‘We have now in London pre-Raphaelite painters, pre-Raphaelite poets, pre-Raphaelite novelists, pre-Raphaelite young ladies, pre-Raphaelite hair, eyes, complexion, dress, decorations, window curtains, chairs, tables, knives forks and coal-scuttles. We have pre-Raphaelite anatomy, we have pre-Raphaelite music,’ Justin McCarthy remarked in the American publication Galaxy in 1876; just several decades after the group of young artists who had formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood initiated the first avant-garde movement in British painting. What had begun as radical turn in visual art came to embody a whole world view and even after the original group broke up their non-conformist drives continued to be an inspiration for artists of all backgrounds right until the turn of the century.

The focal point of the movement was undoubtedly the Pre-Raphaelite body. This was where the movement was most original, where it exerted the most artistic influence and where its work generated the most critical reaction. J.B.Bullen points out that ‘in each of its phases the debate about Pre-Raphaelitism was staged around the representation of the human body, and in the period between 1850 and 1880, the Pre-Raphaelite body was a focus for public and private pleasure, puzzlement and disquiet.’.

The Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’, the idealized woman, with her thick neck, long jaws and masculine features, popularised by founding member Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was the beginning of a slippery slope which started at male privileging gender polarity and ended at replete androgyny as seen in Beardsley’s illustrations of the 1890’s. But gender was only one limb of the Pre-Raphaelite body, one facet of the Pre-Raphaelite experience. It entailed an entirely new manner of representing human anatomy and began with an overarching ethic of imbuing art with meaning by embodying in it medieval and spiritual ideals. I want to examine the Pre-Raphaelite’s representations of the human body and also their topos of ‘body’ as a way of informing the movement and charting its development. By bringing in contemporary philosophy and criticism I hope to illuminate the power of their works to the audience.

The Theatrical Eloquence of The Body

One of the first departures the Pre-Raphaelites made from contemporary pictorial conventions was through their representation of the human anatomy. In their early works brotherhood members Rossetti, Hunt and Millais all produced religious paintings marked for the realism of their bodies and the oddness of their postures. The best example of this is Christ in The House of His Parents by Millais. The mimetic accuracy by which the characters are portrayed reflects the Pre-Raphaelites penchant for expressive empiricism, that is painting real human models as accurately as possible. The main criticism levelled against their work, from an entirely unprepared audience, was that it married the ‘lofty sentiment’ of a religious subject with the ‘physical baseness’ of realistic characters. These were critics unsympathetic to the Pre-Raphaelites ideals of fidelity to nature and true, honest depiction, by token of which they studied each human figure from a model — going ‘to nature in all singleness of heart’ as Ruskin had exhorted young painters in Modern Painters. The critics were used to the chiaroscuro of the Old Masters and they wanted to see dignified human forms with beautiful bodies and faces.

If we examine such paintings as Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Hunt’s The Eve of Saint Agnes together with Millais’s aforementioned work the use of theatrical tableaux is pronounced. In each picture there are poised bodies with active fully extended muscles. The figures are less rotund than we would encounter in the Renaissance, in fact they look like the normal Victorian people they were modelled after. Apart from their interest in hard-edge realism there are two other reasons for the pronounced appearances the Pre-Raphaelite’s bodies.

One reason is the influence of William Hogarth. In his 1746 prints David Garrick in the character of Richard III he was commissioned to capture the actor David Garrick in action on stage. The prints depict ‘an expressive body language of gesture and pose drawn not only from the streets of London, but also from theatrical conventions of the period’2. In his autobiographical notes, Hogarth uses the metaphor of the stage to describe his prints, ‘my Picture was my Stage and men and women my actors who were, by Means of certain Actions and expressions to Exhibit a dumb Shew’2. The Pre-Raphaelites would have been particularly interested in Hogarth’s depictions of the body because they emphasised realism and action, theatricality inevitably giving the human figure a certain rhetorical power that would have helped them in their self-conscious attempts to be recognised and flout pictorial conventions. Furthermore, the rhetoric of action, of static tableaux vivants, forces the viewer to participate in the process of decoding the painting by actively imagining the visceral component of the painting and filling in the movement deliberately left open-ended by the tableaux.

