Angels, Saints, Madonnas, and Women

The Pre-Raphaelite artists sought to create beauty in all things and have it present in every man’s life. Ruskin saw art as the Divine or godly expressing itself through artists, so beauty was “vital to man’s private existence” (Altick, 282). The Victorian artists even believed that the presence of beauty in society would help heal the moral decay of their society. The Pre-Raphaelite artists sought to make art that was “freshly observed nature transferred to canvas” (Altick, 288) primarily by painting ethereal women. This idea seems to echo William Rathbone Greg’s idea that women’s occupation should be “completing, sweetening, and embellishing the existence of others” (Greg, 158). The art seen during this period certainly seeks to use the female form for its beauty.

Christina Rossetti’s poem encapsulates this idea from the perspective of a woman and a model, but also an artist in her own right. She describes a “nameless girl” (Rossetti) who is valued for her beauty, not for her personhood, distinctly “Not as she is, but as she fills his dreams” (Rossetti). Christina Rossetti writes on how the unknown girl is in every painting “a saint, an angel” (Rossetti) truly anything other than herself. This creates an interesting dichotomy in how women are viewed in the Victorian mindset as both subhuman and superhuman. On one hand, women are effectively lesser, considered incapable of intelligent decision-making and good for childrearing. The upholders of the heterosexual family and not much else. However, they are simultaneously the ethereal muses and the symbols of precious Victorian beauty. Yet in neither of these analyses are women allowed to exist outside of male need and male ideology. At every turn, non-working-class women were meant to be the perfect mother and wife, yet innocent and virginal, beautiful and accomplished but not powerful. Madonna and Aphrodite in a single person who is not allowed agency or independence.

2 thoughts on “Angels, Saints, Madonnas, and Women”

  1. I really appreciated this analysis – it reminds me of our conversation about Foucault today in class. Who does it benefit to think of Victorian women in a binary sense – as just sub-human or just super-human? And as you described, can’t they be both at once? Our understanding of art and history is greatly benefited by understanding the power women sometimes yielded. The variety of sources you quoted really strengthened your argument, and does a good job of touching on so many of themes we’ve covered in class.

  2. This is such an interesting analysis and a really rich discussion of the ways in which women were expected to perform for men. Women are necessary for men because they have to be beautiful, they must be inspiration and serve as reference for art, and they must have children, yet they cannot be overly functional or they risk having too much power in society. Men need to constantly remind themselves that they are in charge, so they need to create societies exclusively for men, like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or emphasize the sexuality of a woman’s body when he makes her into art to ensure that his viewer is fully aware of her singular ‘use’.

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