The Unsettled Subject

‘The unsettled subject’ is concerned with how artists represented the changing views of themselves and the world around them during the 19th century, an unsettled period of enormous change. The themes are:

  • Perception and the change from outer ‘eye’ to inner ‘I’
  • Identity, the artist and his or her self-creation, the ‘hero’
  • Relationships, brotherhood, gender, the family, lovers and sex
  • Religion, coping with death and resurrection
  • The City, decoding, the dandy, the crowd
  • The ‘Other’, how the Orient defined the West through negation


During the course of the 19th century there was a change from positivism (the importance of knowledge based on scientific measurement) to
aestheticism (the importance of sensuous pleasure), in art, from the ‘camera
‘, for example Ruskin’s drawing, to Whistler’s hazy paintings evoking emotion.

Crary in Techniques of the Observer:

‘In the aftermath of Kant’s work there is an irreversible clouding over of the transparency of subject-as-observer.’

Or Pick

‘problematic of vision and modern representation’, Pick, Stories of the Eye, Rewriting the Self

The subject-as-observer is the image of a person as an impartial recorder of events. This is associated with Ruskin’s idea of ‘the innocent eye’ or the ‘child’s eye’, that is, the idea that a child sees the world innocently and freshly without the overlay of knowledge, cynicism and emotion of the adult.

There were ‘changes … in the perception of perception.’ (Pick) so that by the 1890s ‘the whole comfortable idea of the imitation of nature disintegrated’ (Gombrich).

These changes were associated with photographic gadgets that played with visual ideas (such as after images), fragmentation of vision, memory and its effect on vision, spiritualism (seeing what isn’t there), dreams (‘seeing’ in the mind), consciousness and unconsciousness and the unconscious and madness and hallucination.

By the end of the 19th century the perceived world turned out to be a lot more complex to understand than the simple camera obscura model at the start of the century. Artists moved from the precise mimetic of Hunt to painting dreams. Freud described it as ‘beyond the range of luminosity’ and Pick describes the 19th century as a ‘journey towards blindness’ that ends with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1903).

Ruskin in Modern Painters 2, 1846, wrote, ‘go to nature in all singleness of heart, rejecting nothing and selecting nothing’ although Ruskin makes it clear that he regards truth to imagination as vital. However, Ruskin did still hold on to the notion of the ‘innocent eye’ which by the end of the century had been undermined. There is no such thing as the innocent eye because it is implicit in the nature of seeing that we categorize to understand. A child sees as well as we do and can remember and recognise people and places but its ability to describe and represent are limited by its ability to categorize and shape the world. In other words our lack of innocence goes hand in hand with our ability to represent the world, artistically or otherwise. A completely innocent eye could not describe or represent the world effectively. The vision of a child cannot be separated from the mental world of the child – vision, perception, organisation and representation are all related and are not separable.

The Authority of Vision. An artist sets himself up as an authority.

  • Extreme mimesis
  • ‘innocent eye’
  • ‘inner eye’

‘special integrity of the creative artist, dedicated to art alone supplants the Ruskinian model of the artist who copies God’s creation.’ Prettejohn.

Identity – Our ‘Real’ Self

But the journey of the 19th century goes much further than perception. It was also a crisis of identity. Our firm beliefs that underpinned our construction of ourselves as independent identities were slowly eroded until our selves ceased to exist. It was realised that identity itself is unstable. Nietzsche and others tries to create a self from another basis – the existence of will, in certain people, he argued, formed the basis of self-identity, everything other than will is dreams and fancies, an identity created from yesterday’s media reports.

These pressures arose from changes took place in religion, science, and social structures and the crisis of identity was philosophical, psychic and sexual.

One influential writer was Thomas Carlyle who wrote, ‘Hero-worship? Ah me, that a man be self-subsistent, original, true, or what we call it, is surely the farthest in the world from indisposing him to reverence and believe other men’s truth! It only disposes, necessitates and invincibly compels him to disbelieve other men’s dead formulas, hearsays and untruths. A man embraces truth with his eyes open, and because his eyes are open: does he need to shut them before he can love his Teacher of truth?’

