed makes it seem "legitimate to conjecture that part of their function was to suggest the vulnerability of women who step out of their appointed sphere, and the judgment and punishment two which they are then exposed" (Poulson 183). The story of the Lady of Shalott could either evoke sympathy for her tragic demise, or the sense that the neglect of her duty justified her punishment. This provides further motivation for Pre-Raphaelite artists to depict such a story, as they could then demonstrate their own opinions on the situation of women in society through their artwork. Three works by Rossetti — Left: Girlhood of Mary Virgin; Middle: Beatrice (A Portrait of Jane Morris). Right: Regina Cordium or The Queen of Hearts The Lady of Shalott relates to other familiar Pre-Raphaelite depictions of women, especially those somehow involving their passive role. These often portrayed women at a window or in their bower where they sit lost in thought, as in Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Rossetti favored the theme of the Fair Lady, which particularly emphasized women's contemplative nature. These works, such as Beatrice (A Portrait of Jane Morris) or Regina Cordium or The Queen of Hearts, show female passivity and beauty as separated from the context of the rest of the world. Most of these paintings have blank or purely decorative backgrounds, removing the subjects from the active realm. Lady Lilith, also depicted by Rossetti, looks into a mirror as does the Lady of Shalott , but to different ends. The enclosure of Lady Lilith within her bower relates her beauty and power to that of Nature. When she gazes into the mirror, her reflection spurs the contemplation of the power of her beauty. The Lady of Shalott looks in the mirror solely to see the reflection of the outside world in which she plays no part. The reflection in the mirror acts as a reminder of her lack of power, her passivity, and her confinement. Lady Lilith becomes increasingly self aware as she gazes into her mirror, but the reflection for the Lady of Shalott serves only to make her aware of everything else (Pearce 73). Versions of Mariana, a poem also by Tennyson which tells of a woman waiting for her lover's return, reiterate these feelings of loneliness and a lack of sexual fulfillment. The story of Elaine, a character from Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and Tennyson's retelling of the Arthurian legends, is analogous to that of the Lady of Shalott, since both die for their love of Lancelot in a boat sent down river to Camelot. The only difference lies in the inclusion of a boatman in Elaine's version. Beyond the moral message of these works and their suggestions about women, depictions such as these exist for male consumption as well. For instance, in Hunt's version of The Lady of Shalott, she stands "with her hair performing a wild arabesque, her oriental shoes tossed carelessly aside, she is a sensuous figure a part of the gorgeous, excessive spectacle of Hunt's painting to be looked at and enjoyed by the male viewer" (Barringer 144). The inclusion of such aesthetic beauty idealizes the women portrayed and results in their objectification. The depiction of the fallen woman became particularly popular as well. The prostitute embodied the changing city affected by commerce and industrialization, and her socially unacceptable practices conjured up images of pollution and disease in the Victorian mind. The term 'fallen' referred to their fall from respectability. Pre-Raphaelite artists found ample opportunity to create scenes illustrating their lowly state based on the pertinence of the issue in Victorian England. Augustus Egg's Past and Present series illustrates the fate of a woman caught in adultery by her husband. The first panel shows her husband reading a letter, presumably telling of her unfaithfulness, and the woman spread prostrate on the floor before him. The two daughters, very young in the first scene, appear as teenagers in the second panel where they sit alone in a barren room. The final panel shows the mother huddled under a bridge holding her illegitimate child. This series aptly demonstrates the consequences of the woman's failure to fulfill her role as mother and loyal wife: not only has she been cast into the street, but her daughters have been forced into destitution as well. Much like the Lady of Shalott, the neglect of her duty leads to the woman's demise. Because of the prevalent social issues in England at the time, there existed a psychological need to retreat into the safety of the home where delicate spiritual values could be protected and preserved...
Special offer for new customers!