The second reason for the pronounced appearance of the human bodies in early Pre-Raphaelite work was related to their interest in the fashionable pseudo-sciences: crainology, physiology, pathognomy, and phrenology. Physiognomics was itself popularized by Hogarth who advised artists to study physiognomic works in his aesthetic treatise the Analysis of Beauty (1753). Physiognomics and the other pseudo-sciences all legitimized the view that the individual’s outward appearance somehow belied their inner reality and this would have supported pictorial realism by bestowing on it deeper significance than the purely visual. J.B.Bullen also makes the point that Sir Charles Bell’s vivid analysis of body language in his The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression, which Ruskin cites [GPL], influenced Pre-Raphaelite practice in the delineation of heads. Julie Codell has spoken of how stress on the particular rather than the general, on the momentary rather than the timeless, on the commonplace rather than the heroic was very much in line with contemporary interest in the expressiveness of the human face and the human body and how, together, these were related to temperament and behaviour.

The Pre-Raphaelite Gaze

The Pre-Raphaelites were immensely fond of using asymmetrical gazes when depicting interactions between men and women, making them more complex than a first glance would suggest. In practically all of their paintings of this kind the man and the woman are looking in different directions, most often the man gazing directly at a woman who coyly has her eyes turned down or cast off into the distance. From early paintings such as Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini, where the woman pays no attention to the flower being offered her, right up till Burne-Jones’ King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, where the beggar maid looks at the viewer rather than the king, we can see this being enacted. This seems to be the result of an obsession with, as J.B.Bullen puts it, the woman that ‘is’ and ‘is not’, the woman that ‘has’ and ‘has not’: the woman ‘both is, and is not, accessible; she both has and has not a penetrative phallus’. The threat of female withdrawal, on Freudian terms resulting from primal loss of mother from child, creates ‘a concomitant desire for the female’. He argues that ‘the female exists as a threat to the self both through rejection and acceptance, while male need, as reflected in the female, oscillates between two states, desire and fear’.

A similar asymmetry of gazes can be seen between the artists’ self-portraits and their portraits of woman. The men are always looking at viewer whereas the women are always looking away. The asymmetry of the gazes certainly implies the fetishization of the female, the result of male fantasy. In all of these paintings we could argue that the male viewer is privileged and allowed, indeed encouraged, to take on the position of the voyeur. But especially with Rossetti the opposition between fear and desire seems to be equally important, if not the dominant factor, here. This becomes particularly clear when we look at the use of the mirror in his work. Leading up to Lady Lilith, the paradigmatic painting of the socially and sexually transgressive character sensuously combing her long locks in the mirror, there is the painting Fazio’s Mistress which mirrors male desire directly and then Woman Combing her Hair where the viewer, according to Bullen, ‘becomes the inanimate surface of the mirror’. In Lady Lilith not only is the subject a dangerous woman, a femme fatale, but the very nature of the painting — the mirror — creates the binary of fear and desire1. The self-consciousness and self-contemplation created by the mirror cuts out the man, making the narcissistic Lilith unobtainable but at the same time her absorption in the activity makes her incredibly desirable by giving us visual access to her exposed body.

B-J's Heart Desires B-J's Heart Desires

The Heart Desires and The Soul Attains by Edward Burne-Jones. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Burne-Jones’ Pygmalion series might also betray a similar obsession with fear and desire which can be seen through its use of the gaze. What was initially as an idealized love-story in the eighteenth century by the nineteenth century became a story of rejection as Galatea grew up to become a sexually empowered woman eventually enslaving the man and then withdrawing from him. As Jan B. Gordon points out the use of perspective in many of Burne-Jones’ works ‘puts the viewer at double remove from the ritual arena, a feature that helps us to participate in a process of deindividuation that is a corollary to voyeurism’3. By this token, in the first painting of the series, The Heart Desires, from within the enclosed room we can see a healthy couple peeping in to spy at Pygmalion as he contemplates his project. Indeed in all of the paintings in the series the side of the picture shows a glint of the outside world, a window from which others can peep in, from which the world itself seems to be peeping in. By the end of the series, the final image The Soul Attains does seem to end on an ambiguous note as Galatea seems cold and Pygmalion already seems enslaved to his creation as he gazes at her on his knees in seeming subordination.

Another way of interrogating the complex gazes used by the Pre-Raphaelites approaches the issue from an entirely different angle. Many of the Pre-Raphaelites idealized the medieval world and its codes of honour and chivalry. The term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ was viewed by many as regressive bent, as harking back to art before Raphael, that is art seen at its early stages. If this is the case then perhaps the brotherhood were interested in the codes of sexual restraint and public decorum by which pagans and Christians alike during the last centuries of the empire attempted to imitate the alleged virtues of archaic Rome. Such a painting as Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s Hesperus would have captured this. The highly romantic picture of Arthurian lovers shows the woman looking down and away from the intense gaze of the knight Hesperus — by this reading — coyly, to affect an idealized medieval modesty. This reading does account for the pretence in such paintings as Love by John S. Clifton, another medievalizing piece, where the woman seems unmoved by the man’s lute-playing, but in more sexualized works it seems more likely that something Freudian is taking place.