Frederick Stephens wrote in The Germ, ‘If this adherence to fact, to experiment and not theory, – to begin at the beginning and not fly to the end, – has addedd so much to the knowledge of man in science; why may it not greatly assist the moral purposes of the Arts?’

The period is also famous for its classic realist novels. The period was proto-Freudian and was exploring thought and emotional and psychic states.

D. G. Rossetti ‘an inner standing point.’ It could be argued that Rossetti privileges the inner standing point as was made clear by his sister Christina Rossetti ‘not as she is, but as she fills his dream.’ A good description of where he was coming from when he painted his ‘female heads with floral attributes’.

Aestheticism is a different model of looking that draws on Baudelairian ideas. It suggests rather than states, it is mysterious (Baudelaire’s vagueness) as mystery engages the mind and allows it the freedom to dream and explore. The camera is descriptive and pins down what it sees. The aesthetic uses symbols to suggest and free the mind and synaesthesia to engage all the senses.

‘A figure for the autonomy of art, sufficient in its own beauty.’ Prettejohn.

Self-creation, the artist creates himself as brother, monk, lover, knight, priest, martyr, revolutionary, bohemian, dandy, labourer, patriarch and adventurer but they are all masks. But what lies beneath the mask? Nothing – the external persona was created because of the instability of the artist’s identity. Look at all the roles David Copperfield takes on – artist, actor and
teacher, he was trying to create himself as a modern man.

The self-creation of identity destroyed class barriers as performance was based on ones ability to perform not on one’s family history. Everyone in a City puts on a performance and everyone needs to decode to identity rapidly to move through the crowd. Identity was unstable, performative (that is, it was created through doing it) and self-fashioned.

One important identity was that of the hero. Consider the Pre-Raphaelites ‘List of Immortals’ and Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Heroes and Hero Worship’ (1840).

Self-portraits and portraits of artists –

  • Millais by Watkins,
  • Uffizi portrait of Hunt,
  • Millais as Dante,
  • Munro plaster relief of Millias,
  • Uffizi portrait of Millias,
  • Mackenzie and Birnam ‘The Best Photograph of Millais’,
  • Millais by Watts from his Hall of Fame (a national school of art).

Autobiography of Hunt and biography, John Guile Millais ‘The life and Letters of J. E. Millais, President of the Royal Academy, 1899.

Bullen wrote of Rossetti’s poem Jenny ‘the centre of …discourse lies not in the response of male sexuality to female attractiveness, but in the ambiguous, fantasmagoric, and troubling responses within the libido itself…narcissistic’

To what extent were the PRB making social comments. Holman Hunt referred to ‘those bastard aristocrats’. Was this attitude reflected in Awakening Conscience or in Millais’s Woodman’s Daughter?

Key Paintings (Top 12)

Rossetti The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1848-9, Tate Britain

His first complete oil painting and exhibited with the initials PRB.

  • Family (‘separate spheres’, sacred, fated, child, innocent),
  • Vision (‘truth to nature’, ‘early Christian’, inner – symbols),
  • The Artist (Mary using tiny stitches, mimetic, monastic, quattrocentro, an alternative masculinity),
  • Woman (virginal, domestic, artistic, spiritual).

Hunt The Awakening Conscience 1853

William Holman Hunt, (1827-1910), The Awakening Conscience, 1853, Tate Britain

  • Hunt was the son of a warehouse manager who disapproved of him becoming an artist. After breaking an engagement to his model he married Fanny Waugh in 1865 but she died in Florence, their son Cyril just survived the trip back. His second marriage was to her sister Edith in 1875, which was then illegal so took place in Switzerland.
  • Counterpart to Light of the World, ‘to show how the still small voice [of conscience] speaks to a human soul in the turmoil of life.’
  • Gender, contemporary views, the ‘fallen woman’ topos, redemption
  • Perception, ‘truth to nature’
  • Religion, redemption for the fallen women, morality in art

