Posted by: siobhananderson | December 17, 2010

Depictions of Victorian Children and the Pre-Raphaelites

As I’ve been working on my final, I’ve started to notice a strange pattern across many photographs of Victorian children: there are very few little boys and many little girls, or genderless figures. Many theories crossed my mind as to why this might be so, and I began to think a little bit about the Pre-Raphaelite painters we talked about earlier this semester. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded in 1848 in London was established by three young and rather zealous painters: William Holman Hunt, Gabriel Dante Rosetti and John Millais. The purpose of this Brotherhood was to establish a new movement of painting that would extend back to the time of ancient Italian painters, those who came before Raphael. The Brotherhood represented a rejection of classicism and mechanism in the Victorian Era: the paintings produced in this movement sought to discover truth and beauty through nature, in the way the artist saw them; they refused to simply copy what other artists has perceived and created before them. In this way, famous literary women and young girls became the muses of many Pre-Raphaelites for what they represented; beauty, grace and often tragedy. There were very few truly utterly tragic and beautiful male heros in Pre-Raphaelite depictions, save for perhaps that of Christ.

This trend allowed me to see collections of photographs of Victorian children in a new light. Perhaps just as the Pre-Raphaelites preferred to depict women for their mystery, and ultimately tragedy, so did Victorian photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Charles Dodgson.

I’ve included a photograph by Cameron and a painting by Arthur Hughes. Both show women, (Hughes is actually an adaptation of the character of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) in a rather mysterious or slightly troubling way…both women are turning away slightly from the gaze of the onlooker. Interestingly enough, they were both produced in the same year.

Gardner's Daughter, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865


Ophelia, Arthur Hughes, 1865

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