The poetics of embodiment

No other group of artists illustrated scenes from existing and historical narratives with the same fervour as the Pre-Raphaelites. They took scenes from Mort d’Arthur, Shakespeare, Greek mythology and the bible to name but a few of their sources of inspiration. In addition to this they also illustrated for many contemporary poets such as Tennyson. Part of this penchant can be viewed in light of Holman Hunt’s use of typology in such paintings as The Shadow of Death where Christ is portrayed as a humble carpenter but the heavy use of symbolism shows his pre-figurement as The Son of Man. Following Northern Reniassance apinting, he employed typology to lift realistic representation out of its empiricist foundations and imbue the art with more profound meaning than simple mimetic accuracy could accomplish. Similarly the other Pre-Raphaelites shared this ethic that the flesh of the painting must embody higher values and ideals. By embodying secular and spiritual narratives in works of art the Pre-Raphaelites were trying to unite spirit and flesh; Hunt’s Christ has the transcendental aura of a religious figure as much he is a fleshly, muscular carpenter man.

Beata Beatrix The Blessed Damozel

Beata Beatrix and The Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Part of this desire to unite two worlds by the use of art can be seen in the Pre-Raphaelites wider ethic that painting and poetry were not just related but inseparable art forms. Burne-Jones and his lifetime friend William Morris collaborated in quite a few projects, including the famous Perseus cycle, with Morris providing the poetry and Burne-Jones the painting. But the person who embodied this ethic more than any of the others was Rossetti who wrote and published his own poetry to quite some critical acclaim. He was very conscious of the relationship between word and image; he wrote poems to accompany his paintings such as The Blessed Damozel and Beata Beatrix, and he even published a whole group of sonnets entitled Sonnets for Pictures which were his poetic responses to paintings he had admired.

In Rossetti's The House of Life — which Wilillim E. Fredeman has correctly described as his anti-In Memoriam — we have such examples in ‘The Portrait’ and ‘The Lovers’ Walk’. Most obviously in ‘The Portrait’ Rossetti is self-conscious of the role of portraits to represent their subject’s, in this case a woman’s, beauty and ‘inner self’. The woman’s beauty which has inspired Rossetti’s narrator to paint portrait is defined in painterly, visual terms. Her eyes, ‘sweet glances’ ‘throw’ ‘light’ at the painter-narrator and her ‘sweet smile’ touches him as a ‘refluent wave’. He wishes to know ‘the very sky and sea-line’ of her soul. In the eyes of the painter the woman’s beauty is like a painterly landscape replete with horizons and colour and light, drawing our attention to Ruskin the word-painter par excellence. Of course this is fitting given the subject of the poem, but again in ‘The Lovers’ Walk’ Rossetti utilises painterly terms of description to represent one of his favourite themes. The truthfulness of the two lovers’ bodies leaning against each other is likened, at the end of the sonnet, to ‘the cloud-foaming firmamental blue’ resting ‘on the blue line of a foamless sea’. By using realistic nature painting to inform the imagery and poetic disclosure in his poems Rossetti, as Richard L. Stein points out, compares the making of a painting with the making of a poem. It reminds Rossetti that art involves essentially involves abstraction and gives his poems a self-conscious quality. He is particularly concerned with how this abstraction can be poetically embodied in the physical body of the human form or the body of a painting and these two poems illustrate a pattern present in much of his artistic output.

The Pre-Raphaelite Woman

One of the striking features of Pre-Raphaelites is that they almost never painted nudes. This was undoubtedly a conscious decision as we will notice that both their contemporaries, such as Herbert James Draper, and artists in the Renaissance frequently painted the female body. So why did the Pre-Raphaelites choose to paint women clothed rather than unclothed? In A Corpus for the Body Ioan P.Culianu forwards two theories as to why the body had to be clothed, one relevant between Augustine and the end of the nineteenth century and the other thereafter. The former states that human beings cover their bodies out of modesty and decency. ‘Women’s clothing is supposed to be both an obstacle to the eye and a sign of male ownership’. The second, the theory of ‘immodesty’, states that towards the end of the nineteenth century anthropologists began to think that clothing functions as sexual stimulant rather than a depressant. According to this the dress is meant ‘not to cover but to uncover’. Culianu cites Freud’s emphasis on the gender-related occurrence of scoptophilia — that men would be highly scoptophilic and women highly exhibitionistic. She adds that J.C.Flugel, author of The Psychology of Clothes, further emphasizes two aspects of clothing: the fact that they are ambivalent since they cover the body yet at the same time they attract attention to it, and its being ‘the result of the displacement of one’s unconscious conflict between exhibitionism and modesty’5.


