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The personal lives of artists don’t just result in great art—sometimes, they’re works of art within themselves. Take Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose years-long relationship with a model named Fanny Cornforth resulted in some of the Pre-Raphaelite period’s greatest paintings. Now, you can learn more about Rossetti’s love affair—and other artists’ personal lives—with a newly digitized collection of documents.
In a release, the Delaware Art Museum announced that it has put 500 archival items online in a bid to open its collections to the world. The digital collections portal, which will continue to be updated with new artifacts, includes everything from documents about the museum itself to the correspondence of legendary illustrator Howard Pyle and painter John Sloan, who was part of New York’s influential “Ashcan School.” Among its treasures are revealing letters between Dante Gabriel Rossetti—founder of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—and Cornforth.
The romance between Rossetti and Conforth, born Sarah Cox, resulted in both inspiration and scandal. Cornforth, a servant with luxurious hair, caught the married Rossetti’s eye and became his model. By the time Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth, committed suicide after a stillbirth in 1862, Conforth was his mistress. Soon, she moved in and became his housekeeper, too.
Rossetti’s friends were scandalized by his open relationship with a working-class woman with a Cockney accent. But the relationship continued throughout the rest of his life. Even after she was kicked out of his house by concerned family members, he sent her drawings, fond letters and some financial support, to the horror of his family and friends.
“You are the only person whom it is my duty to provide for, and you may be sure I should do my utmost as long as there was breath in my body or a penny in my purse,” Rossetti wrote to Cornforth in 1872 in a letter that apparently didn’t include money. “If you can get on for the present moment without my help, it will be a great assistance to me,” he wrote five years later.
But Rossetti’s health was worsening, and after his death in 1882 Cronforth suffered from declining physical and mental health. When she died in 1909, she was buried in a common grave.
Though the Delaware Art Museum is known for its collection of Pre-Raphaelite art and artifacts, it was forced to sell at least one of its precious paintings to stay afloat. As Randy Kennedy notes for The New York Times, the museum paid off millions of dollars of debt by “de-accessioning” some of its most important paintings.
The practice has become common for museums struggling to survive, but as Smithsonian.com reported in 2015, it’s a controversial one—and the Delaware Art Museum was even sanctioned for the sale.
The digitization effort offers a happier reason for the museum's collection to be back in the news—and is a neat way to preserve and share these artistic treasures with the world.
The women of the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood have gone down in history as muses. Despite being artists in their own right, they are remembered as symbols, rather than creators, of beauty. Now, an ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London gives these long-overlooked figures a space of their own, sharing their stories through works of art, poems and embroidery.
On view through January 26, “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters” centers on 12 women—among others, the roster includes Christina Rossetti, Effie Millais and Elizabeth Siddal—and their contributions to the male-dominated narrative of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a circle of artists active between 1850 and 1900. The show draws on unseen works from both public and private collections around the world to reshape perceptions of these individuals as creative artists and poets who advocated for their own stories to be told rather than simply objectified muses.
“Visitors see these women’s own art, and their roles as collaborators and business partners, not just as lovers and wives,” writes the Atlantic’s Helen Lewis. “The captions restore names to the faces gazing placidly from postcards and posters.”John Everett Millais, Sophy Gray, 1856 (Courtesy of National Gallery / Private collections) Dante Gabriel Rossetti,The Blue Bower, 1865 (The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham)
In 1848, then-students Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in opposition to the more traditional art espoused by the Royal Academy. The original founders, all of whom were under the age of 25, soon invited four other male painters, sculptors and critics to join their secret society. Members heavily rejected the Academy’s promotion of Renaissance master Raphael, as well as the genre painting popular at the time.
Per Encyclopedia Britannica, the Brotherhood’s work focused on religious and medieval themes. Painted with maximum realism inspired by 15th-century Florentine and Sienese paintings, the young artists’ naturalistic creations were populated by beautiful women. The cryptic initials “PRB” appeared in the bottom corner of early Pre-Raphaelite works.
“Though its goals were ‘serious and heartfelt,’” explains Dinah Roe, a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, for the British Library, “the PRB was founded in a spirit of waggish male camaraderie which expressed itself in pranks, late-night smoking sessions and midnight jaunts around London’s streets and pleasure gardens.”
