In the Greco-Roman collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art there are frescoed wall panels from the villa of Fannius Synistor which stood in the countryside outside of Pompeii. These were painted sometime between 40 and 30 B.C. and were recovered from the ruins of the villa which was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
One panel from a small bedroom or sitting room has an unusual adornment. The curators write, “A grape leaf sillhouetted against the vertical porphyry surface appears to have blown in mysteriously, bringing a touch of whimsy to the otherwise severely ordered architectural decoration.”
Rupert Potter was a longtime friend of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. A barrister by trade, Potter was a very talented amateur photographer, as was his daughter, the author Beatrix Potter. He made a series of portraits of Millais during the 1880s in Millais’s London studio and house at 2 Palace Gate, Kensington.
Potter visited Millais in July of 1886, capturing the artist at a moment of leisure during work on the painting Lilacs and a portrait of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, which appear on easels.
Konstantin Makovsky was an accomplished Academic painter of fin-de-siècle Russia. He painted Classical subjects, like the Judgement of Paris, and official portraits of the Tsars Alexander II and Nicholas II. But he also produced interesting, folklorish depictions of life among the peasants and the old Boyar nobility.
Pictured above is the 1905 painting Christmastide Divination which portrays young girls watching a rooster peck at scattered grain, which they hope will portend a marriage in the coming year, a type of fortune telling called alectryomancy. Below is Makovsky’s most famous work, A Boyar Wedding Feast, which won a gold medal at the 1885 World’s Fair in Antwerp.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the subject of a recent post. It is a gorgeous, opulent film. Obviously Coppola, together with art director Thomas Sanders and costume designer Eiko Ishioka, gave a lot of thought to what was happening in the arts both in England and Mitteleuropa at the fin-de-siècle when the film takes place. As a result the scenery, costumes, and mis-en-scène are full of interesting references.
In this post I want to examine the influence of certain nineteenth century and Pre-War artworks on the production design.
Particularly during the first half of the movie we see a visual “dialogue” between Transylvania, represented by the imagery of Symbolism and the Vienna Seccession, and England, represented by Pre-Raphaelite imagery.
An example of the former is Dracula’s castle, which is depicted rising out of an outcrop in the Carpathian mountains, modeled on František Kupka‘s 1903 painting The Black Idol (Resistance).
At various points Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) is depicted sleeping either in his sarcophagus or boxes of earth wearing a golden robe inspired by Gustav Klimt’s 1907 painting The Kiss, which includes a similar pattern of whorls and rectangles.
On Twitter, Richard Wells called attention to a scene when Dracula scatters his vampire brides, causing two of them to withdraw, twisted together in a spidery form. According to Wells the choreography by Michael Smuin was inspired by “Virgil And Dante Looking At The Spider Woman,” an illustration from Gustave Doré’s 1861 edition of Dante’s Inferno.
The scenes involving female characters Mina Murray (played by Winona Rider) and Lucy Westenra (played by Sadie Frost) take place in and around the garden of an English country house, evoking the lush floral backgrounds of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Two works by Arthur Hughes, painted concurrently in the 1850s, The Long Engagement and April Love, seem to be referenced. In his book The Victorians, A. N. Wilson reads into The Long Engagement,
an emotional predicament stemming directly from an economic situation. The prosperity which had created the vast bourgeoisie with its gradations from lower to upper middle class had also created a code. You could not marry, and maintain the position in society to which you aspired, until you had a certain amount of money in the bank.
Mina is temporarily separated from her fiancé Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves) for precisely this reason. He is traveling to Transylvania to represent his firm in a real estate deal with Count Dracula in the hopes of advancing his career before they marry. The young lovers say goodbye in a shot composed similarly to The Long Engagement. Mina is later seen pining for Jonathan through a pergola like the female figure in April Love.
Another depiction of Mina during her separation from Jonathan places her at a table against the window of a solarium looking out into the garden. Although the angle is different the staging is reminiscent of John Everett Millais’s 1851 painting Mariana. The subject is a character from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure whose engagement was broken after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. Millais portrays her looking out the window longing for the return of her fiancé.
But it is Lucy who is the most overt Pre-Raphaelite character in the film. Her pale skin and red hair are the defining features of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s models Elizabeth Siddal and Alexa Wilding. Her transformation into the monster, the femme fatale, the belle dame sans merci, is a standard Pre-Raphaelite narrative.