Rossetti Lady Lilith 1863-73

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Lady Lilith, 1868, Delaware Art Museum

Fanny Cornforth was the original model in 1868, in 1872-3 she was repainted using Alexa Wilding. Depthless crowded space, unmodeled exposed shoulder and bosom, mirror with view of nature. Later called Body’s Beauty. Themes:

  • Perception
  • Artist
  • Religion
  • Body
  • Aesthetes, symbolism, dreams
  • Gender, ‘femme fatale, hair as a sign of erotic power and entrapment, ‘one strangling golden hair’
  • Women’s Rights, letter in belongings ‘Lilith…first strong-minded woman and original advocate of women’s rights’

Millais Lorenzo and Isabella1848-9

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Isabella, 1848-9, Walker Art Gallery

  •  The dysfunctional family
  • Lovers, brotherhood and its hatred of love
  • ‘Truth to nature’, disrupted spaces
  • Symbolism, white rose, passion flower, kick, salt
  • Gaze

Brown Work 1862-3

Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), Work, 1852-65, Manchester City Art Galleries

  • Victorian work ethic, all types of worker, social worker, thinker,
    Thomas Carlyle, Maurice
  • Building water (or sewer) main, cure disease
  • Narrative and symbolism required a booklet to describe

Hunt Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1853

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Portrait of Rossetti

  • Intense, self-made artist, Svengali from Trilby (although 1894)
  • Identity, individual artist hero, why no group portraits?

Rossetti Found 1853

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Found, 1853-1882 (unfinished), Delaware Art

  • Only contemporary social comment, ‘fallen woman’
  • Rossetti claimed he painted it to prove he could paint contemporary
    moral subjects
  • Perception, note the detail of the brickwork and the calf painted
    ‘hair by hair’
  • City, Blackfriar’s Bridge in the background

Rossetti Ecce Ancilla Domini 1849-50

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation), 1849-50,
Tate Britain

  • A very unusual Annunciation, sexual undercurrents
  • Flat picture space, symbolism
  • Role of women

Millais Ophelia 1851-2

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Ophelia, 1851-2, Tate Britain

  • ‘Truth to nature’
  • Hogsmill, Esher, Lizzie Siddal in a bath

Hunt Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus 1851

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, 1851, Birmingham City Art Gallery, abcgallery

  • Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • Compared to sketch the emphasis is on male bonding, contest between
    friendship and love
  • Women as chattel

Egley Omnibus Life in London 1859

William Maw Egley (1826-1916), Omnibus life in London, 1858, Tate Britain

  • City, dandy, crowd, decoding
  • Gaze
  • Role of women

Siddal Lady of Shalott 1853

Elizabeth Siddal [originally Siddall] (1829/34-1862), Lady of Shalott at her loom, Jeremy Maas Gallery, victorianweb

  • Woman artist, a different perspective, she is taking control

Other Paintings

Hunt Eve of St Agnes 1848
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry (The Eve of St. Agnes), 1848

  • John Keats poem, 1819
  • Ambiguous sexuality, role of Madeline, changed from sketch
  • Symbolism
  • Drunkeness

Millais Eve of St Agnes 1863
John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Eve of St. Agnes, 1863, watercolour

  • Dream, moonlight
  • John Keats poem, 1819

Hunt The Finding of the Saviour in the_Temple_1862
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1862, Birmingham Art Gallery

  • Rabbinical restrictions prevented Hunt finding models in
    Jerusalem, the temple porch is actually Alhambra Court, Crystal
    Palace, London.
  • Perception, note the blind priest on the left
  • Artist
  • Religion
  • Orientalism

Maddox Brown An English Autumn Afternoon 1852-5
Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), An English Autumn Afternoon, 1852-55, Birmingham Art Gallery

