In his lecture on "Fairy Land" in 1883, Ruskin assesses these two paintings as "all we possess in which the accomplished skill of painting has been devoted to fairy-subject." Yet he continues in a less laudatory vein:

[T]he artist intended rather to obtain leave by the closeness of the ocular distance to display the exquisiite power of minute delineation, which he felt in history painting to be inapplicable, than to arrest in his own mind or the spectator's, even a momentary credence in the enchantment of fairy-wand and fairy-ring. [Works, 33.334]

Ruskin's critique of these works contains two provocative statements. First, he does not consider fairy painting to be history painting, which suggests that the critic, if not the artist, sees this kind of painting as a distinctive genre. Second, he criticizes Paton's work for its detailed realism and its deleterious effect on the fantasy of the imagery. From the defender of Pre-Raphaelitism, these remarks appear contrary to his famous advice to young artists in the first volume of Modern Painters about "rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." Yet Ruskin places his finger on the very problem of fairy painting as a viable academic subject and style at mid-century. Early Victorian fairy painters relied not only upon the approval but also the recognition of their audience of their subject matter. The citation of fairy scenes in Shakespeare's plays brought a special kind of response, because the Victorian audience brought along certain expectations, derived from both their theater experiences and their readings of Shakespeare, about what a fairy might look like or do. Thus Paton, in his youthful enthusiasm, overstepped the fine line between what cultural historian Martin Meisel identifies as "giving concrete perceptual form to a literary text (realization) [and] that of interpretive recreation (illustration)" (32). Ruskin, as representative spectator and reader, recognizes the artist's ability to construct a naturalistic fairy realm, yet calls into question the thoroughness of the delineation because it denies the spectator any chance to exercise his or her own imaginative excursions into fairyland. With the advent of Pre-Raphaelitism, the problem of investing fantastic subject matter with some kind of verisimilitude takes on a new imperative.

The formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood grew out of a dissatisfaction on the part of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), and John Everett Millais (1829-1896) with current academic practice and the perceived sterility of subject matter in contemporary Victorian art. The Brotherhood found some direction in their search for acceptable modern subjects in the technique of realism they found in their study of early Italian and Northern European painting before Raphael and in Ruskin's early writings about naturalism in Modern Painters. At the same time, these young artists, despite their disaffection with the Royal Academy, felt a sympathy with the work of certain older artists working in the 1840s, including Brown, Maclise, and Paton, who anticipated the Brotherhood's interest in revitalizing history painting through complex narrative schemes and an accurate use of historical details. Millais, in fact, was a close friend of Noel Paton's; they had met previously as students in the Academy schools (Noel-Paton, 12-13). One can see a rapid development from convention to experimentation in Millais's early career, which was characterized by a move from more traditional academic history painting to the new symbolic realism espoused by the Pre-Raphaelites.

One of Millais's early Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849), represents his adoption of the new naturalistic style and, concomitantly, testifies to the popularity of fairy painting at the end of the 1840s. Commissioned by the dealer William Wethered, this work evolved from two earlier versions by Millais on the same subject: a pen and ink drawing (1848) and a small oil sketch (1849-50) (see Bennett, 503). The drawing reflects the influence of Dicky Doyle's wood-engraved style, while the loosely painted sketch has a darkly romantic air with the inclusion of a shipwreck in the background. A dramatic change occurs in the final painting, which contains the highly saturated colors and the meticulously observed details of the nascent Pre-Raphaelite style. The artist renders the scene with a strikingly pristine clarity, concentrating upon the strange meeting of the human traveler and his supernatural guide. Yet the figure of Ferdinand, the background foliage, and the green fairy group, dominated by Ariel, do not cohere. Millais's desire to accurately depict the surface detail of every form leads to a flat cut-out effect that emphasizes individual areas and creates a separation of one part from another. This effect can be seen most clearly in the awkward relationship of Ferdinand's head, modeled by F. G. Stephens, and his body, taken from Camille Bonnard's Costumes Historiques (See Warner). Wethered refused to purchase the finished painting, either because of the unusual naturalism of the piece or the dealer's disappointment with the grotesquely rendered sprites. Millais never painted another fairy subject.