The Brotherhood’s models, who often doubled as the artists’ lovers, were usually at the center of their creations. But some, like Siddal, used their seemingly passive roles as models to fund their own artistic careers alongside their elite husbands.Evelyn De Morgan, Night and Sleep, 1878 (De Morgan Collection, courtesy of the De Morgan Foundation)
Siddal is among the Pre-Raphaelite women painted over by history. She started modeling not to gain the attention of men, but to fund her own artistic practice. Initially working part time at her parents’ hat shop while modeling on the side, Siddal gained an unprecedented amount of popularity in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, with her likeness becoming a symbol of feminine beauty.
Lying motionless, with her pale, delicate face encircled by a fiery halo of red hair, Siddal is the subject of one of the movement’s most famous paintings, Millais’ Ophelia. Following the success of this piece, Siddal became perhaps the face of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. She later married artist and Brotherhood member Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who drew and painted her “thousands” of times, according to the BBC’s Lucinda Hawksley.
Siddal’s own artistic journey was far more extensive than previously believed. As seen in the exhibition, she created paintings with archetypal Pre-Raphaelite qualities, including detailed medieval scenes and precise figures. She wrote haunting poetry, drawing on her experiences with drug addiction, an unfaithful husband and a stillborn daughter, but didn’t live to see them in print; the verses were only published after her death in 1862.
“Far from passive mannequins, […] these women actively helped form the Pre-Raphaelite movement as we know it,” says curator Jan Marsh in a statement. “It is time to acknowledge their agency and explore their contributions.”Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, 1877 (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art / Private collections) William Holman Hunt, Il Dolce far Niente,1866 (Private Collection, © Grant Ford Ltd)
The exhibit, described by Lewis as “revelatory,” includes more examples of the Brotherhood’s depictions of its 12 subjects than works by the women artists themselves. This dynamic offers visitors a sharp contrast—one can see the Brotherhood’s interpretation of the models next to works that envision them as more than muses.
The Pre-Raphaelite sister who perhaps best exemplifies this dichotomy is Jane Morris. With her full lips and strong features, Morris caught the attention of several Pre-Raphaelite men eager to capture her beauty through art. Yet it was a portrait drawn by another woman, Evelyn De Morgan, in 1904, that depicted a more authentic version of Morris’ feminine beauty by showing her signature raven-colored hair turning grey with age.Joanna Boyce Wells, Thou Bird of God, 1861 (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art / Private collections)
In many ways, the work completed by these women can be seen as a rare act of feminism for the time period. By shedding light on these objectified women, “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters” gives visitors the opportunity to gain a holistic view of the groundbreaking sisterhood.
“It is not sufficient to merely add some women to the Pre-Raphaelite canon,” writes Elizabeth Prettejohn in The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. “Instead, it is a matter of writing a wholly new, and different, story about Pre-Raphaelitism—a story in which the activities of women are no longer incidental, but necessary to the plot.”
“Pre-Raphaelite Sisters” is on view at the National Gallery in London through January 26.
See 19th-Century London Through the Eyes of James McNeill Whistler, One of America's Greatest Painters
In the 1872-1873 artwork Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge, a boat slips across a glass-still Thames River, manned by a ghostly passenger. Behind the watercraft looms a tall, wooden overpass. Its silhouette is dark against the deep blue sky; a spray of golden rockets fizz on the horizon. Shadowy figures huddle on top of the bridge, perhaps to watch the fiery spectacle. The subject matter is decidedly Western. Its composition, however, evokes comparisons to Japanese woodblock prints.
Created by the iconic James McNeill Whistler, the painting is famous for its role in one of the 19th century’s most infamous libel suits. (Whistler sued art critic James Ruskin after the latter wrote a disparaging review, denouncing the artist as having flung "a pot of paint in the public's face." Nocturne: Blue and Gold served as the trial's evidence.) But the scene also encapsulates Whistler’s artistic evolution in London, a process fueled by his fascination with the bustling Thames and later refined by close study of Far Eastern art.
