Written By: Grace Carver
I remember being little, really little, when my father first started dragging my sisters and I along with him to the art museum. It seemed so boring at first. You had to walk through all these different giant rooms with high ceilings. Everyone talked quietly so their voices wouldn’t echo and I had to be quiet too, which I hated. We’d start on the first floor, moving through these tall glass doors to the right, where you walk into a mostly empty exhibit and stare at canvases twice the size of our little growing bodies covered in splatters and blotches of paint. I’d always crinkle my nose at those, a five-year-old critic of Abstract Expressionism. There was one painting in that exhibit, on this tall canvas that I remember looking at, as my father explained to me, “Well, you look at the painting and it just looks like it was painted black, but when you get really close up, you can see the artist didn’t use any black at all, only all this other color together and it looks black.” Riveting, of course, for a kindergartener with no understanding of color theory.
But then, we’d keep walking through, past triumphs of modern art and white marble statues of women in dresses that billowed in the breeze as I passed by, despite them being carved from stone. Upstairs we would pass by paintings of all these old men with funny white wigs and a painting of a tree that I thought looked more like a lobster, where my father would exclaim with an excited laugh, “I mean, they had this painting hung upside down for years before they figured it out!” Until, finally, we would come to my favorite painting in the whole of the building.
The Lady of Shalott by William Holman Hunt hangs from a blue painted wall in a narrow little room on the second or third floor of the Wadsworth Atheneum. When I first saw this painting, I was struck. My sisters and I sat there in a row, with our identical little blonde curls and big moon eyes staring up at this painting that was probably three times our size. I remember that all the string from her weaving reminded me of my grandmother’s needlepoint, and I could swear I saw that gravity-defying crimson red hair of hers drifting and shining in the light. I had even recognized the title. Not for my knowledge of Tennyson, but because that was what Anne Shirley read out at the beginning of the Anne of Green Gables movie that my mother loved.
This was the first painting I had ever really loved. It allowed me to fall in love with art. And eventually I became a painter and a reader and I understood this painting and only came to love it more. This piece is a part of the pre-Raphaelite movement, a genre of art created by the “pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” in the late 1800’s. The movement is characterized by nature imagery, dedication to realism, and themes of poetry and literature, love, life, and death. The more you research the movement and the more works you see by artists such as John Everett Millais or William Holman Hunt or Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the more mystified you’ll be.
I think, though, what I’ve come to love most about these paintings, which so often depict women and girls from literature, poetry, and mythology in movement and in nature, is the aesthetic, stunning beauty of womanhood. As a little girl looking up at these works, I could relate to them. I loved how the Lady of Shalott was barefoot, because I hated shoes and stomped around in my mothers garden with my toes in the dirt all summer long. I could look at the painting Ophelia, laid back in the water and think of how I loved to swim in the water lily clogged pond by my house growing up. I could gape at Lady Lilith running a comb through her hair and think of the way my mother ran a brush through my long tangles of blond curls. More than that, they reflected my own girlhood art. Sure, my drawings were princesses with triangle dresses and Crayola yellow hair, but to me they were reflections of paintings like these. And as I grew older and read more and learned the true nature of the women subjected in these paintings, I became all the more enraptured by their stories and their strength and their beauty.
Ultimately, this is really just my nostalgic way of begging people to look at more pre-Raphaelite works of art. It is a fascinating movement that calls back not only inspiration from the masters that came before these artists, but also to some stunning and complex figures in literature that everyone should know.