  • Born Calais, his mother, father and only sister all died between his 18th and 22nd birthday. He married in 1841 and Elizabeth Bromleydied in 1846 in Paris and their daughter Lucy married William M. Rossetti in 1874. His his model Emma Hill had Catherine (Catty) in 1851 and he married her in 1853, they had a son Oliver (Nolly) in
    1855 who died aged 19 in 1874.
  • Perception, note the blue sky reflected from his hat and the bright reflection
  • City, the edge of the city, the first suburbs
  • Artist
  • Relationships

Brown Last of England 1855
Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), The Last of England, 1855, Birmingham Art Gallery

  • Artist on left and model Emma Hill on right, she posed in the cold do he could get the exact look.
  • Contemporary life, Thomas Woolner had emigrated to Australia in 1852
  • Relationships

Hunt Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice 1848-9
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions, 1848-9, private collection, rossettiarchive

  • Artist, Brotherhood
  • Medieval, Wagner opera

Millais Christ in the House of His Parents_1849
John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop), 1849

  • Religion
  • Symbolism

Millais The Woodmans Daughter 1851
John Everett Millais (1829-1896), The Woodman’s Daughter, 1851, The Guildhall Art Gallery

  • Subject from Coventry Patmore poem, ill-fated friendship between Maud and Gerald, they later have a loe affair, Maud has an illegitimate baby, drowns it in a pool and goes mad. Tragic or unrequited love – Millais’s Isabella, Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil, Ophelia by Millais, Hughes, Millais’s Huegenot and Mariana.

Rossetti The First Anniversary of the Death of_Beatrice_Dante_Drawing_the_Angel_1853
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice Dante Drawing the Angel, 1853

  • Perception, room like an eye
  • Memories

Millais Mariana 1851
John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Mariana, 1850-51

  • Perception
  • Artist, she is creating an embroidery
  • Women’s role
  • Religion
  • Isolation

Rossetti Bocca Baciate 1859
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Bocca Baciata, 1859, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

  • First ‘female head with floral attributes’
  • ‘The mouth that has been kissed loses not its freshness; still it renews itself even as does the moon’
  • Literature, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Day 2, Story 7, eight lovers and then marries as a virgin nun
  • Body
  • Sexual identity

Rossetti Prosperine 1874
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Proserpine, 1877

  • ‘female heads with floral ornaments’
  • Symbolism
  • Sexual roles, female types
  • Jane Morris/Burden

Burne Jones Laus Veneris 1870
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898), Laus Veneris, 1869, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

  • Literature, Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem Laus Veneris (‘the praise of Venus or love’), 1866, based on Tannhauser – a young knight is seduced from his noble mission by Venus, escapes back to Pope Urban who will only absolve him of sin if the Pope’s staff blossoms. It does but Tannhauser has already left never to be found again, forever damned and enslaved by love.
  • Femme fatale, “exceeding pleasure out of extreme pain.”
  • Religion

Other important paintings include:

  • Edward Burne-Jones, The Depths of the Sea (1887), a mermaid pulls a
    sailor down to his death.
  • Elizabeth Siddall Pippa Passes, Pippa Passing the Loose Women (1854), a
    Browning poem about a silk worker walking through the City, her only outdoor
    scene but then with prison-like bars, or Self-portrait (1853-4) and Lady of
    Shalott (1853)
  • Hunt Self-portrait (1867), Uffizi portrait, Lorenzo at His Desk in the
    Warehouse (1858-60)
  • Rossetti, Fra Angelico Painting the Virgin and Child (1853), pen and
    brown ink, how the PRB thought of themselves, a monastic brotherhood
  • Millais, Self-portrait as St. Agnes, sent to Effie Gray (Ruskin),
    celibate monastic artist. Problematizes the artist seeking death.
  • Ford Madox Brown, Geoffrey Chaucer Reading the ‘Legend of Custance’ to
    Edward III and his Court, at the Palace of Sheen, on the Anniversary of the
    Black Prince’s Forty-fifth Birthday (1845-51)
  • Millais, At the Races (1855), a psychological tragedy.
  • Ford Madox Brown, ‘Take Your Son, Sir’ (1851-56), his wife Emma had a 10
    week old son in 1856. Contemporary Madonna-like pose or illegitimate child?
    See Watkinson’s book on Brown.
  • Arthur Hughes, Aurora Leigh’s Dismissal of Romney (‘The tryst’) 1860,
    she doesn’t marry him as she wants to be an artist.

Picturing the Themes

    • Religion
      • Henry Bowler, Can These Dry Bones Live? 1855
      • Ford Madox brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, 1852-6
      • The Light of the World, 1851-3
      • John Everett Millais(1829-1896), Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop), 1849
    • City & Work
      • William Maw Egley (1826-1916), Omnibus life in London, 1858, Tate Britain
      • Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), Work, 1852-65, Manchester City Art Galleries
      • Augustus Egg, Travelling Companions (1862)
      • Frith Paddington Station, 1862 or Derby Day 1857 or ‘Times of the
        Day 2: Noon – Regent St 1862 Two O’Clock pm’
      • Emily Osborne, Nameless and Friendless
      • Cartoon used by Lynn Nead, ‘I am waiting for a bus’
    • Nature
    • Body
      • Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Proserpine, 1877
      • Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Lady Lilith, 1868,
        Delaware Art Museum
      • John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Eve of St. Agnes, 1863, watercolour
      • Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation), 1849-50, Tate Britain
    • Perception
      • William Holman Hunt  (1827-1910), Portrait of Rossetti
      • William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Awakening Conscience, 1853,
        Tate Britain
      • Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice Dante Drawing the Angel, 1853
    • Gender/Woman’s role/Fallen Woman
      • Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Lady Lilith, 1868, Delaware
        Art Museum
      • William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Awakening Conscience, 1853,
        Tate Britain
      • John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Mariana, 1850-51
      • William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry (The Eve of St. Agnes), 1848
      • Elizabeth Siddal [originally Siddall] (1829/34-1862), Lady of Shalott at her loom, Jeremy Maas Gallery, victorianweb
      • Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Found, 1853-1882 (unfinished),
        Delaware Art Museum
      • John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Mariana, 1850-51
      • Ingres, La Source, 1856
      • Millais, Knight Errant, 1863
      • George Hicks, Woman’s Mission, 1863
      • Augustus Egg, Past and Present
    • Aesthetes
      • John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Eve of St. Agnes, 1863, watercolour
      • Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Proserpine, 1877
      • William Maw Egley (1826-1916), Omnibus life in London, 1858, Tate Britain
      • Brotherhood


    • William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, 1851, Birmingham City Art Gallery, abcgallery
    • William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Portrait of Rossetti
    • William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions, 1848-9, private collection, rossettiarchive
    • William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Uffizzi portrait
    • John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Uffizzi portrait

Key paintings and Themes

The following table shows that a small number of paintings can be used to cover a large number of themes. Each painting must be known well, for example, is about Artist, Sex/Relationships and City/Contemporary life as it concerns Ford Madox Brown’s relationship with Emma, how he posed her in the freezing cold, her illegitimate first child, how he did not want to introduce her to society as well as the connection with the need to emigrate to Australia and Thomas Woolner.

Perception Artist Religion City Body Sex Medieval Lit.
Autumn Afternoon
Last of England
Awakening Conscience
Woodman’s Daughter
Christ in the Temple
Lady Lilith
Bocca Baciata
Laus Veneris

Note: Sex = Relationships, love, marriage, the artists as well as the subject

Lit. = Literature, poetry and novels, these include Coventry Patmore ‘Angel in
the Hose’, Boccaccio’s Decamaron, Swinburne’s poetry, Laus Veneris, Rossetti’s
poetry including Jenny and Keats’s Eve of St. Agnes (1819). Note Ruskin letter
to Tennyson, a picture is always another poem not the illustration of a poem.

City = Contemporary life

(These are notes of a course given at Birkbeck College by Carol Jacobi in 2006/2007)

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