The Nocturne is one of more than 90 works featured in “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames,” currently on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. It is the first show devoted to the American-born Whistler’s early years in England—the sights, structures and aesthetics that shaped his singular portrayal of Europe’s busiest port. It’s also the Smithsonian’s only exhibition of art by Whistler to include paintings on loan from other museums, and the largest display in the United States in nearly 20 years to feature the master painter’s work.
“An American in London” began a three-city tour at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, followed by the Addison Gallery of American Art in Massachusetts. Now that the traveling show has arrived for its final curtain call at the Sackler, its objects—borrowed from museums in Europe and around the U.S.—have been combined with nearly 50 Whistler paintings, etchings and other such masterpieces from the adjacent Freer Gallery. Viewers have the rare opportunity to see these artworks displayed together for the very first time, allowing them to trace the painter’s gradual journey from realism to Japanese aestheticism.
Whistler, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, arrived in England during the late 1850s; a period in which his newly adopted country still reeled from the Industrial Revolution. There, Whistler gleaned inspiration from his shifting surroundings.
The River Thames, in particular, coursed with the vestiges of modernization and pollution. Barges filled with cargo and workmen traversed its murky waters, and factories lining its shores belched smog into the air. And taking in the landscape from his first-floor studio window was Whistler, whose home overlooked the waterway.
“The Thames was a gritty, dirty river at this time,” says Patricia de Montfort, an art history lecturer at the University of Glasgow and one of the exhibition’s co-curators. “It was a time of change; it was a time when the river was a major shipping way. This is what Whistler was observing obsessively every day for nearly 40 years of his career.”
One of the first paintings shown in the exhibit—Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge (c. 1859–1863)—was also one of Whistler’s first London works. The picture shows an old timber bridge, which once spanned the water between Chelsea and Battersea and was later replaced by a newer crossway. London’s art establishment praised its “English grey and damp” and its “palpable and delightful truth of tone.”
“The realism of his Thames depiction was quite plain,” says Lee Glazer, the Sackler’s associate curator of American Art. “He earned an early reputation as a young artist for his accurate—but still evocative—depiction of these scenes.”
As the river transformed, so did Whistler’s paintings and etchings. He moved upstream—and up market—from the East End of London to Chelsea. There, he still painted the Thames, but his scenes became more poeticized.
The exhibit’s paintings, etchings, drawings and other works are organized to trace Whistler’s footsteps from the Thames’ northern bank to Chelsea. (Two maps—including an interactive, zoomable one—also detail Whistler’s numerous vantage points.) But the show, after taking visitors on a tour of the Victoria-era Thames, takes an international turn, leaping across the globe to mid-19th century Japan.
As Whistler’s London adapted to modernity, Japan was also in transition. In 1854, a mere five years prior to Whistler's arrival in England, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy pressured Japan into lifting its embargo on foreign shipping. Japanese prints and art flooded into Europe, and were prominently exhibited in Paris and London.
By 1867 Whistler had moved to Chelsea, and to a fresh perspective from which to paint Battersea. There, he befriended a neighbor, the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The two shared an admiration for Japanese woodblock prints by artists like Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige; Whistler especially loved their composition and colors.
Whistler was already incorporating Asian art and clothing into his paintings, including the 1864 Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen and Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl. He also collected woodblock prints, and often borrowed props from Rossetti. In the exhibition, a series of such woodblock prints and fans by Hokusai and Hiroshige hang adjacent to Whistler’s Japan-inspired oils. The imported art is decorated with curved bridges and flowing rivers—Eastern doppelgängers of Whistler's beloved Thames and Battersea.
By 1871, Whistler’s influences—the Thames and Japanese art—merged together in his Nocturnes. The hazy evening scenes feature delicate lines and translucent washes of paint; named for a pensive musical term, they are considered by many to be his masterpieces.
The show concludes with a host of other Nocturnes, including the one from the Ruskin trial. The ethereal, almost abstract depiction of Whistler’s favorite bridge is bathed in a deep blue twilight. The structure is covered in textured mist, and its abbreviated lines and asymmetrical composition are a far cry from the realism of Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge. Instead, they're unmistakenly reminiscent of a Hiroshige work.
Like the lyrical melody it’s named for, the painting’s notes come together to form a singular vision—a new view of London that was prompted by the Thames, molded by Japanese art, but was nevertheless entirely Whistler’s own.
