The Vulnerable Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Art

When ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, by John Everett Millais, was first exhibited in 1850 the art world was scandalized, perturbing Victorian sensibilities. One notable critic, the novelist Charles Dickens, suggested that viewers of Millais’ painting ‘[H]ave the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphaelly considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting’ (Baldaque, 178). Millais was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a small group of Englishmen who sought to emulate the artists of the Middle Ages and early Italian Renaissance and rejected the established traditions of the art academies. Although Dickens decried the Pre-Raphaelite’s regressive stylistic preferences, he and Millais both had a keen interest in contemporary life. The Pre-Raphaelites were heavily interested in portraying modern life, as they understood it. The original Brotherhood (consisting of Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti) was dissolved by 1853, only four years after its inception; however, thanks to subsequent artists like Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse, the symbolic and stylistic ideals of the PRB would endure for nearly forty years. In that span of time, one dominant trope in Pre-Raphaelite art retained its prominence: the concept of the vulnerable woman. In this paper, I’ll be focusing on the work of the original Brotherhood, as well as their contemporary Ford Madox Brown.

The Pre-Raphaelites were at their apex during the height of the Victorian era (1837-1901). The trope of the vulnerable woman in Pre-Raphaelite art can best be understood within the context of the broader cultural sensibilities of the time. Victorian women were believed to be devoid of sexual passion, and any divergence from this culturally ingrained notion was met with hostility and disgust. In pre-modern times, men and women were seen as being equally prone to licentiousness; however, by the mid-18th century, cultural mores began to change. Sexual promiscuity was seen as a symbol of aristocratic decadence that threatened middle-class virtue, a concept borne out of Protestantism (Cott, 223). The subsequent British Evangelical movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries advocated chastity for both genders, stressing that women had the greatest power to affect moral change. Notable female thinkers like Hannah More (an evangelical herself) fought against the notion that women were merely objects meant to sate men’s sexual desires, advocating that women emphasize their moral and intellectual abilities rather than their ”mere animal” capacities (Cott, 224). As a result of these religious and cultural changes, women began to be seen as bastions of social goodness, earthly embodiments of spiritual wholeness.

By the time the Pre-Raphaelites formed in 1849, the notion of the chaste woman was thoroughly entrenched in the zeitgeist of the 19th century and had become a moral pillar of the Victorian era. The original members of the Brotherhood (Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti) were evangelical Christians, and their views concerning the fair sex were thusly affected by their religious persuasion. The Brotherhood was founded with the intent to restore the tradition of sacred art in England and sought to emulate artists who predated the Raphaelistic tradition, which they viewed as being too secularized and spiritually barren (Sussman, 46). The Pre-Raphaelites and other advocates of artistic ‘primitivism’ (i.e., a revival of medieval and early-Renaissance religious sentiments) desired to use art as a means of religious education and moral advancement (Cooper, 407). Fra Angelico, a 15th-century Italian painter and Dominican monk, received adulatory praise from the Pre-Raphaelites for the sanctity of his paintings. John Ruskin, an art critic and avid defender of the Brotherhood, stated that Fra Angelico’s figures possessed the ”the silence of ineffable adoration”; Hunt even labeled him as an ‘Immortal’ (those who the Brotherhood deemed as divinely inspired) in the second edition of ‘Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, published in 1914 (Cheney, 15). The Brotherhood’s paintings were meant to inspire and be cherished for their subtext, not only their beauty. Being of deeply religious character, the Pre-Raphaelites considered it their solemn duty to help illuminate, and hopefully ameliorate, social ills through their paintings. Because Victorian society held social grace and chastity as the ultimate virtues of femininity, women were understood to be constantly vulnerable to temptation and corruption; a fall from their spiritual pedestals would result in a degradation of society, according to Victorian mores. A fallen woman, as understood by the Brotherhood and Victorians at large, deviated from the socially accepted ideal of womanhood when her sexual appetites overrode her cultural responsibility of remaining chaste and sexually passionless (Nead, 34).

The trope of the vulnerable woman in Pre-Raphaelite art was present as early as 1851 when Millais exhibited his painting ‘Mariana’ for the first time. This painting was accompanied by a Tennyson poem, inspired by the character Mariana in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”.

