Posted by: kellyannem | November 10, 2010

The Pre-Raphaelites

In Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs, Carol Mavor quotes Elisabeth G. Gitter from her essay “The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination.” Gitter writes that hair is “a sexual exhibition” and that “the more abundant the hair, the more potent the sexual invitation implied by its display … the luxuriance of the hair is an index of vigorous sexuality, even of wantonness” (109).  After reading this, I immediately thought of the following two photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron.

The Angel at the Tomb, Julia Margaret Cameron

The Kiss of Peace, Julia Margaret Cameron

The flowing hair in both of these images is so striking! It immediately captures the eye as it fills the frame. In the top image, it almost forms a halo as the light is caught in its tendrils.

Both of these images reminded me of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of British artists, poets, and critics formed in 1848. Many of their paintings depict Arthurian legends, characters from Shakespeare, and other characters (mostly female) from mythology and folklore (consequently, some have the same title).

I’ve added some of my favorites below… notice the copious amounts of abundant locks!

God Speed (c. 1900), Edmund Blair Leighton

The Accolade (1901), Edmund Blair Leighton

Ophelia (1850), John Millais

Queen Guinevere's Maying, John Collier

La Belle Dame sans Merci, Frank Cadogan Cowper

Venetian Ladies Listening to the Serenade, Frank Cadogan Cowper

The Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse

Ophelia (1889), John William Waterhouse

The Siren, John William Waterhouse

Windflowers, John William Waterhouse

Miranda in Shakespeare's The Tempest, John William Waterhouse

Ophelia, John William Waterhouse

Here are some more, but I don’t know the artist. I am adding them because I think that they are beautiful and different than the previous images in that they often depict women in a room, or with a personal object such as a looking glass, rosary, or flowers.

Finally, a mermaid, to illustrate Gitter’s point that “the combing and displaying of hair, as suggested by the legends of alluring mermaids who sit on rocks singing and combing their beautiful hair … thus constitute a sexual invitation” (Mavor 109).

All of these paintings were produced during the Victorian Age, yet look nothing like anything we’ve seen. Even though they capture the essence of another era, the Victorian fascination with hair is clearly evident.

(I hope this wasn’t too overwhelming!!! I think these paintings are so sumptuous and had a little trouble editing!)


  1. Looking at these images of women with long hair got me to questioning why long hair is seen as a sign of sexuality. One reason I thought of is that hair left alone (not cut) grows long. So, long hair is a naturally occurring thing. This puts long hair in contrast with civilization in which hair is cut and styled. The Victorians loved to associate the primitive and natural (long flowing hair) with the sexually devious and lustful, so perhaps this explains the phenomena of the sexuality associated with long hair.

  2. I think this is a brilliant response! I have been wondering about this myself for quite some time, and I think your analysis is spot on!

    It makes me think about our contemporary feelings towards hair. I think that there is still a deep association with long hair as feminine, even though women since the ’60s have been sporting pixie cuts and have looked ravishing doing it! Anyone whose had a pixie cut knows, however, that men barely notice you with short hair (although plenty of women do!).

    Why are our ideas about masculinity and femininity so tied up in hair?

  3. I have to respond because I’ve always had a passion for the Pre-Raphaelites. Growing up in Delaware/Pennsylvania, I often went (and still frequent) the Delaware Art Museum which:

    “Thanks to the passionate acquisitions of Samuel Bancroft, Jr., the Delaware Art Museum in the small city of Wilmington has long boasted the largest and most significant collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the United States.” —The British Art Journal

    My personal obsession aside, I just wanted to give you the title/artist of some of your unknown images in case you wanted to edit them into your post:

    3) Fazio’s Mistress, 1863. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

    – interesting note on this image: loose, luxuriant hair was an emblem of female sexuality in Pre-Raphaelite painting…[Here] we may well have a clue to the rippling effect of so much Pre-Raphaelite hair. After washing, the tresses were plaited while still wet–as Fanny is shown doing–and then allowwed to dry, creating a naturally crimped look (Marsh 23.)

