Thanks largely to one or two recent films and documentaries, there seems to be a notion taking wing that the Pre-Raphaelite painters of Victorian England were extraordinarily promiscuous. In some instances they are portrayed as jumping in and out of bed with any number of lovely models at every available opportunity and even, perhaps, with one another! Is this a fair perception? After all, much of their work, if not all of it, has a pretty high moral tone. Based around religious allegory.
Were they really promiscuous?
The founding members of the revolutionary Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in the mid 19th century were all young men, of course. And young men will always be ... well, young men. No matter what period of history they live in. Like most artists, they adored beautiful women. But were they promiscuous as we would understand the term today? Here are some interesting facts. You decide.
Some of the boys as they are not usually portrayed in the movies
The three principal founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and who remained at its hub were William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais.
Holman Hunt painted largely religious and Christian allegory all his life. At times regarded by his peers as living a celibate existence, he viewed his courtship of working class model Annie Miller as a mission to educate and save her. After years of gradual wooing and engagement he set off to the Holy Land for two years to ‘use my powers to make more tangible Jesus Christ’s history and teaching.’ He actually expected her to wait for him patiently until his return. She did not. He did marry, however, twice in all - having sadly lost his first wife during childbirth.
John Everett Millais, who came from a prominent family, was known for his staunch and disciplined work ethic. He married the love of his life, Effie in 1855 (after her divorce from her then-husband John Ruskin).
Millais himself kept his distance from the couple throughout the separation and divorce proceedings. Thereafter, he and Effie remained together in what is considered to have been a perfectly happy and faithful marriage. This lasted forty years and resulted in the birth of eight children. His dying wish was that the Queen would ‘receive’ his wife – she having been ostracised (even though Millais was by this time a Baronet), due to her having once been a divorcee.
Rossetti is the exception, and it cannot be denied that he was almost certainly promiscuous, particularly later in life. As a young man, however, Rossetti was a highly idealistic and aesthetically motivated individual. He identified himself closely with his namesake the early Italian Renaissance writer Dante. He also viewed his favourite model (eventually wife), the celebrated Elizabeth Siddal, as being the embodiment of the legendary Beatrice, Dante’s mystical and unattainable love.
This idealised view might have contributed to his reluctance, for many years, to marry Elizabeth. He did, eventually. But it was a tortuously long engagement. Despite Rossetti being the one Pre-Raphaelite who clearly had a roving eye, there is no hard evidence that he was unfaithful to his 'Lizzie' during their marriage. He was so devoted, in fact, that he buried the only copy of his poems in her coffin at the time of her tragically early demise in 1862.
The Intellectual Champion
The champion and oft-times financial backer of the brotherhood in their early days was the famous art-critic John Ruskin who lived with his parents as a young man. His wife, Effie, divorced him on grounds of non-consummation, and Ruskin himself went on to have a idealised infatuation with a young girl almost thirty years his junior. This was conducted largely at a distance, and for many years. Until the unfortunate young woman's demise in 1875.
Ruskin himself led the life of a solitary bachelor thereafter and died unmarried in 1900. He is thought to have destroyed many erotic drawings by the artist Turner in order to protect the latter’s ‘reputation.’
On the Periphery
Additional well-known ‘satellite’ members of the Pre-Raphaelites included William Morris, Ford Maddox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones. What about these?
Edward Burne-Jones. and William Morris.
Morris was a genius who excelled in numerous creative pursuits. As a young man he had notions of becoming a High-Church Anglican clergyman before turning to art and design – to which he subsequently dedicated an enormous amount of time and energy. He had two children by his wife Jane. But he tended to turn a blind eye to a long-standing affair she had with his friend Rossetti. He even left them alone in his home – jointly owned with Rossetti - while he travelled overseas.
Was he perhaps really not all that interested in sex? Considering his astonishing quantity of creative works, did he really have time for it?
Burne-Jones, a man celebrated for his stained glass work and magnificent church windows, became engaged at the age of 23. He married three years later. Although he did have one notable extra-marital affair with a model, he refused to leave his wife because of her. They had three children, of which one died. The couple remained together until his death in 1898.
Ford Madox Brown, meanwhile, admired his women and models from afar and was devoted to his wife throughout their marriage. He had 14 drawings of her on his wall when he died.
Pre-Raphaelites - the models
There were many beautiful young women who modeled for the Pre-Raphaelites. In this context, we think of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Burden (Morris), Fanny Cornforth or Alexa Wilding. These were often from humble backgrounds, as were most women who modelled for payment at this time.
Sex outside of marriage, among the working classes, was regarded in a far more relaxed fashion than among the higher echelons of starchy Victorian society. But there were still rules of propriety to be adhered to. Chaperones were demanded at times when artist and model were alone together. And it was common practice for the painters themselves to visit and to obtain permission from the parents of the young women before embarking on their working relationships. This was to ensure that honourable motives were at the front of their mind. And these assurances had to be kept.
The men, moreover, were not expected to befriend working class women unless there was some practical and morally advantageous relationship in view. That of artist and model or mentor and pupil, for example. And this was frequently the case with the Pre-Raphaelites. (See the example of Holman Hunt, earlier.)
Images of Jane Morris, the real and the ideal.
Hard work and dedication
So let’s never forget in our rush to celebrate the sexually liberal attitudes and bohemian life-styles of the artists themselves that their achievements were really only ever possible through hard work, immense dedication and patience. Not to mention an enormous investment of time, energy and money. We should also perhaps always view them in the context of the times and the society in which they lived. This was Victorian England, after all.
Yes, I am willing to admit that counter-arguments could certainly be presented to much of this. As with so much of our studies of the past, the oft-repeated lament of, ‘we will just never know,’ applies here as much as anywhere else. The mystery of history, it is. And long may the mystery continue!