The ugly truth about Pre-Raphaelite beauty

by Victoria James

Had Sigmund Freud psychoanalyzed whole eras, not mere individuals, the late 19th century would have been a prime candidate for his therapist’s couch. Take the example of empire-building Britain. Victorians may have been prudish to the extent of covering shapely table legs, but they were sexually voracious. The number of prostitutes working in London — estimated at 50,000 in Johann von Archenholtz’s 1789 publication “A Picture of England” — rose to an all-time high during Queen Victoria’s 1837-1901 reign.

As part of his case study, Freud could have considered the wedding night of John Ruskin. On that night in 1855, the pioneering art critic was expected to consummate his marriage to bourgeois beauty Euphemia “Effie” Gray. Instead he ran traumatized from his bride’s bed, apparently appalled by her pubic hair. Though hairless genitalia is more associated today with porn stars, it was the only way artists of earlier generations could depict the entirely unclothed female form with propriety. Ruskin had, so the tale goes, only ever seen such “artistic” nudes.

Now, amateur psychoanalysts have the opportunity to draw a few conclusions of their own, thanks to a fine exhibition of British and French 19th-century art from the Winthrop Collection of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, currently showing at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno.

In addition to works by artists as diverse as the visionary William Blake and the sentimentalist William Holman Hunt, this exhibition displays an era’s sexual neuroses.

As if to get us in the mood, the show kicks off with an orgy, albeit an idealized, pastoral one — “The Golden Age” (1862) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

It’s an ironic starting point. The so-called “Golden Age” was a Graeco-Roman dream: a time of contentment, prosperity and, of course, innocence. Couples cavort naked in Ingres’ canvas, although only the women are turned toward the viewer. There are babies, the fruit of all this bucolic erotic activity, but no children. Perhaps this omission was in part to avoid unwanted associations, for the fetishization of child sexuality was a shame of both Britain and France. German Marxist August Bebel, for example, noted that of 2,600 prostitutes arrested in Paris during one year around the turn of the century, 1,500 were minors.

“Woman was a slave before there even were slaves,” Bebel wrote in “Woman and Socialism” (1879), noting that “Woman, according to Christianity, is impure, a corruptress.”

And for all their beauty, the women in the works shown here are both corrupted and corrupting, enslaved and enslaving. Ingres’ famous “Odalisque With a Slave” (1839-40) is a true femme fatale: A man might fall under her spell never to wake again. Indeed, next to her lies a pipe of opium, a drug that blighted sections of Victorian society but which, according to its most famous addict, Thomas de Quincey, “hast the keys of Paradise.” The allure of woman, Ingres seems to say, is as addictive — and as dangerous — as a drug.

History’s favorite bad girls are assembled here in all their allure. There is a lissome Helen of Troy, painted in gold by Edward Burne-Jones. Salome, who danced for the head of John the Baptist, is shown both in “The Apparition” (c. 1876), a stunning canvas by Gustave Moreau, and a series of wicked and witty ink drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, done to accompany Oscar Wilde’s verse-drama “Salome.”

The era’s favorite take on fatal feminine allure, however, were the Sirens, the enchantresses of legend who lured sailors to their doom. There are three here by Moreau, coral-nippled and gorgeously bedecked in seaweed. Dante Gabriel Rossetti provides “A Sea Spell” (1857-77). This auburn-haired beauty is a favorite on greetings cards; the poem accompanying the painting, however, reveals her siren nature. She will sing “Till he, the fated mariner, hears her cry/And up her rock, bare-breasted, comes to die.”

The association of women and water goes back to ancient notions of gender that identified the element with supposedly female qualities such as fertility, instability and treachery. Needless to say, it’s this last quality that defines the shoal of mermaids and sirens that inhabit Victorian art.

The era’s most famous watery seductresses — in J.W. Waterhouse’s “Hylas and the Nymphs” (1891) — aren’t here. But there is a far more striking, though less well-known work, “The Depths of the Sea” (1887) by Burne-Jones. In this a handsome young man, seemingly unresisting (or perhaps already half-drowned), is drawn down to the radiant seabed by a lovely mermaid. She looks at the viewer straight on, challenging, confident and in control. How she must have chilled — and thrilled — the men who first saw her.

In Victorian society, “transgressive” women — prostitutes, or the poor or orphaned girls who might grow up to join their ranks — were confined to ostensibly charitable institutions, such as workhouses or Magdalene hostels (named for the reformed prostitute of the Bible).

The notion of locking up a woman for her own good is, like Aristotle’s thoughts on femininity, as old as antiquity and as musty as mythology. The legend of Danae tells how the young girl, pursued by the lusty god Jupiter, was confined to a brazen tower. A small and unassuming canvas by Burne-Jones, tucked into a corner here, shows Danae watching the construction of her protective prison.

Like so many of the paintings on display, it is a beautiful work of the imagination that reflects an ugly misogynist reality.