In the same scene, when Lucy joins Mina in the solarium, she is shown wearing an off-the-shoulder gown, seated amidst potted flora in a pose reminiscent of Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, which he painted in the 1860s and 70s. Notice roses of the same pink-white hue on the table in Rossetti’s painting and embroidered on the pillow behind Lucy.
This figure of Lilith, a demon from Hebrew mythology associated with seduction and the murder of children, foreshadows Lucy’s fate as the “bloofer lady.”
At The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, Stephanie Chatfield considers whether Bram Stoker based the character of Lucy on Rossetti’s tragic wife Elizabeth Siddal. As I wrote in my book Victoriana, when Siddal died in 1862: “Rossetti buried Lizzie with the manuscripts of his unpublished poetry sealed in her coffin. This romantic gesture came to a ghoulish end, however. He later ordered her body exhumed to retrieve the poems.” Did this story of an open grave inspire Stoker? Chatfield writes,
In his notes made while working on Dracula, Stoker never mentioned the Rossetti/Siddal incident, so we can not definitively confirm that Lucy Westenra was inspired by Siddal. However, Bram Stoker lived in the same neighborhood as Rossetti and he was a friend of Hall Caine, who at one time was Rossetti’s secretary. Stoker dedicated Dracula to Caine, with a nickname used by Caine’s grandmother (“to my dear friend Hommy-Beg”). Stoker may not have included the story of Siddal’s exhumation in his notes, but due to his closeness with Caine he had to have heard an account of it at some point and he had probably read Caine’s book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882).
The belief that Stoker used Siddal as inspiration is bolstered by his 1892 short story The Secret of the Growing Gold. The ‘growing gold’ is the hair of a dead woman, the very tresses that had been her most striking feature in life. Her hair grows persistently and with a purpose; her intent is to haunt her husband and avenge her own death. The similarity between Stoker’s story and the claim that Siddal’s hair continued to grow and fill her coffin after death is unlikely to be a coincidence.
The last artwork I will mention is not Victorian or Edwardian. In Dracula’s castle the ancient Count lives among the relics of his past. A portrait of Dracula as a young man is adapted from a self portrait by the early Lutheran painter Albrecht Dürer, circa 1500.
Both works are expected to sell for between three and five million dollars—a far cry from mere decades ago, when the Pre-Raphaelites were out of favor, and David Lloyd Webber saw Leighton’s Flaming June for sale in a London shop for £50.
The artist Sime is best remembered for his fifteen-year collaboration with the fantasy and weird-fiction writer Lord Dunsany. Sime illustrated many of Dunsany’s books beginning with The Gods of Pegāna in 1905. He also contributed frontispieces to volumes by Arthur Machen.
Sime lived in Worplesdon in later years and his wife established the little gallery there with a bequest in the 1950s. It houses a collection of 88 hung works and hundreds of catalogued items, including letters, notebooks and memorabilia. The grant is intended to support the gallery “through the creation of a sustainability plan including options appraisal, business planning, audience development and financial planning.”
The suitably eerie photograph of Sime at the top of the post was taken by E.O. Hoppé for The Sketch magazine in 1910. It was recently brought to light by Douglas A. Anderson at A Shiver in the Archives.
Last November I wrote about the rediscovery of an 1843 portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that it depicted “the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes.” The much deteriorated portrait was sold as junk at a market in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa in 2017, subsequently identified and restored by British art dealers Philip Mould and Company, and unveiled at The Dickens Museum in the author’s former home, 48 Doughty Street, London.
The museum launched a fundraising campaign to purchase the portrait from Philip Mould and Company for £180,000. Today the Dickens Museum announced that it has acquired the painting:
The Gillies portrait will go on display from 24th October 2019 and will be a highlight of the festive season. The portrait will become a regular part of the Museum’s programme of displays, though it will require times away from display to preserve the quality of the 176-year-old watercolour.