    5) Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Ghirlandata”

    It’s going to annoy me not knowing the other artists so I may make another comment if I find the titles. In the meantime, here are some of my favorites by Rossetti that illustrate his interest in (specifically red) hair:

    References: Jan Marsh. The Pre-Raphaelite Women: Images of Femininity in Pre-Raphaelite Art

  4. I love your post! I absolutely agree that long hair has something to do with the primitive and the natural associated with wild eroticism. It is equally interested to think about how long hair can be styled. We can take off our prom dresses and still have an elaborate hairdo. Perhaps it is our only really organic way of decorating ourselves…?

  5. My response is late, but I thought I’d add the link to an article I thought you might be interested in reading: ” The Devouring Woman and Her Serpentine Hair in Late-Pre-Raphaelitism” ( The article looks at late nineteenth-century female hair as serpentine and ensnaring and thus potentially dangerous to male sexuality (think Freud and Medusa). It examines Rossetti’s femme fatale, Lilith, and the way in which woman’s hair forms “a strangling noose around her lover’s neck” and in which Lilith’s hair is her source of power and voice. It also looks at Hunt’s Lady of Shalott, Waterhouse’s A Mermaid and its serpentine sexuality and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, in which the long hair also produces an “odd, ensnaring noose around the neck of the knight”. (It also looks at hair in pre-Raphaelite poetry, but I’ll let you keep reading it if you’re interested.)

    This blog post is also relevant: It brings up artwork, the poem Porphyria’s Lover (in which a man strangles “his beloved with her own yellow hair”), and the “persistent story that when Rossetti had Lizzie Siddal’s grave exhumed to retrieve his poems, her hair had continued growing until it filled the entire coffin”.

    If you want even more info on Pre-Raphaelite hair, there’s a book by Galia Ofek called Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture (available on Google Books). One of the chapters, Hair Fetishized in Victorian Culture, differentiates between “passionate and threatening dark-haired heroines, as opposed to domestic, gentle and pure blonde ones” (63). Ofek writes, “Similarly, pictorial representation of women’s hair usually kept a clear-cut distinction between the ‘masculine’, dark and dangerous woman and the fair and ‘feminine’ one. William Holman Hunt…chose to portray Isabella as a black-haired woman in Isabella and the Pot of Basil…Isabella is visualized embracing the pot where her lover’s skull is hidden, her black hair ominously flowing over the pot. Explaining his choice of colour, Hunt said, ‘she could have cut his head off…and the delicate sort of blonde couldn’t'” (63). The chapter also goes into the debate between Tennyson and Hunt over the depiction of Lady of Shallot’s hair, suggesting that “the poet and the painter were actually using it [the hair] as a cipher to negotiate more troubling issues…The cause of their difference is a shared perception. Unruly hair, for the nineteenth-century beholder, is closely associated with uncontrolled sexuality…” (65). This chapter also gives a sizable space to depiction of Medusa’s hair and Rossetti’s fascination with hair and women’s representation of hair in painting, but Google Books cut me off, so I couldn’t keep reading, but I thought I’d mention it’s in there in case anyone is interested.

  6. Meghan, Thanks for your post. I have done a lot of reading/research/pondering on the whole Victorian hair question, specifically as it relates to color (the dark femme fatale vs. the blonde damsel), so I am super excited to check out the book you mentioned.

    Also, thank you to the person who mentioned the Delaware Art Museum… this is definitely now on my list of museums to visit!

  7. I was reading somewhere that men were encouraged to look forr women with long hair as they were seen as passive and out of control. It’s almost as though hair, and un-tamed and wild hair in particular was seen as a sexual challenge which is why the Pre-Raphaelites focused on it so much. When I first saw the image of the angel in the tomb the first thing I noticed was the hair and it’s interesting that despite the decades that have past people can still make assumptions on how you dress your hair. For example, in the victorian period keeping your hair denoted that you were a woman and for men long hair was seen as too feminine.
    Its almost as though hair can be used as a weapon as you can manipulate people in thinking certain things. The challenge I suppose is to try to disregard it and ask ourselves the artist’s true intentions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: