Pre-Raphaelite, The charm of brilliant muses and creators

Muses or creators? What an enigma, that of women who in the mid-nineteenth century enchanted with their persuasive melancholy: with proud looks, flaming hair and dresses of majestic simplicity, the protagonists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement amazed the public and critics in the guise of muses for great painters, but also as true artists . 1848 was a rebellious, romantic, revolutionary year. And not only for that spring of peoples with which Italy marched straight towards the future: in those months, three young Englishmen turned their gaze to the past to create a new art. John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to recover a non-academic but spontaneous creativity, inspired by the authenticity of medieval art practiced before Raphael, by chivalric poems and by Italy, its landscape and its literature.

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Pre-Raphaelite women artists on display

You can find out from February 24th to June 30th Pre-Raphaelites. Modern Renaissance to the San Domenico Civic Museum of Forlì. Around 300 works including paintings and sculptures, photos and prints, glass and ceramics, but also works by Italian artists inspired by British precursors. Strong and voluptuous, the women who contributed to the movement’s notoriety are increasingly valuable today. «More than models: with their determination they gained an important role in society» underlines Elena Lissoni, art historian and member of the exhibition’s scientific committee. If studying in academic courses was a male prerogative, it was supported by art inspired by nature and the observation of reality, the basis of Pre-Raphaelite sentiment. Many studied it in painters’ ateliers, in girls’ or regional schools: «They found their fortune even in avant-garde galleries, such as the Grosvenor, which at the inaugural exhibition in 1877 he invited 10 women out of 67 artists» underlines Lissoni. «Victorian society was as respectable as it was free: for muses and artists there was no lack of relationships with colleagues».

Status always had its importance

Poor and beautiful Elizabeth Siddal, muse, lover and then wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, without any study she learned art at his side. She remains best known for her tragic end: she was depressed, with an overdose of laudanum to which she had become dependent after an illness caused by staying in freezing water, posing for the famous Ophelia by John Everett Millais. It was the main art critic of the time, John Ruskin, who purchased his drawings considering them better than those of Rossetti (even though Ruskin himself embodied the vision of the time, ruling: «While man must strive to deepen the knowledge, the woman limits herself to general concepts of literature, art, music or nature”).

The stunners: that’s what those tawny, magnetic women were called. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Maria Zambaco and Marie Spartali muses and artists

English of Greek origin, the rich one Maria Cassavetti Zambaco instead he was able to afford to study sculpture in Paris with Auguste Rodin. No small feat for a woman to dedicate herself to sculpture. Some of her medals on display hide a touch of female pride, Elena Lissoni underlines: «The features of great men were carved on the medal, to be passed down over time. Zambaco did the same with well-known women of antiquity and then also portrayed her cousin, Marie Spartali, with whom he shared a destiny as a pre-Raphaelite muse and artist.” Also wealthy, Marie studied painting with the famous Ford Madox Brown, becoming Rossetti’s model. Against her parents’ wishes she married the American journalist and painter William James Stillman, with whom she then traveled extensively. When the family found themselves in economic difficulty, Marie supported her husband and children with her art, gaining an unprecedented vision of the world which made her beautiful gaze even more intense, to be admired in the many shots in which she was portrayed by Julia Margaret Cameron.

They weren’t just gorgeous models

With an unprecedented parallel between photography and painting, Cameron (Virginia Woolf’s maternal great-aunt) is considered to all intents and purposes a Pre-Raphaelite. Her path was original and led her to become the first woman admitted to the Royal Photographic Society. At 48, her daughter gave her her first camera: she quickly created a darkroom in the chicken coop at home, selling many photos to the South Kensington Museum (now known as the Victoria & Albert) which organized her first exhibition . She then sent her shots to Rossetti, creating her cultural circle in her family home on the Isle of Wight, after years in the Indian colonies. She was also a traveler Evelyn De Morgan who took the surname of her husband William De Morgan (designer and ceramist), creating a real artistic partnership: marriage was not an obstacle for her, but sharing. In painting she brought much of her natural and even mystical vision, inspired by her mother-in-law, the writer Sophia E. De Morgan, histrionic feminist and spiritual medium. Unknown to many, with her work Evelyn became an important figure, a forerunner of those “trends” that today combine art, science and spirituality.