At first glance, you wouldn’t think Agatha Christie had any relevance in a conversation about Victorian art. A Golden Age queen, her novels are decidedly modern, reflecting a world after first one then another world war, and filled with skittish women, world-weary men, and murders galore. However, the more you read her novels, the more her Victorian roots show. Take for example, the short story ‘Miss Marple tells a Story’, where Miss Jane Marple tells her nephew Raymond (a novelist) and his girlfriend Joan (a modern artist) all about how she solved a murder that was brought to her by her solicitor and the accused man (husband of the deceased). I won’t spoil the plot for you, but when Miss Marple wants to explain how she isn’t as ‘up-to-date’ as her companions she says ‘I am hopelessly Victorian. I admire Mr Alma Tadema and Mr Frederick Leighton and I suppose to you they are hopelessly vieux jeu.’ Miss Marple is the archetypal maiden aunt, born around the 1870s (as she appears to be a woman of 50-60 in her first appearance in 1927, and grows older up to the 1950s). Jane Marple expresses many examples of what it meant to be a Victorian, for example in ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’, Miss Marple says ‘When I was a girl Inspector, nobody ever mentioned the word stomach’, together with admonishments that a lady would never be over-emotional in public. I especially love her inability to talk frankly about what litmus paper is used for, in ‘The Blue Geranium’, even though she knows from experience of being a nurse. She is shrewd but always finds a way of being delicate about matters of bodily fluids.
The entire post is wonderful with lots of references picked out of various novels and a gallery of Christie paperback covers with Pre-Raphaelite influences.
The above daguerreotype print of Prince Albert was made on March 5, 1842. From the website of the Royal Collection Trust:
This is the first known photograph to have survived of a member of the British royal family. Prince Albert visited William Constable’s studio in Brighton, while the court was residing at the Royal Pavilion, and had a portrait taken. This daguerreotype was delivered to the Queen a few days later. In her journal entry of the 6th of March Queen Victoria commented ‘Saw the photographs which are quite good’.
The print has faded significantly over the years but is strangely dramatic for that. Albert’s face comes out of the darkness in all poise and dignity.
John William Waterhouse was among the last artists to make use of the Pre-Raphaelite style in direct continuity with the first generation of Pre-Raphaelite painters. He was not strictly a Pre-Raphaelite. His interest in Classical and mythological subjects placed him, with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, somewhat out of the mainstream of the genre. However a series of Arthurian, Shakespearian, and Christian paintings in the 1890s are boldly Pre-Raphaelite in style.
Beginning in the 1890s, and continuing until his death in 1917, Waterhouse worked primarily with one female model. Her likeness appears in his most famous works: La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893); A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph (1893); Ophelia (1894); The Mermaid (1901); and Tristan and Isolde (1914). In perhaps his most famous painting, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), she appears duplicated as multiple figures.
For many years there was a mystery surrounding the identity of this model. “Who was she?” Christopher Wood asked in his 1981 book, The Pre-Raphaelites. “One cannot help speculating about the identity of the mysterious and beautiful model who reappears so often in…Waterhouse’s pictures…It remains one of the few Pre-Raphaelite mysteries, and one that will probably never be solved.”
The “Waterhouse Girl,” as she was long known, is a striking and prepossessing beauty. Her looks are characterized by doe-like eyes, celestial nose, a modest sensuality about the lips, and the long reddish-golden hair associated with Pre-Raphaelite models since Rossetti’s early paintings of Elizabeth Siddal. Peter Trippi writes that, “given their three decade relationship,” she “surely functioned as the artist’s muse.” We see her age over time from a young seductress in the earliest works to a woman of dignity and adult beauty in later paintings such as The Soul of the Rose, or My Sweet Rose (1908) and The Annunciation (1914). That Waterhouse changed his themes and approach to suit his model, rather than the other way around, is a tribute to her profound influence on his work.
The mystery of the model’s identity was at last solved. In 1988 a pencil study by Waterhouse for his 1905 painting Lamia was bequeathed to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. It depicts the upturned face of the model. Her name is inscribed by Waterhouse on the paper: Miss Muriel Foster.
We are fortunate to know her name, not as a mere piece of trivia. Waterhouse’s best work had for its foundation one of the most successful partnerships between artist and model in the history of painting. Muriel Foster’s contribution to that partnership comes through to us as viewers today. As Rossetti wrote in another context, “Beauty like hers is genius.”
Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (Fall 1999) “Miss Muriel Foster: The John William Waterhouse Model,” in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. New Series 8.
Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (2004) “The Lamia in the Art of John William Waterhouse,” in The British Art Journal. Vol V, No 2.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Rossetti, William Michael (ed). (1895) The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Ellis and Elvey.
Trippi, Peter. (2003) “John William Waterhouse,” in Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection. London: The Royal Academy of Arts.
Wood, Christopher. (1981) The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: The Viking Press.