Christina Spartali, second daughter of Michael Spartali and Euphrosyne Varsini Spartali, was born in Middlesex, England, in the mid to late 1840s. Her father, a prosperous cotton merchant who resided in London, became Consul-General for Greece in 1866. From 1864, the family lived in London at "The Shrubbery" in Clapham Common, and through their relatives the Ionides, prominent patrons of the arts, became acquainted with members of the contemporary art world, including James McNeill Whistler. Julia Margaret Cameron was the Spartalis' neighbor at Sandford, the family's estate on the Isle of Wight. Christina and her sister Marie were extraordinarily well-educated for women of their generation, but they were equally well-known for their beauty. Marie Spartali was an artist who publicly exhibited her work until the end of her life, but she remains better known as a model for Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other Victorian artists. Christina, who pursued no profession, is remembered for only one work, Whistler's "La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine", for which she posed in 1864-1865. Although "La Princesse" was not intended as a portrait, Whistler exhibited it in 1892 as "Portrait of Miss S.---," confident that his contemporaries would recognize the reference.
Head and shoulders portraits of Christina Spartali, taken by Julia Margaret Cameron circa 1865-1870. One albumen print, mounted on gold cardboard. The line "From life copyright Julia Margaret Cameron" is printed on the board below the photo, followed by a second and third line, written in ink, which read "Christina Spartali" and "now Countess Cahen D'Anvers" respectively. A second portrait is a photogravure printed from an original Cameron negative in 1891 for the publication "Sun & Shade" by the publisher New York Photo-Gravure Co.
For the first time, the public has the opportunity to see a dinner service like no other.
The evocative piece of feminist art, produced between 1932 and 1934, includes 50 plain Wedgewood white china dinner plates, each featuring portraits of famous and often overlooked women throughout history. Created by artistic partners Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who were members of the clique of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury group, the work includes 12 writers, 12 dancers, 12 queens and 12 beauties, along with plates depicting Bell and Grant themselves.
The set includes famous writers like Mary Ann Evans (better known by her pen name George Eliot), Charlotte Brontë, Christina Rossetti and Bell’s sister Virginia Woolf. There are notable monarchs like Mary Tudor and Marie Antoinette as well as outsized figures of history like Sappho, Helen of Troy and Jezebel. Contemporary figures of the day, including Greta Garbo and Marian Bergeron (crowned Miss America at the age of 15 in 1933), also are included. There are some figures included whose names might take little Googling, as well, like Eleanor "Nell" Gwyn, the actress and lover of Charles II, letter-writer Dorothy Osborne and Eleonora Duse, praised by some critics as ''the first modern actor."
All in all, the set is a playful and challenging chronicle of women through history. “It’s a major proto-feminist work,” Matthew Travers, director of Piano Nobile gallery, tells Cascone. “All of the women they depicted did something interesting and powerful, and often were quite scandalous—the Bloomsburys might have said ‘liberated’—in the way they lived their private lives, and often did not conform to the patriarchies they were living in.”(Piano Nobile)
So why hasn't the complete piece been on view before? According to Hana Leaper at British Art Studies, the set was originally commissioned by art critic Kenneth Clark in 1932. While he ordered what he thought would be a nicely decorated dinner set including mustard pots and sauce tureens, what he got was the dinner set. It’s not clear what Kenneth thought of the work, but it appears his wife Jane Clark was onboard with the project, communicating with Bell throughout the process.
Cascone reports that the Clarks did hold onto the set and they even used it at dinner parties. After they died, the set was sold to a collector in Germany and was essentially lost. But last year, a client of Piano Nobile revealed that they had the entire set. “What was so exciting is that they were all there and in perfect condition,” Travers says. “It’s so easy with ceramics that one or two could have got broken or lost. And no one knew if they had been sold in Germany as a group or individually—they could have been totally scattered.”
The gallery put the set up for auction last year for $1.3 million, but it didn’t sell. Now, Piano Nobile is holding the set so that Charleston, the house in Sussex where the Bloomsbury group was based and where Bell and Grant lived, can raise funds to purchase the dinner set at a discount.
