Recently, my friend Nancy posted a Challenge to Facebook:
Filling Facebook with art. Click “Like” and I will assign you an artist. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know his or her work; just Google the artist and choose an image you like and post it on your wall with this message.
“Sounds like fun,” I thought, so I clicked “Like” and waited for my assignment. Shortly thereafter, Nancy assigned me the great American Impressionist Mary Cassatt — I didn’t ask, but I assume it’s because she (Nancy) has read umpty-million of my FB posts about Hoot and Mini-Me, and she thought I would appreciate an artist whose work focused so much on mothers and children. Or maybe she just thought I would like Cassatt in general. In either case, I did like Cassatt — very much — and settled on this painting:
I chose this painting because it reminded me so much of Mini-Me and myself, c. 2004. It looks like us — the mother with the dark hair and “Seriously? 5 a.m. already?” expression on her face, and the baby with the brown curls, chubby little arms, and expression that I can only describe as resolutely serene. Like, “I have a hundred and one things I want to do this morning, Mom, and I feel absolutely certain I can count on your support. I assume we’re in accord?” (If you think I’m kidding, you never met Mini-Me back in the Early Aughts.)
I also shared Nancy’s challenge with my own awesome FB Friend Brigade, and received some very interesting responses, which I will now share with you.
First up: my cousin Kathy. Her assignment: Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Here’s what Kathy found:
Like many artists of her time, Cameron liked to draw upon literary themes in much of her work. Paul and Virginia were protagonists of Paul et Virginie, a 1788 novel by one Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre about two “children of nature” on the Island of Mauritius. I gather that Tragic Things happen to the pair, but Wikipedia sort of glosses over the details and while I remember trying to read a translation back in grad school, I also recall that I got (gasp!) bored with it and gave up on it fairly quickly. The point is, while no one reads it today the novel was HUGE back in the day and Cameron’s audience would have been quite familiar with it. It’s also worth noting that the use of scantily-clad children as models wouldn’t have raised nearly as many eyebrows then as it does now — children (at least upper-class children) were seen as innocent and incorruptible. I like this picture because the young models look like Cameron and her camera are the only things standing between them and a plate of warm cookies. This is a look I know very well.
Next up: Aunt Marty. Marty’s artist was Leonardo da Vinci, and her choice was the beautiful Teste di Giovinetta:
“I kept coming back to this one,” Marty reports. It’s easy to see why. Whoever this was, she was gorgeous, and I love the expression on her face — resigned? Preoccupied? Amused? Long-suffering? Discuss.
Finally, we come to my cousin Jenny (Marty’s daughter). Jenny chose a drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti called, well, “Jenny”:
“Ding-ding-ding!” I exclaimed when I first saw this beautiful portrait. “It’s Jane Burden!”
Ding-dong. I was incorrect. It’s not Jane Burden, later Jane Morris. It’s Jane’s daughter.
“Who was Jane?” I hear you cry, and I’m so glad you ask. Herewith, All About Jane:
If you’re a fan of Victorian painting at all, you’ve seen Jane. She was one of the principal muses of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters who, because of their love of color and attraction to medieval themes, considered themselves spiritual heirs of the painter Raphael. She was also an extremely fascinating woman. Behold:
Born in 1839 to a stableman and a laundress, Jane was not what most people back then would consider classically beautiful. She had frizzy hair and bold features and a look that said “I’ll tolerate you but you and I both know that I’m the SMARTEST BITCH IN THE ROOM.” Thing was, she was usually correct.
Jane was in her late teens when she attended the theater one fateful day and was “discovered” by two of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s founding members, Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Immediately taken, the men invited her to model for them, which is not quite the compliment it sounds like; in the Victorian period, artist’s models were considered scarcely above prostitutes, so for the men to ask her to model implies a certain…lack of respect on their part. And she did require some convincing, but finally she agreed to sit for a portrait. Long story short, eventually, she — along with Lizzie Siddal — became one of their best-known models.
Jane was in love with Rossetti, but he was engaged to Siddal, who was in perpetually poor health. (The story of their tempestuous courtship is long and dramatic, full of breakups and reunions, poetry and passion, tubs of ice water and a coffin full of hair. I’ll save it for another day.) Meanwhile, Rossetti’s protege, William Morris — father of the Arts and Crafts movement — was in love with Jane. You can see where this is going: hoping to stay close to Rossetti, Jane married Morris, with whom she was not in love, and had two children — including the above-depicted Jenny.
Poor Lizzie died in 1862, and as far as I can tell Morris, by that time, had figured out pretty much where things stood, so he — and one can only imagine why he thought this was a good idea — ran off to Iceland (you read that right! Iceland!) for the summer, and Dante Rossetti helpfully came and stayed with the poor helpless lady of the house. To help her decorate, or something. Oh, and also to have lots of sex. The two of them carried on a hot affair under Morris’ very roof and everyone, Morris included (sitting in his little yurt or whatever near the Arctic Circle) knew exactly what was going on.
BUT! Dante Rossetti was tormented by memories of his late wife and also addicted to chloral, an insomnia drug. Jane couldn’t cope with that. For those of you keeping track, this means:
Being married to another man: Not a deal-breaker
Lover is addicted to drugs: Deal-breaker
Jane finally tossed Rossetti out on his talented ass. (Figuratively speaking. They broke up, anyway. But they remained friends until his death.)
The story, believe it or not, does not end here. When she became engaged to William Morris, he arranged for her to be privately educated, and she took to her lessons with gusto. She became every inch the lady — fluent in French and Italian, talented at the piano, and refined in dress, speech, and manners. She was also noted for her skill with needlework (a plaque marking the street where she was born refers to her as “Pre-Raphaelite Muse and Embroiderer”). Not bad for a stableman’s daughter in class-conscious Victorian London.
Later in life, she met the poet and activist Wilfred Scalwen Blunt and they became involved, even though she was very much married to Morris. By that time, Jane was in her mid-40s, and part of me is like “Aw, Jane, your husband,” but I have to admit that given the times, and her circumstances, a little part of me is saying “That’s right, girlfriend. Go gitcha some.” I mean:
So anyway, this remarkable woman died in January 1914 after a long and amazing life, and was promptly forgotten (except among certain art historians), which is a crying shame. I mean, her story has everything: Unrequited love (including a long-simmering love triangle), ambition, class divisions, art, passion, drug addiction, illness, madness (see “Rossetti and Siddal,” above), and I’m sure an enterprising screenwriter could even cook up a dramatic deathbed confession. Why the BBC hasn’t picked Jane’s story up and made a glossy mini-series out of it, I couldn’t begin to say. (There have been miniseries about the Brotherhood, but nothing from Jane’s perspective that I’m aware of.) I’m not sure who could portray Jane, although Breaking Bad’s Laura Fraser has a bit of the look:
Or, if someone wanted to be really daring, cast Jonathan Rhys-Meyers:
Better get on that, BBC.
Until that happens, everybody drink in some more of this beautiful Victorian realness:
Thanks to Nancy for inviting me to participate, and to Kathy, Marty, and Jenny for filling my Facebook feed with beautiful works of art.