Ophelia by John Everett Millais. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

This idea sheds light on the tension between availability and unavailability of the woman that the early Pre-Raphaelites made use of, one that was looked at in reference to their use of gazes. The conflict between exhibitionism and modesty certainly seems to have been something the Pre-Raphaelites were aware of, at least sub-consciously. In Millais’ famous painting Ophelia at the moment where the woman is most vulnerable and available, so to speak, in death, she is at the same time equally an emblem of loss. Millais even went as far as purchasing an antique dress for his model Elizabeth Siddal to pose in, furthering the tension between decorum and restraint on the one hand and vulnerability and loss on the other. By keeping their women clothed the Pre-Raphaelites perhaps made their women much more sexually appealing by frustrating male desire and foreshadowing the tension that clothing would cause during the period. At the same time this gave the woman a sense of power and danger and as we know they were fascinated by the femme fatale and by man’s inherent fear of loss which can be seen in Ophelia. Rather tellingly, on one of the few occasions that a Pre-Raphaelite did paint a nude, in Burne-Jones’ Perseus cycle, the man is clothed and the woman unclothed, and further her nakedness is emphasized by male presence, as if her absolute availability can only be instanced when there is someone for it to be discharged upon.

The ‘Fleshly School of Painting’

Ruskin and Hogarth were both major influences on the Pre-Raphaelites, and both of their aesthetic theories gave preference to the natural ‘serpentine curve’ in nature and in the female body. But the Brotherhood seem to have completely overlooked this and above all favoured the woman’s face over her body as the locus of her sexuality. In Rossetti’s Bocca baciata [the kissed mouth], for example, the sexual charge comes entirely from the woman’s face and the foregrounding of her mouth in particular. Countless commentators have suggested that the lips are a metonym for the female genitalia and this might well explain part of Rossetti’s lifelong fascination with lips in his painting and poetry. Fellow Pre-Raphaelite Holman Hunt likened the picture to a piece of pornography yet the modern viewer would find this a strange comment as the painting’s erotic charge derives entirely from the treatment of the subject’s face (which is all that is there) and nothing else. It is an instance of the ‘fleshly school of painting’ that privileged colour over line which was considered more austere and ascetic and associated with the art of Renaissance Florence. On the other hand Colour was associated with the Venetian school of painting and linked with the life of the body and human passion. Many Pre-Raphaelites turned to the Venetian style later in their works. Bocca baciata shows Rossetti’s early obsession with the female face as an emblem of her sexuality which he does no less than to celebrate in all of his paintings.

Rossetti’s main inspiration was his own distinct fascination with women and his desire to recreate their beauty on his own terms. He found ‘a particular cast of beauty’ and then repeated this over and over again1. This was how he created the paradigmatic Pre-Raphaelite woman, ‘the stunner’, which was embraced by his contemporary as well as later Pre-Raphaelite men and women alike. By the late nineteenth century the Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’ had infiltrated mass-consciousness so exorbitantly that Justin McCarthy could write in 1876 ‘We have now in London pre-Raphaelite young ladies, pre-Raphaelite hair, eyes, complexion, dress... We have pre-Raphaelite anatomy’.

The distinct form of female beauty that Rossetti introduced to the world was modelled after four particular women: Elizabeth Siddal, Alexa Wilding, Fanny Conforth and Jane Morris. Although somewhat caricaturised in Rossetti’s work, they all had striking, powerful faces with roman noses, long jaws, full lips and thick necks; these features can be seen in practically all of his female subjects. This certainly challenged the prevailing theory of gender polarity that was under heated debate during the day. This equated the man with the body and the woman with the soul by virtue of which the former was said to be active, rational and made to rule and the latter was said to be passive, irrational and made to obey. Rossetti’s masculinized female faces did not simply swap the woman’s position in the gender polarity but rather they combined the positive attributes said to be found in each sex, creating women that were powerful (and dangerous even) precisely because of their bodily passion and sexuality. In Rossetti’s Helen of Troy the woman is intensely aware of her place in history, with burning Troy merged with her hair, and again her sexuality is celebrated in her face.