Get 15% OFF
your first order
the woman as center of the home — responsible for the spiritual well-being of the family assumed an importance previously inconceivable. [Nelson 7] The mood with which Egg depicts his Past and Present series reiterates the Victorian society's outlook on women who step outside their predetermined roles. Hunt paints The Awakening Conscience in a more hopeful light, depicting a kept woman at the moment of her repentance. She rises from the man's lap, looking out the window to the outside world which acts as her redemption. In her case, unlike the Lady of Shalott's, the outside world holds her salvation in that it provides an escape from her currently reprehensible situation. Society frowns upon this woman's activities, as she does not fulfill her required role. This offers a reverse parallel of the Lady of Shalott, who chooses to reject her socially acceptable lifestyle in return for earthly pleasures. The woman in The Awakening Conscience looks "to the purity of spring outdoors (her salvation) while our lady looks down and back again to her safe interior, too late, from the forbidden window and the outdoor world which is her downfall" (Wagstaff 14). This reversal emphasizes the fact that despite their differing situations, these two women both need to adhere to the social codes of the Victorian culture in which they live. Hunt executed the most famous depiction of the Lady of Shalott although he painted it over the course of twenty years, from 1886 to 1905, and his eyesight failed to such an extent in his old age that the work had to be completed by Arthur Hughes (Wagstaff 20). He created three versions of The Lady of Shalott in his career, this last painting being the largest and most famous. Subtle changes exist between the three versions although the basic composition remains the same throughout. In this final version, the Lady of Shalott stands shocked as the threads of her tapestry fly of their own accord, unraveling and twisting around her body. They force her loose dress to cling to her body and lift the hem of her dress to reveal her undergarments. Unlike the frail, delicate boned women typically seen in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Hunt grants his lady of Shalott weight and strength. Her monumentality suggests power and control as opposed to weakness and vulnerability, despite her current situation. Hunt yet again reinforces this by pushing the Lady fairly close to the picture plane and allowing her to constitute the majority of the physically space in the scene. She wears an unusual peacock colored blouse, copied from a similar one belonging to Hunt's wife (Wagstaff 16). The lady wears an expression of defiance as she watches her work come undone. Her gold loom occupies the majority of the room, with its frame exceeding the boundaries of the picture and the Lady herself standing within it. The bright sunlight in the lower half of the picture catch the loom's shining gold surface and the balls of brightly colored thread which hang from it. Hunt utilizes unusually bright colors throughout this work, even in the upper portion which does not receive the brilliant sunlight. although Hunt's palette typically employs bright colors, as seen in his other works such as The Hireling Shepherd, his Lady of Shalott's "color impact is unexpected, startling, and harshly brilliant... even Ruskin accused him of harshness" (Wagstaff 20). However, this does allow the immense detail of the upper portion to stand out despite its relative shadow. The round mirror, now with a large crack through it, reflects bits of the interior scene as well as countryside of Camelot. The Lady's reflection in the mirror behind her, just barely visible behind her actual figure, seems to descend from the window down to the figure of Lancelot. The two pieces of artwork to either side of the mirror reemphasize its shape and serve as moralizing devices. To the left, a Madonna and Child taken almost directly from a plaque in Andrea Della Robbia's workshop (Wagstaff 16) reminds the viewer of the ideal woman, Mary: innocent, pious, and content with her proper place in life. A depiction of Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides to the right of the mirror stands as a prefiguration of Christ, who made the ultimate sacrifice of self for mankind. Hunt places both of these in stark contrast to the Lady of Shalott, who forgoes her duty for the sake of earthly pleasures. A panel of cherubs and angels comprises the area above the mirror, and seems to also form an arch which extends outside of the picture plane while reinforcing the curved shape. An immense amount of detail abounds throughout the scene, from the scattered flower petals next to the Lady's discarded sandals in the lower right corner to the tea set which reflects the Pre-Raphaelite decorative arts. Some of these seem to serve compositionally to draw the viewer in and create a sense of balance, and others maintain symbolic value within the painting. The three birds in the painting suggest the shifting of the Lady's situation: the one in the image of Hercules represents the Lady during her tenure in the tower, and the bird flying into the foreground just to the left of the Lady seems to mimic her panicked situation. The final bird flies out of the window at the very top of the scene, paralleling the Lady's escape. Visually, the viewer "is forced to search out their every detail, as one would read a miniature. This 'intenseness of vision' was much commented on during Hunt's lifetime, for his painting became more detailed than that of the rest of the Brotherhood" (Wagstaff 19-20). This invites the viewer to examine the painting more closely and to delicate over its variety and attention to detail. Hunt himself said that the moral message of a painting should not prevent the viewer '"from looking at the picture for its delectability — as indeed a picture should always first be regarded" (Wagstaff 21). The richness of the work through its color and lavish detail blend with Hunt's agenda in his last and what he most likely regarded as his ultimate work. Hunt clearly makes a departure from Tennyson's tragic love poem in his depiction of the Lady of Shalott. For Hunt, the poem epitomized "the failure of a human soul towards its accepted