Sunday, September 7, 2008

Homosexuality and the Pre-Raphaelites

Now there's a topic that you don't see covered very often.

The Pre-Raphaelites were rebels, and contradicted the prevailing mode of Victorian art. Not only was this true in their method (painting on a wet canvas for vivid colors) and style (refusing to follow the triangle-structure for composition, etc), but it was also true for their subject matter. They painted a red-haired Jesus and a Mary with callouses on her hands. The woman on their canvas stared brazenly out at the viewer, daring him to cow or subdue her.

One accusation that was often slung at the Pre-Raphaelites was that they de-masculinized the men in their artworks. Male subjects of asexual grace, combined with overtly sexual and powerful female models threatened to "overturn the laws of nature." A close brotherhood of male camraderie was not unusual in Victorian times, but eyebrows were raised when Pre-Raphaelite associates like Swinburne wrote "obscene" sexual poems that included lines like "thou shalt darken his eyes with thy tresses, Our Lady of Pain."

Simeon Solomon was, however, to the best of our knowledge, the only gay Pre-Raphaelite. And sad as it may be to admit this of our Pre-Raphaelite heroes, they did not respond to his arrest for homosexual activities with support or friendship. Perhaps fearing that his incarceration would publicly seem to confirm the suspicions in the minds of society, most of the circle disowned him.

Even Swinburne, the "anything goes" lover of all things sexual called his activity "a thing unmentionable alike by men and women, as equally abhorrent to either." Georgie and Edward Burne-Jones, however, remained true friends to Simeon Solomon (and this makes me like them even more.) How sad it is that these gentlemen (and ladies) who embodied change, revolution, and truthfulness to self would reject one of their own. Especially when their own sexual activities, while resigned to the opposite sex, were far from the "standard" as well.

Solomon's sexual orientation can be seen in several very moving renditions he drew and painted. His men always seem to have a wistful look in their eyes, and a gentle grace. The above artwork, The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love is probably his most overt statement regarding the lot of most gay men in Victorian times. The central figure is locked in an embrace with his bride (who is rather forcing his head toward her) but his hands are secretly entwined with his true beloved, behind him.

There is another relative of the Pre-Raphaelites who later found love and contentment in life with someone of the same sex. Although May Morris married, she found joy late in life with "a burly, crop-haired, knickerbocker-suited First World War land-girl called Mary Lobb." It has been difficult to find information on their relationship, and in fact I've only seen passing references in two sources, but it appears they were together until May Morris' death in 1938.

Thanks to the book Pre-Raphaelite Art in the Victoria and Albert Museum for some of the information above.


Margaret said...

Interesting post! I've read about Solomon, but I wasn't aware that only the Burne-Jones's remained friends with him after his arrest.
And I never knew that about May Morris--you learn something new every day!
Stop my blog--you have an award waiting for you!

Judy said...

There was an excellent Simeon Solomon exhibit and accompanying catalogue curated by Colin Cruise, one of the chief experts on Solomon. It is called Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites (Merrell.2006).

Jan Marsh's dual biography from 1986 on Jane and May Morris is still a classic.

The writer Violet Paget (Vernon Lee) (1856-1935) who moved on the periphery of the PR Circle was also a lesbian.

The coded language of homosexuality in Victorian art has only recently been explored by scholars.

Grace said...

Thank you Margaret! And thank you for the award, which I'm going to collect right now :)

Judy, how wonderful!! I definitely want to try to find that catalogue...thank goodness for inter-library loan.

Frank said...

Many people believe that Evelyn De Morgan had a lesbian relationship with the model for her painting Flora.

Henry Holiday and his wife Catherine also stayed friends with Solomon. It was Holiday who brought Burne-Jones to see Solomon and re-established their friendship.

Scott Thomas Buckle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Great post, thank you! First, I'd like to say that the term "sexual preference" is incorrect, as it implies "choice". We "prefer" classical music to jazz, roses to lilacs, spring to winter, etc. Our attraction to a certain gender on the other hand is an "orientation".

Secondly, if the Burne-Jones's remained friends with Solomon after his arrest, why did he live on the streets and die in a workhouse? Would be interesting to know if that continued friendship included food, clothing, shelter, and encouragement.

Grace said...

Thank you for the correction, anonymous. This blog is just an archive, but I have edited the post to correct.

As for reconciling the friendship with his sad ending, that’s also a good question. Perhaps they remained friends after his arrest, but fell out at some point after? Not sure, and the biographies I’ve seen aren’t clear on the facts.