The image that I chose is entitled the Fair Dreamer. The main subject of the image is a beautiful (fair) woman who appears to be asleep or is waking up as she is sprawled against the trunk of a willow tree. The setting is on the banks of a lake. There is also a parasol in one corner of the image and a rowboat in the other. What intrigues me the most about this image is the posture of the woman. She is stretching but in a way that looks exposing or inviting. Her arms are stretched above her with one lying across her forehead, her legs aren’t crossed, and her eyes are closed, possibly hinting that the body language of the woman could be interpreted as one of relaxation, fragility, or sexual desire. Her parasol, a tool that is used to shade/protect one’s self, also appears to have been tossed aside, which can imply that she is willingly giving off a sign of acceptance.
All of this reminded me of the readings that we covered in class that were about the female as a sexualized object. Elizabeth Lee’s article on the Victorian Web, the Femme Fatale asObject, discusses the fascination with the female body that many male artists of the Victorian Era felt. According to Jan Marsh, the femme fatale, a seductive and dangerous woman, became idealized to the point where they were “rendered decorative, depersonalized; they [became] passive figures rather than characters in a story or drama… women [were] reduced to an aesthetic arrangement of sexual parts, for male fantasies” (Lee 1). In short, male artists feared the “sexual destructiveness” of the femme fatale and thus began to view their female human models as perfect, sexually attractive objects with a lack of a real identity.
I think that Elizabeth Lee’s article can be connected to the Fair Dreamer because the women of this image is similar to a female model that a male artist from the Victorian Era would desire. As mentioned before, the body language of the woman is one of passiveness and sexuality. Though she is fully clothed, she is still beautiful with an inviting posture and a tranquil/gentle expression on her face. She is also asleep in nature, which further romanticizes the image and shows that she can be an example of a “femme fatale, whose dangerous sexual powers artists felt the need to reign in somehow to make her more palatable to Victorian audiences” (Lee 1). By making her asleep, the artist has successfully quelled her “threatening” side.
In the image called Fannie’s Pets there is a fair young woman, dressed in white (of course!) surrounded by animals of the forest. These animals are charged with symbolism in the painting which contribute to the overall message or themes being portrayed to the audience, who at the time was Victorian society. Rabbits symbolize fertility and procreation, doves represent purity and religion (most likely Christianity or Catholicism), chickens are symbolic of fertility and motherhood, and the rest of the animals seem to also have to do with sexual desire and reproduction, especially the Peacock. And with all these animals that are vulnerable and easily preyed upon (including this new Woman in White), there is a man lurking in the forest, acting as predator to the woman who would be his sexual prey. The forest itself is symbolic of a dark, creepy, mysterious space where evil and predators lurk. The man is crouched in a dark, shady corner watching amazed as he sees this woman, ultimately a Snow White figure who seems to be luring him in with her purity and youthful fertility to bear more lurking sons in the future.
Here, the image signifies that on the surface, this woman looks like the ideal Victorian “Angel in the House” as Kathryn Hughes’ article Gender Roles in the Nineteenth Century puts it. However, the symbolism of the animals around her show her in a different light, as a sexual creature who has her own desires and sexual identity even though she is yet another Woman in White to add to our ever-growing collection and is ultimately the same as Laura Fairlie or the woman in the painting Health and Beauty, or insert-other-woman-in-white. This connects to Christina Rosetti’s poem in which she says these women being painted are “The same one meaning, neither more or less” and ultimately stripped of their individual identities because their purpose is to serve as sustenance and carnal pleasure for men. There is an under-layer of fetishizing the body of women as part of sexual fantasy such as Walter Hartright’s portrait of Laura that he keeps with him all the time or the imagery from Rosetti’s poem of a man who “feeds upon her face by day and night” as she is a feast for his eyes. In Fannie’s Pets, this woman serves as a feast for her predator’s eyes and most likely mouth as well.
Appearance also plays a major role in how women were perceived. In Judith Flander’s article Prostitution, “women who dressed or behaved in ways men considered inappropriate were deemed to be whores.” So, if their skirts were held up “just a little higher” than respectable women, they would be considered “streetwalkers” or prostitutes which is such an arbitrary and vague ( and all around ridiculously wrong) way of labeling women. Tying it back to Fannie and her pets, she is attracting a suitor because she is not defying the male patriarchal standards of what a woman should be (which is chaste, a virgin, and smart but not smarter than a man) at least with her physical appearance. She is dressed modestly and fully covered and dressed in the fairest of whites to represent her youth, fertility, and virginity.