Posted 25th May 2018
The Cecil French Bequest: The Trouble with Pre-Raphaelite Beauty
Paintings by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) dominate the Cecil French Bequest exhibition currently showing in the Lower Gallery at Watts Gallery Artists' Village. The artist's subject matter confirms what we have come to expect of the Pre-Raphaelites – long, flowing hair, pale skin, arched eyebrows, full curved lips, swan-like necks and rather troubled expressions. Indeed, in Burne-Jones's world, the look is not gender specific. Zoom in on Cupid Delivering Psyche (1867) and Cupid could easily be mistaken for Psyche's twin brother! The Italian male model used for Study of a Man's Head for the Garden of Pan (1886) has a similar look. The same could be said of the women portrayed in Study for the Head of Venus in Laus Veneris (1873) and Study for Sibylla Delphica (1885). Indeed, Burne-Jones proposes the same romantic alternative aesthetic in painting after painting. Gone are the rosy cheeks, plump faces and rounded, maternal bodies of the Victorian stay-at-home stereotype.
However, it is only when John William Waterhouse joins in with his version in Mariana in the South (1897) that things start to go awry. For it seems, all is not well in the land of Pre-Raphaelite beauty. Despite her youth and despite her beauty, Mariana is an abandoned bride. We don't know what's happened but she clearly isn't happy. It is worth noting that all the paintings in the exhibition are by men. Men portraying women. Which promotes a question – does the movement's new aesthetic address the woman within? It would be interesting to consider work of the same period by women. You will get a chance in November because the Gallery is showing the work of Christina Rossetti. So, do put the date in your diary.
For me, the most intriguing woman in the exhibition is that portrayed by Lawrence Alma-Tadema in Interrupted: A Type of Female Beauty (1880). The painting captures a moment in time like a photograph. The artist's second wife, the painter Laura Epps, is distracted from reading a copy of The Graphic – the leading illustrated periodical of the day – to look up at her husband. We feel here that we are looking at a real person poised to engage in conversation, tease her husband or break into a smile.
I hope you enjoy the exhibition.
See you in the Gallery!
Volunteer at Watts Gallery Artists' Village