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Pre-Raphaelite Sisters


17 October 2019 - 26 January 2020

National Portrait Gallery

Ophelia by John Everett Millais, Watercolour with gouache on paper, 1865-6. An autograph replica of Millais' renowned work.
This unique exhibition celebrates the contribution of twelve women to the Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement.

The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was established in 1848 and first exhibited works in 1849. They embraced the use of an extensive amount of detail and intense colours similar to that of early Renaissance Italian art. They rejected the stiff, fabricated painting style adopted by successors of Raphael, often considered to be Manneristic - believing that Raphael's harmonious compositions had an impact on the academic style of painting - hence the title; Pre-Raphaelite.

Proserpina, 1874, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oil on Canvas. The Goddess is modelled by Jane Morris.

The painting above reflects on Jane Morris' unhappy marriage to William Morris, bearing similarities to that of the Goddess Proserpine. Her and Rossetti shared an intimate relationship and the painting is one of eight oil versions.

Amidst an era of recognising and appreciating female artists, this exhibition warmly acknowledges twelve women who extensively contributed to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. From muses, models, seamstresses and artists - the exhibition aims to personalise each of the roles these female figures had in the procuration of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

The twelve women featured are: Joanna Wells, Fanny Cornforth, Marie Spartali Stillman, Evelyn de Morgan, Christina Rossetti, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Effie Millais, Elizabeth Siddal, Maria Zambaco, Jane Morris, Annie Miller, Fanny Eaton.

For a movement which is generally believed to be male dominated, the women are carefully intertwined in the creative process. It can be said that they have adequately secured a place within the masculine art circle of that era.

The exhibition space is divided and shared by the twelve women. The personalised sections which are allocated to each woman, enable one to glimpse into their private lives. Whether they were artists, muses or models, each woman is appreciated for her unique participation in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Elgiva, by Joanna Boyce Wells, 1855, Oil on Canvas.The painting depicts the Anglo-Saxon queen before her forcible divorce, facial disfiguration and murder.

Joanna Boyce Wells was the most accomplished of the Pre-Raphaelite women. She was supported in her career as an artist by her father, brother and husband and the painting shown above is her first, real major success.

" The slight arch of the lip seems to begin to quiver and the eyes fill with ineffable sadness"

- John Ruskin (a leading English art critic of the Victorian era)

Wells was described by the fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist Gabriel Rossetti as being "a marvellously gifted artist". However, she was often criticised for her meticulously, and in turn, slow approach to painting.

Unfortunately, she passed away after the birth of her third child and never reached the artistic heights of which she had the skill to attain.

Fanny Eaton is another notable Pre-Raphaelite sister. However, she was not an artist but a model. Born Fanny Matilida Antwistle in Jamaica 1835, she migrated to Britain with her mother and found work as a model. Due to her dark complexion, she became a preference for artists who wished to depict Biblical, Egyptian and exotic scenes.

Fanny Eaton modelling for Rebecca Solomon's A Young Teacher, 1861.

Eaton modelled for artists such as Rebecca and Simeon Solomon, Albert Moore, John Millais, Joanna Wells, Gabriel Rossetti and students from the Royal Academy of Art.

Notably, her public debut was in Simeon Solomon's painting The Mother of Moses which can also be seen as part of the exhibition. Despite the era being known for it's strict beauty standards and idealised perceptions, Eaton was praised by artists such as Rosetti for her striking features, dark hair and "very fine figure". Her abundant appearance in Pre-Raphaelite works clearly challenged the social expectations of what constituted beauty.

Another prominent woman who participated in the Pre-Raphaelite movement is Effie Gray Millais. She was originally married to John Ruskin, the notable art critic who supported the Pre-Raphaelite movement. However, her unhappiness in her marriage to Ruskin resulted in an annulment a year after meeting John Millais (whom she later married).

She had the role of a model and a manager when she became Millais' business partner. Participating in the research for artworks, sourcing of costumes, upholding records and attaining potential clients was only half of her responsibilities. She was also the mother to eight children, and ran a household.

Portrait of Effie Gray by Thomas Richmond c. 1865.

The exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters brings to light the role these women played in the venture of Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement. It is known for its representations of young, beautiful women with flowing hair and garments, yet, the exhibition enables an alternative view of the women who are a focal point and a necessity behind the artistic output.

The Dryad by Evelyn De Morgan, 1884-5, Oil on canvas. A depiction of a tree spirit, who, from her pose, appears to be amidst a winter atmosphere. The painting was criticised by an art critic who stated that the painting revealed "the discomforts of mythical life".

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