John Everett Millais, Mariana (1851)

Millais, like the other Pre-Raphaelites, had a great appreciation for literature, especially British literature, and much of his work was intimately tied to it. In this painting, Mariana is longing to be reunited with her lover who was lost at sea. Symbology, so cherished by the Brotherhood, is integral to understanding this scene. The autumn leaves are symbols for the passing of time, and her longing for her lover is suggested by her arched back and the knitting needle thrust into the table. Millais instills the scene with a sense of yearning, portraying a woman who has fallen victim to the tribulations of the world, hopeless and forlorn. The annunciation scene in the stained glass (a glimmer of Millais’ evangelical bent) contrasts the peace and serenity of the Virgin with the longing and desperation of Mariana (Fowle). Much like her lover, but in a figurative sense, Mariana has been swept out to sea and has lost her bearings, powerless and ungrounded without an anchor in her life. Millais’ most poignant representation of the vulnerable woman is perhaps ‘Ophelia’, completed in 1852.


Like ‘Mariana’, ‘Ophelia’ is a literary painting, but based on the work of William Shakespeare rather than Tennyson. Elizabeth Siddal, a model favored by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and for a time Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife, portrays the tragic character of Ophelia (Bradley, 141). “Ophelia” embodies John Ruskin’s belief that art should have a moral imperative. Viewers would have drawn a connection between Ophelia’s mistreatment (and subsequent suicide) and the abuse women in Victorian England endured, which occurred despite their supposed religious purity. In a sense, Millais exposed the double standard that plagued Victorian society: women were considered bastions of cultural goodness and were expected to act accordingly, yet they were still under the yoke of patriarchal tyranny. Millais, like many of his contemporaries, believed women had been forced into depravity and suffering by modernity. The tragic suicide of Ophelia was the perfect analogism for the crumbling social values Millais perceived.

William Holman Hunt, the second founding member of the Brotherhood, is perhaps best known for ‘The Awakening Conscience’, a painting which he hoped ‘[m]ight be said to have done not a little in calling attention to the class concerned’ (Bullen, 58).


Hunt, like Millais, was an evangelical Christian, but it appears he was not always so religious. In a letter addressed to his good friend John Ruskin, Hunt states that he was ‘[a] contemptuous unbeliever in any spiritual principles’ until he was given a copy of ‘Modern Painters’ (a work by Ruskin) by a friend attempting to convert him to Roman Catholicism (Landow). His religiosity no doubt contributed to the heavily symbolic paintings, ‘The Awakening Conscience’ in particular. The painting has a certain earnestness, a product of his intense faith, which he claims separated him from Rossetti, who was ‘[t]oo absorbed with Dante and French literature’ and Millais, who ‘never read anything’ (Landow). In Hunt’s painting, a kept woman (i.e., a mistress) realizes she has been led astray and suddenly begins to rise from the lap of her partner. Like Millais, Hunt loved to analogize. The cat and mouse beneath the table symbolize the couple: the woman is the mouse, a representation of the meek attempting to escape from the clutches of sin, and the man is the cat, manipulative, depraved, and predatory. The woman’s gaze and sudden upward movement imply a sense of urgency and some kind of epiphany leading to an “awakening”. Hunt’s painting is hopeful and revelatory and implies that the woman will find some absolution. In Victorian England, prostitution was rampant and institutionalized, and evangelicals like Hunt were determined to see this social malignancy eradicated. Hunt, more than his fellow brethren, believed that Divinity guided his brush (Landow).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, named after the famed Italian poet Dante, was the third member of the Brotherhood, and his paintings were generally more sensual than those of his compatriots. However, much of his work was just as religiously inspired as Hunt’s, though it was presented less earnestly. Women feature prominently in Rossetti’s paintings and in two in particular the notion of the vulnerable woman is well represented. The first of these paintings, ‘The Annunciation’ (‘Ecce Ancilla Domini), painted in 1850, draws on the tradition of annunciation painting and the Renaissance tradition of fresco.