Other Pre-Raphaelite artists suggested different ways to handle the fairy genre. Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) eliminated the fairies altogether in his painted version of Ferdinand and Ariel (1851). Hughes's conceit suggests the very personal nature of Ferdinand's confrontation with the fairy world; the Shakespearean protagonist cocks his head, attentively listening to the invisible Ariel's song. The work is meant to appeal to the audience's imagination, a clever ploy that allows the artist to avoid any censure for spoiling any spectator's expectations. The artist did engage the more conventional portrayal of the fairy ring in his illustration for William Allingham's "The Fairies," included in the poetry collection The Music Master (1855). Hughes evidently felt more at home with fairy subject matter in his illustrative works, returning to this imagery in fantasy works by Christina Rossetti and George Macdonald.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the most romantic of the Pre-Raphaelites, interpreted fairy themes in a wholly different way. He, like Hughes, contributed an illustration to Allingham's collection, for the poem "The Maids of Elfin-Mere." The poem describes the encounter of a parson's son with the world of the supernatural in the form of three sisters, who appear magically every night to sing to the lad and then, at the stroke of the "Eleventh Hour," disappear. His attraction proves so keen that he tries to keep them past their time on earth, unleashing a gruesome fate on the female trio. Rossetti concentrates on the eerie relationship between the crooning women and the spellbound man. In contrast to Hughes, Rossetti takes his image of the fairy from an alternative medieval tradition of the fey sorceress, the femme-fatale who enraptures men. He would continue this interest throughout his career in a series of sexually charged portraits of beatific, predatory, or victimized women. The popularity of Rossetti's imagery would sustain a wholly different kind of fantasy art in the Symbolism and Art Nouveau of the 1890s.

William Bell Scott (1811-1890) stays closer to the romantic tradition of the small cabinet picture in Cockcrow (1856), based upon Thomas Parnell's eighteenth-century poem "A Fairy Tale, in the ancient English style" (Johnson, 90-91) Scott's style also pays homage to the work of his older brother David, who had established in the 1830s a pictorial imagery of a private visionary experience associated with fairy phenomena. The younger Scott grafts the brightly hued Pre-Raphaelite style onto this more traditional visual conception of fairy behavior. As the sun rises, the fairy ring begins to unravel and the fairy procession disappears into the gradually lightening sky. Scott, in melding fairy mythology to poetic vision, chose a path more in tune with the direction of fairy painting after 1855.

This more intimate view of fairy life can also be found in the work of Frederick Goodall (1822-1904) and Robert Huskisson (1820-1861). Goodall's Fairy Struck (c. 1846) depicts the placid confrontation of two fairies with a mouse. The artist uses the transparency of watercolors to richly colorful effect, as the sunlight drenches the fairies' bower in a shimmering light. A more erotic mood inhabits Huskisson's The Midsummer Night's Fairies (c. 1847), which shows Oberon watching a sleeping Titania as belligerent fairies war with fauna in the foreground. The frame makes reference to the human protagonists in the play; the figures of Bottom, Hermia, and Lysander slumber on a ledge beneath the fairy scene. Both artists examine the minutiae of fairy existence, providing the spectator with the experience of eavesdropping on the daily life of these tiny beings.


Bennett, Mary. "An Early Drawing for 'The Tempest' by John Everett Millais." Burlington Magazine 126 (August 1984).

Johnson, Diana L. Fantastic Illustration and Design in Britain, 1850-1930, exhib. cat. Providence, RI: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1979.

Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton University Press, 1983.

Noel-Paton, M. H., and J. P. Campbell, Noel Paton. Edinburgh: Ramsay Head Press, 1990.

Ruskin, John. The Works. Library Edition. ed. E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, 39 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1903-12.

Warner, Malcom. entry on Ferdinand Lured by Ariel, The Pre-Raphaelites, exhib. cat. London: Tate Gallery, 1984. 74-75.

Art to Enchant: The Development of Victorian Fairy Painting

Created 1997