The Androgynous Zone

By the 1860s the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had more or less broken up and the only member to perpetuate their original pictorial ideals was Holman Hunt. Rossetti was no longer a public figure but under his influence the second wave of Pre-Raphaelitism came into being, headed by his student Burne-Jones. The original spirit of Pre-Raphaelitism had evolved into something which was called ‘Aestheticism’ but the public largely referred to it under to old auspices of ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’. Together with the poet Charles Algernon Swinburne, Burne-Jones took the early Pre-Raphaelite gender conflation even further. Burne-Jones began to paint masculine, ‘stunner-esque’ women and effeminate men; Swinburne’s pagan inspired poetry envisioned a female centred universe. In 1877 Henry James, writing for Galaxy, wrote that the ‘square-jawed, large mouthed female visage’ of earlier Pre-Raphaelitism in Burne-Jones’ work could be seen in its ‘supreme presentment’ and called his female subjects ‘supremely sexless, and ready to assume whatever charm of manhood or maidenhood the imagination desires’. He described the men as and unmanly and degenerate1. If we examine paintings such as Saint George,The Tree of Forgiveness and the famous Laus Veneris the gender blurring James refers to is very clear.

B-J's Laus Veneris Rossetti's Lady Lilith

Left: Laus Veneris by Edward Burne-Jones.

Right: Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Where Rossetti’s women were positively masculine and sexualized Burne-Jones’ women seem to be cold and sexless. If we compare Burne-Jones’ Venus in Laus Veneris to Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, both women are paradigmatically Pre-Raphaelite but Venus seems to capture all of Lilith’s cold castrating passion without her masculine aggressiveness. The anxiety over female absence and subsequent loss of male identity that punctuated early Pre-Raphaelite works seems to have been replaced by the androgynous world of the aesthetes. In Swinburne’s poem ‘Hertha’ he assaults the Judaeo-Christian god by arguing that Hertha the female goddess of fertility, and in that sense the paradigmatic matriarch, is the true originator of all existence. Again in his ‘Laus Veneris’ he posits Venus as the ‘soul’s body’; a woman’s mouth said to be ‘lovelier’ than Christ’s. Although Swinburne’s women were much more aggressive in the masculine sense than Burne-Jones’ he was nonetheless interested in the feminized mind, a mind which could place the beautiful before the good as needful of worship in and of itself. Of course in the territory of both these artists the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’are meaningless: they are put into question by an aesthetic ideal which challenged the binary opposition between them precisely through the use of the androgyne.

The androgyne and its physical embodiment, the hermaphrodite, allowed for a blending of classically female attributes, such as appearances and manners, with the male genitalia. Some critics have pointed out that this was a way of coming to terms with the potentially damaging power of the female since the abolishing of sexual difference protects oneself from its effects1. Essentially this was the realisation of early Pre-Raphaelite ideas to their maximum capacity. One the one hand Rossetti’s interrogation of gender differences through the use of the ‘stunner’ led to the abolishment of gender difference itself. On the other hand the androgyne allowed the new artists to conquer the male anxiety which, as we have seen, sub-consciously dominated the work of their predecessors. The interest then became ordered by concepts of sexless beauty.

The Woman in the Moon The Toilette of Salome

The Toilette of Salome and The Woman in the Moon by Aubrey Beardsley.

[Click on thumbmails for clarher images.]

By the turn of the century the final stage was reached, pictorially speaking, when Aubrey Beardsley drew The Toilette of Shalome in 1894. Not only is the drawing an unadulterated celebration of female beauty but, more importantly, the hermaphrodite figure of the waiter on the right hand side of the drawing belies the arrival of the androgynous mind to its fullest extent. Tellingly, the only genitalia showing in the picture are those of the hermaphrodite, as if the artist really wanted to counter female power and dominance by blending the genders. The figure of the hermaphroditic chiasmus, perhaps then a new cross for a new generation of artists. Swinburne wrote in his own poem ‘Hermaphroditus’

A strong desire begot on great despair,
A great despair cast out by strong desire (Verse I, 13-14)

and this seems to be pictorially enacted in Beardsley’s The Woman in the Moon where the moon’s despair could be levelled at the male-female form before it.


Bullen, J. B. The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry and Criticism. Oxford, 1998.

Culianu, Ioan P. [Review Article] "A Corpus for the Body." The Journal of Modern History 63.1 (March, 1991): 61-80.

Gordon, Jan. B., [Review] The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 20.2. (1971): 257-60.

Stein, Richard L. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painting and the Problem of Poetic Form." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 10.4 (1970): 775-92.

Theatricality And Narrative section of the Northwestern University Library website. http://www.library.northwestern.edu/spec/hogarth/Theatricality.html

Last modified 22 November 2006