Their names ring familiar, the famous women who modelled for and who associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in marriage, affairs, and artistic endeavors. Lizzie Siddall, Georgie Burne-Jones, Jane Morris, Fanny Cornforth, Mary Zambaco, Emma Maddox Brown, Annie Miller, Euphemia Millais, Edith Hunt. What qualified the "Pre-Raphaelite stunner," and what fantasies did these women fulfill for their male counterparts. Moreover, who were these women themselves?

Essential to the Pre-Raphaelite art is a woman's face, a beautiful visage with large, luminescent eyes set in a web of long hair. Powerful bodies, necks, or striking features usually make the "stunner," though Siddall represented a strong exception. Though tall and red-headed with a fine posture and lovely lidded eyes, she appears far plainer and more fragile in comparison to the dark-browed Jane Morris or the fleshy Fanny Cornforth.

In paintings, each of these women's expressions embody enigma and distance; oftentimes, their poses remain static versus active. Strange that these unearthly alluring women should sit so silently when their images literally infect the Pre-Raphaelites' body of work. Their likelinesses appear in poetry and their very faces stare out of numberless canvases. The voices and meaningful looks of these women, however, are actually the filtered versions of the men who adored and depicted them.

These women found themselves in a very difficult position. Agreeing to model for an artist already contained some risk to body and reputation, but to also shoulder expectations of some of these men's ideals of femme fatale, victim, or saint both in art and in life proved to be most hazardous. As Jan Marsh contends in The Pre-Raphaeilte Sisterhood, the romance and attention surrounding these women tended "both to glorify them, raising them like Hollywod film stars above the level of ordinary mortals into a mythic realm of tragic heroines and fatal sirens, and paradoxically to diminish them, reducing their real, complex, contradictory personalities and lives to flat figures in a fantasy landscape and taking away from them all sense of active life." In art and in life, some of the Pre-Raphaelite women felt the pressure to abandon humanity to become an archetype. They were dreams coming to life in paints, and it was this living dream which the artists could not help but fall in love with.

In Gay Daly's invesitgative text Pre-Raphaelites in Love, she places a great concern upon this "bridge to the mundane." What happened when Beatrice or the Beggar Maid stepped out of the canvas and became a real person with everyday worries and concerns. Marriage, as Daly sees it, presented the ideal resolution for the Pre-Raphaelites, who believed it offered the only way to bring the romance they fantasized about into their own lives. Daly points out that as the uncertain industrial world increasingly showed a menacing face, "the rewards and benisons of marriage were touted more loudly; the perfect wife was hailed as an 'angel in the house,' who could salve all her husband's wounds with a celestial balm." The Pre-Raphaelites, who sought to escape the confusing world around them, turned to history, legend, myth and the constructions of women who inspired such an age.

That women became their primary subject shows their belief that women can heal and guide -- but it also shows their concern in the contemporary lives of Victorian women: the victims, the old maids, and the prostitutes. These artists hated to see their ideal creatures so degraded and sought to rise them to the higher state they deserved.

Related Materials

Last modified 2 January 2005