Rossetti’s sister who is cowering before the angel Gabriel represents the Virgin Mary. Unlike earlier annunciations, the Virgin is portrayed as meek and frightened, as opposed to refined and regal (as in the work of Fra Angelico). Gabriel holds a lily that leads to the area of her abdomen, referencing the Virgin’s imminent impregnation (Fowle). The Virgin is portrayed as a young girl who has been swept up in a divine plan by no action of her own; her cowering body and meek facial expression reveal her timidity and vulnerability, qualities not usually entertained by the old masters. Rossetti also tackled the idea of the vulnerable woman in his ‘Beata Beatrix’, which is a kind of prophetic construction of Elizabeth Siddal as Beatrice, Dante Alighieri’s lost love. Siddal was a troubled woman, and she and Rossetti had a tempestuous relationship. In Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Beatrice (who died an untimely death) served as a spiritual guide to the heavens. The relationship between Rossetti and Siddal ended very similarly to Dante and Beatrice’s; after miscarrying, Siddal sank into a deep depression and became addicted to the opiate laudanum, and later overdosed, leading to her untimely death (Bradley, 102). After her death, Rossetti (perhaps melodramatically) buried his book of poetry with her, but later exhumed her in order to retrieve the poems for publication (Bradley, 142). The memory of Siddal would haunt Rossetti for the rest of his life. In this painting, the light that bathes Siddal’s face indicates her assumption into the divine realm, a symbolic reference to Beatrice (Fowle). Like other Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Rossetti portrays Beatrice as an innocent character who has been overwhelmed by the tumults of reality. ‘Beata Beatrix’ is an example of the unfortunate conclusion of innocence in an unfair and dangerous world.


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was disbanded in 1853, but the aesthetic they had established blossomed in the subsequent years. A contemporary of the Brotherhood, and a major influence on their aesthetic, was Ford Madox Brown. His painting ‘Take Your Son, Sir!’, which he left unfinished, is a more ambiguous and less romantic portrayal of the trope of the vulnerable woman in Victorian society. Brown used his wife and child as models for the painting, so it seems unlikely that it is meant to represent bastardy, as some critics have suggested (Treuherz, Bendiner, Thirlwell, 180). The painting is striking because unlike other Pre-Raphaelite artists (or any other Victorian artists, for that matter) the female figure is given great authority and occupies the center of the space, demanding the viewers’ attentions. Brown never wrote about this painting, leaving his intentions for it unclear. However, what is immediately apparent is the stark difference between Brown’s Victorian woman and those of his contemporaries. The woman seems to be drawn and pale, and her body language reflects the burden the child has placed upon her. She seems almost relieved to be passing it on to the father, who we can see reflected in the mirror behind her. The woman’s aggressive posture and resolute nature seem a far cry from the vulnerable women that the Pre-Raphaelites portrayed. Later critics have viewed the painting as a social commentary, though, as aforementioned, there is little evidence to support this claim, only conjecture. Bastardy, adulterous women passing off illegitimate children as their husband’s true offspring, was incredibly taboo in Victorian England. At that time, it was deemed a social evil for a woman to be unfaithful. The painting might be seen in this light, especially since the child Brown portrayed here was born out of wedlock (the couple married shortly after he had begun the painting) (Treuherz, Bendiner, Thirlwell, 181). Her aggressive body language and expression demand shared responsibility for the child. Brown, unlike others in the Brotherhood, was not very religious, even stating that ‘[T]here is [no] passage in the life of Christ that particularly sets my imagination going’ (Bendiner, 106). This irreligious persuasion perhaps allowed him to view women from a different perspective than evangelicals like Millais and Hunt. Interestingly, Brown has given her some gumption, and the Victorian understanding of vulnerability is lessened somewhat by her willingness to confront the father of the child. Her distinct and active character are a direct challenge to the holier than thou aura of Millais and Hunt’s paintings.


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had an indelible impact on the course of art over the last half of the 19th century and would come to epitomize the romantic sensibilities of the Victorian era. Even Charles Dickens, who so ardently opposed their artistic vision, eventually lessened his disdain, writing to Millais the following: ‘”Objecting very strongly to what I believed to be an unworthy use of your great powers, I once expressed objections in (this) same journal. My opinion on that point has not in the least changed, but it has never dashed my admiration of your progress in which I suppose are higher and better things…” (Fleming). The trope of the vulnerable woman would become a fixture of Victorian art for the next fifty years. It would later transition from the religious, evangelical foundations that drove Millais and Hunt, to the more literary and secularized artwork of Burne-Jones and Waterhouse, the spiritual successors of Rossetti and Brown’s more secularized and literary approach.




Baldaque, Lourenca. ‘The Pre-Raphaelites in the Dickens-Ruskin Controversy: Resistance and Defense in the Victorian Era’. Revisiones no.7. 2011. pp. 175-184

Bradley, Laurel. ‘Elizabeth Siddal: Drawn into the Pre-Raphaelite Circle’ Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2, British Art: Recent Acquisitions and Discoveries at the Art Institute (1992), pp. 136-145+187

Bullen, J.B. ‘The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism.’ Clarendon Press (1998). Pp. 50-70

Bendiner, Kenneth. ‘Art of Ford Madox Brown’. Penn State Press. 2010. pg. 106.

Cheney, Lana, ed. ‘Pre-Raphaelitism and Medievalism in the Arts.’ Edwin Mellen Press (January 1st, 1992).

Codell, Julie F. ‘Expression over Beauty: Facial Expression, Body Language, and Circumstantiality in the Paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’. Victorian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Winter, 1986), pp. 255-290

Cooper, Robyn. ‘The Relationship Between the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Painters before Raphael in English Criticism in the Late 1840s and 1850s’ Victorian Studies, Vol. 21 No. 4. (Summer, 1981). Pg. 405-438.

Cott, Nancy F. ‘Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850.’ Signs, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter, 1978), pp. 219-236

Fleming, G.H. ‘John Everett Millais; A Biography’. Constable. 1999.

Fowle, Frances. Mariana; The Awakening Conscience; Beata Beatrix. Tate Gallery.

Landow, George. Replete with Meaning: William Holman Hunt and Typological SymbolismVictorian Web. 8 December 2004.

Nead, Lynn. ‘The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting’ Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, Correspondences (1984), pp. 26-37

Sussman, Herbert. ‘The Pre-Raphaelites and the “Mood of the Cloister”’. Browning Institute Studies, Vol. 8 (1980), pp. 45-55

Treuherz, Julian. Bendiner, Kenneth. Thirlwell, Angela, ed. ‘Ford madox brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer’. Philip Wilson Publishers. 2011. pg.180


The Heritage of Apelles

(Figure 1): Botticelli, Sandro. The Calumny of Apelles. ca. 1497. Tempera on panel. 62 x 91 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi. ARTstor (

In his encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia, the Roman philosopher and author Pliny the Elder praises Apelles as an exemplar of Grecian artistic fortitude: “[I]t was Apelles of Cos who surpassed all the painters that preceded him and all who were to come after him….He singly contributed almost more to painting than all the other artists put together….His art was unrivaled for graceful charm, although other very great painters were his contemporaries.” Apelles, who worked  sometime in the late 4th century BCE, is known only by anecdotes related by later authors, through whom his legend has resonated down through the centuries. Little is known of Apelles’ life, but ancient texts assert that he was likely born in Ionia and later apprenticed under Pamphilus of the Sicyonian school (Pliny alleges Sicyon to be the birthplace of painting in ancient Greece). After acquiring some publicity, he was entrusted with painting a portrait of Alexander the Great and other such commissions as a Macedonian court painter; for Aphrodite Anadyomene (Aphrodite Rising from the Sea)Pliny relates the tradition that Apelles used one of Alexander’s consorts (allegedly Campaspe) as his model for the goddess; according to legend, Alexander was so taken by the painting that he granted Apelles Campaspe as a reward for his endeavors. Such is the myth of the man; whether any of these tales is true is a subject of debate. His works must have been revolutionary and breathtaking, regarded as unsurpassed in grace and beauty even five centuries after his death. Apelles came to embody the genius of ancient Greek art, and to the artists of the Renaissance, who strove to emulate the masters of antiquity, he was the pinnacle of artistic achievement.

With the ascension of Neoplatonism in the Renaissance, there was an influx of names, histories, and legends lost to Europe for a millennium. The humanist tradition that catalyzed the resurgence of classical antiquity began with a refutation of the Gothic style in all its applications- beginning with literature and expanding into the arts and architecture. The Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the first artisans to challenge the orthodox building practices of the Gothic style; he saw the Gothic arches as solecisms and barbaric corruptions of classical architecture. Brunelleschi’s influence spread beyond architecture and into the realm of painting; his discovery of perspectival drawing, famously applied by Masaccio in The Holy Trinity, was perhaps a rediscovery of methods that had allowed Apelles to deceive the sense of sight. But the true heritage of Greece is the use of light in illusionism. E.H. Gombrich, in The Heritage of Apelles, asserts that the differentiation between light and luster (allegedly pioneered by Apelles) was pivotal to the artistic revolution of the Renaissance and just as important as the advent of perspectival drawing. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and the Latin world’s subsequent slide into disorder, the artistic and literary traditions begun by the ancient Greeks were forsaken; the artisans of Europe abandoned the Greek tradition in favor of flat planes and austere mosaics. Yet, the Greco-Roman artistic tradition was not entirely lost- for example, during the Byzantine era, mosaics and such religious icons as Christ Pantocrator dominated the artistic landscape, utilizing the artistic convention of “grazing light”, a lateral illumination which can be traced back to the Pompeiian muralists of classical antiquity. After a thousand years of unreason, the artistic traditions of Apelles finally reemerged, driven by a revived scholarly interest in pagan religion. A number of “new Apelles'” were born; from Masaccio to Jan Van Eyck, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Titian, each of these new artists carried on the tradition of ancient Greece, the tradition of Apelles, as they sought to usher in a new age of beauty and refinement. Apelles’ influence was so poignant and pervasive that he can rightly be called the progenitor of the artistic Renaissance in Europe.

The Calumny: Apelles’ Reemergence

A rediscovered treatise, On Calumny, authored by the Syrian rhetorician and satirist Lucian, gives a detailed description of a long lost Apelles’ painting titled Calumny

On the right of it sits a man with very large ears, almost like those of Midas, extending his hand to Slander while she is still at some distance from him. Near him, on one side, stand two women—Ignorance and Suspicion. On the other side, Slander is coming up, a woman beautiful beyond measure, but full of malignant passion and excitement, evincing as she does fury and wrath by carrying in her left hand a blazing torch and with the other dragging by the hair a young man who stretches out his hands to heaven and calls the gods to witness his innocence. She is conducted by a pale ugly man who has piercing eye and looks as if he had wasted away in long illness; he represents envy. There are two women in attendance to Slander, one is Fraud and the other Conspiracy. They are followed by a woman dressed in deep mourning, with black clothes all in tatters—she is Repentance. At all events, she is turning back with tears in her eyes and casting a stealthy glance, full of shame, at Truth, who is slowly approaching.

He describes calumny as a product of ignorance and “undoubtedly one of the greatest evils incident to mankind… the source of innumerable misfortunes…”.  After this denouncement, he relates the legend of the Calumny of Apelles, in which Theodotus, envious and desirous of Apelles’ skill, spreads false rumor against him. Apelles allegedly reproaches the calumniator by painting the Calumny, a pictorial representation of his victory over the slanderer. Apelles’ skill was thereafter unquestioned, and his fame was assured. The artists of the Renaissance must have seen the Grecian artist as the pinnacle of the artistic and intellectual culture they were trying to revive.

Sandro Botticelli painted The Calumny of Apelles in 1497 CE (see Figure 1 above) in accordance to Lucian’s description. Botticelli was a prolific Florentine painter, renowned for his depictions of pagan gods in his paintings. In the Renaissance, especially in Florence, there was a strong interest in the occult; these supernatural forces were beautifully captured in Botticelli’s works. The Birth of Venus contains the first monumental female nude since antiquity- a syncretic painting, representative of the Neoplatonic thought that dominated the Renaissance. Neoplatonism conflated paganism and Christianity, taking the virtues of each and extolling them. For example, the Neoplatonists saw Venus as interchangeable with the Virgin, an embodiment of love. Many other parallels were made between the scriptures and the ancient pagan religions. Viewed in this way, pagan and Christian beliefs could exist harmoniously. For painters like Botticelli, this new ideology allowed for greater artistic freedom and a means to explore the ancient past. Perhaps the suppression of the Greco-Roman artistic tradition by the medieval Church could be seen as another calumny against Apelles- and the Renaissance his crowning glory.

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