responsibility... in her isolation she is charged to see life with a mind supreme and elevated in judgment" (Wagstaff 11). The responsibility of the Lady, presumably, lies in her acceptance of her passive role in life. The fact that she must weave fits neatly into the presumed duties of a woman in Victorian society. Her beautiful weaving does not constitute as art since she copies what she sees in the mirror, and "while her tapestry reflects life at one remove, she remains derivative and thus within the bounds of woman's art. But when she seeks a direct experience of the world she incurs death" (Pearce 76). The Lady of Shalott oversteps her boundaries into the male sphere, wishing to experience life directly, but an unseen force — here, her curse- does not permit her to do so. Such was the case for Victorian women, confined by society to their domestic realm. Hunt makes such a departure from the poem that "even the romantic curse — magical and mystical unknown factor in Tennyson's poem — has been altered to assume the Puritanical guise of Duty" (Wagstaff 13). Hunt's depiction here seems to support the punishment of the Lady of Shalott, and find her attempt to abandon her charge reprehensible. The fact that the Lady does not react with fear but rather with defiance supports this. In her expression, "she is speaking her anger, frustration and outrage to us at the same time that she is, in Hunt's moral schema, enacting her punishment" (Pearce 79). Even when faced with the consequences of her actions, Hunt's Lady does not assume the passive role intended for her. Perhaps the consequences only become real for her once the outside world becomes her own world as well instead of remaining imaginary. Waterhouse's most famous version of The Lady of Shalott, painted in 1888, depicts her just as she departs from the island in her boat. Her hand loosely holds the chains mooring the boat to shore as she gazes out forlornly at the water. Her expression seems to be one of sadness and desperation. The depiction of the scene correlates closely with Tennyson's description: the Lady's white dress and the specific time of day depicted accord with the poem. Waterhouse leaves the tapestry, which previously constituted the focus of her existence, draped unceremoniously across the bottom of the boat with its edges dragging in the water. One of its crowned lunettes shows Lancelot and his men on horseback, and the other illustrates the Lady herself before a castle. This presumably refers to her anticipated arrival in Camelot. The three candles, two already extinguished, and the crucifix in the prow of the boat enhance the funereal aspect of the scene. These features stand in sharp focus compared to the background of the scene, which appears much more shady and indistinct as the trees and foliage take on a brushy quality. Here Waterhouse clearly departs from the strict early Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on exacting precision when depicting nature. Waterhouse's 1888 version of The Lady of Shalott remains as one of the few scenes of the time period to depict a woman out of doors and alone, and this aspect serves to emphasize her vulnerability. Rather than safe within the confines of her tower, the Lady of Shalott now seems weak and helpless when placed at the mercy of the outside world. Instead of condemning the Lady, however, this seems to evoke a sense of pity in the viewer. This differs sharply from Hunt's blatant disapproval of the Lady's behavior. Waterhouse's scene does not openly support or denounce her actions, but merely takes a slightly more sympathetic position when compared to Hunt's. Whereas Hunt's depiction of the Lady of Shalott focuses on a narrative moment within Tennyson's poem, this version by Waterhouse places far more emphasis on mood. Waterhouse painted two other versions of The Lady of Shalott that place her once again within her tower. The version painted in 1894 relates closely to Hunt's version in terms of composition. Once again the Lady's figure composes the majority of the scene, but here she looks past the viewer presumably out of the window. Her dominance in the scene results in a lack of emphasis on the details of the room. The darker colors of the background make it seem indistinct and clearly less important than the Lady herself. The mirror has already begun to crack as Lancelot comes into view. Waterhouse shows her at the very moment of her discretion, with the threads of the tapestry already wound around her knees as in Hunt's version. Here, it seems as if the Lady has not yet had time to react- she still seems lost in her long awaited gaze. Again Waterhouse utilizes a looser brushstroke which reflects the fleeting aspect of the moment, and: in its softer use of vulnerable and its fluid, painterly texture, Waterhouse's picture is far more sensuous in feeling. The rapid, impressionistic handling of the paint creates a sense of vitality and urgency which is absent from Hunt's picture. . . Waterhouse creates a more immediate and intimate effect; his Lady looks out urgently at the spectator like a hunted animal at bay. (Poulson 180) Rather than simply portraying her as a fallen woman, Waterhouse grants his Lady of Shalott a sense of emotional depth which in turn affects the viewer. As in his 1888 version, Waterhouse does not condemn his Lady but evokes a sense of sympathy. Tennyson himself described her expression as one of "new born love for something, for someone in the wide world from which she has been so long secluded, takes her out of the region of shadows into that of realities" (Poulson 179). This legitimizes the Lady's reaction to her confinement and makes it seem that her decision to look from the window was based on universal human fallibility. Waterhouse does not seem to blame her, and despite the similarities in composition, "with Waterhouse the emphasis is on sexual awakening, seduction and betrayal, themes central to his other work of the 1890's, while Hunt, ostensibly, is more concerned with moral retribution" (Poulson 180). The romantic sentimentality which permeates Waterhouse's version matches the religious morality which runs throughout Hunt's. Waterhouse painted his final version, entitled "I am Half-Sick of Shadows" said the Lady of Shalott in 1911.
Get 24/7 Free consulting