The idea of engaging with women’s history through a dinner set, a symbol of domesticity through the ages, is not unique to Bell and Clark. In 1979, Judy Chicago famously created the “Dinner Party,” a large banquet table, that includes table settings laid out for 39 "guests of honor" that span pre-history to the contemporary age. Floor tiles list the names of another 999 other extraordinary women. That work is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum.
But if you want to catch "The Famous Women Dinner Service" at Piano Nobile, it will only be on view until the end of April. Then, if everything goes according to plan, it will be transferred to Charleston, which currently houses several test plates and early designs for the set.
Women in art had some cause for celebration this year, with unheralded artists ranging from Baroque painter Michaelina Wautier to Renaissance portraitists Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola, Swedish abstract art pioneer Hilma af Klint, and Old Master Artemisia Gentileschi headlining—or poised to headline—blockbuster retrospectives across the globe. But the path toward parity is still a work in progress: According to statistics compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based National Museum of Women in the Arts, women (who constitute 51 percent of contemporary visual artists) working across arts professions make around $20,000 less per year than their male counterparts. And, between 2007 and 2013, only 27 percent of 590 major exhibitions held by institutions across the United States were devoted to female artists.
Come April 2019, Mark Brown reports for the Guardian, Tate Britain will take steps to subvert this male-centric model by transforming its fee-free Sixty Years galleries, which explore the history of art from the 1960s through the present, into completely female-dominated spaces. The revamped display is set to remain on view for at least a year and will feature around 60 paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings and video works by 30 different artists, including Bridget Riley, Rachel Whiteread and Mona Hatoum.
Currently, of the 48 works on view in Sixty Years, 32 are by men, 14 are by women and two are by collectives. Gender notwithstanding, highlights include Chris Ofili’s elephant dung-laden 1998 portrait of a mother mourning the murder of her son, Richard Hamilton’s 1992 recreation of a British pop art collage, and Gillian Wearing’s diverse portraits of Britons carrying signs that express sentiments such as “Will Britain get through this recession?” and “I have been certified as mildly insane.”Sarah Lucas, "Pauline Bunny," 1997 (Tate © Sarah Lucas)
It’s unclear which, if any, of the works by female artists will remain on display in the updated gallery, but Robert Dex of the Evening Standard notes that Tate has already spotlighted several new additions: amongst others, Susan Hiller’s “Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall”—a multimedia installation that recreates a modern living room complete with a droning television in place of a more traditional hearth—and Sarah Lucas’ “Pauline Bunny,” a wiry, bunny-shaped sculpture stuffed with tights and cotton wadding to provide what Tate terms a representation of “abject femininity, in thrall to the arena of male virtuosity.”
Monster Chetwynd, fresh off of her Christmas commission from Tate Britain (she adorned the London gallery’s entrance with two giant leopard slugs), will be featured with two new mixed media works entitled “Crazy Bat Lady” and “Jesus and Barabbas (Odd Man Out 2011).” 2006 Turner prize winner Tomma Abts’ “Zebe,” a 2010 abstract canvas filled with slightly misaligned protrusions and lines, will also go on display.
Tate director Maria Balshaw tells the Guardian’s Brown that she hopes visitors barely even register the change, as the progress made toward highlighting female artists’ contributions has, in recent years, ostensibly made their presence in exhibitions the norm rather than an anomaly.
This process of recognition “has been slow for too long,” Balshaw adds. “We are happy that it is speeding up.”Tomma Abts, "Zebe," 2010 (Tate © Tomma Abts)
Tate isn’t the only British museum set to launch female-led exhibitions in the near future: In a separate Evening Standard article, Robert Dex writes that the National Portrait Gallery’s upcoming Pre-Raphaelite Sisters show will honor the women who worked as models, gallery assistants and artists alongside better-known male Pre-Raphaelites like Sir John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. And in 2020, Martin Bailey and Hannah McGivern report for the Art Newspaper, London’s National Gallery will host a major exhibition dedicated to Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, whose early 17th-century self-portrait made headlines this summer after selling to the gallery for £3.6 million, or roughly $4.7 million USD.
As Katy Hessel, a curator and writer who runs the popular Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists, commented in a recent interview with Sleek magazine’s Emily May, Tate’s display is a significant move. As she puts it, “Anyone from any background, of any age, will be able to walk into the free galleries and learn that women were also major contributors to art history, and that they mattered.”