At the Feast

 Marriage in the 19th century.

In many cases it was considered the husband’s duty to ‘mould’ his wife to the ‘perfect’ form (cf. Pygmalion). Consider the case of Annie Miller and Hunt or Rossetti and Siddal. Ford Madox Brown and Emma Brown were married in secret as she was working class and he trained her how to behave before introducing her to his family and friends. The marginal and flexible status of the artists themselves meant that they could experiment with unusual types of relationship although unmarried couples were expected to be discrete.

Landseer Windsor Castle in Modern Times 1841-5
Edward Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times, 1841

Edward Landseer’s painting of Victoria and Albert shows how the idea of a loyal wife and monarch could be negotiated. She is higher than him in the painting but he is active and has just returned from an active masculine activity.

Millais Emily Augusta Patmore 1851

The portrait of Emily Augusta Patmore, 1851 by Millais is of the wife of Coventry Patmore, who wrote the poem ‘The Angel in the House‘ in which he mythologises his wife as the ideal, nurturing, supportive wife. In the 20th century it became the myth of the Victorian wife. However, in this portrait Emily Patmore is shown as a very engaged and confident woman, looking directly out. Compare it with: Holman Hunt, portrait of Rossetti, 1853:

Hunt Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1853

We see Rossetti very close-up, it is almost like a self-portrait, there is an intensity, a hypnotic gaze like Svengali (a character in Du Maurier’s novel Trilby, set in 1870s Paris and it became a successful stage play). We wonder what is going on inside, he has the eyes of a saint in some medieval paintings.

Emily Patmore also has a penetrating gaze, similar to the Bridesmaid:

Millais The Bridesmaid 1851

Millais, The Bridesmaid, 1851

A limpid intimacy – the look emulates looking in a mirror. There is a tremendous reciprocity in all three. It blurs the male/female difference. The female image creates a complementary otherness and this image tends to negate the otherness.

Millais The Countess as Barber 1853

Millais, The Countess as Barber, 1853

His hair is being cut, perhaps like Sampson. He used to call Effie Ruskin ‘the Countess’.

Marriage is an institutionalised, social activity needed to create a larger labour force to fuel the economic boom. Private schools such as Rugby were being set up to train the upper class to rule the empire. It was also a business arrangement, a merger of two families and it kept capital within the extended family unit.

See the presentation on Hunt’s Eve of St. Agnes.

Hunt Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus 1851
Hunt, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, 1851

Proteus has just tried to rape Sylvia. Note his fiancée is on the left dressed as a servant. It almost looks like it is about Valentine and Proteus re-bonding. Note Proteus’s fiancée is turning her engagement ring on her finger.

Hunt Claudio and Isabella 1850
Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850-3

Claudio is trying to persuade his sister Isabella to have sex against her will to prevent his own death. It is not a sentimental picture. It was painted in the Tower of London. The woman is often shown in bright light and the man hidden (see The Long Engagement and April Love).

The crowd is often represented by people feasting.

Millais Lorenzo and Isabella1848-9
Millais, Isabella, 1848-9

Isabella’s love for Lorenzo is doomed as he is low born. He is killed by her brothers and buried and she finds his body, cuts of his head as a memento and buries it in a pot of basil.

Isabella has defied Victorian attitudes – she should have sat on her brother’s side of the table. She epitomises feminine beauty with ‘her long white neck’ (Lynda Nead). Isabella is taking a dominant role. It is her house (like Eve of St. Agnes). There is white rose above Lorenzo signifying his pure love and a passion flower above Isabella. The brother represents sexual energy, his phallic kick, the nutcracker, the phallic shadow on the table and the spilt salt like semen. There are 12 diners suggestive of the Last Supper (after Judas has left). No one is engaging with anyone else. Lorenzo is the only full face and it is brightly lit, Lorenzo and Isabella are not looking at one another. There is a lot of violence in the picture, the blood orange, salt spilling, bird of prey, the beading on the stool (perhaps of John the Baptist), the kick.

Families antithetical to true love, a crowd feasting opposed to true lovers. Private love and social performance at odds.

[This page is based on notes taken during a lecture by Carol Jacobi at the University of London].

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