Pre Raphaelites

Frederick Sandys’ Plants in “Medea”

These past few months I have been busy researching and writing, in order to present a paper at MLA this past January. I had many ideas that I wasn’t able to explore in my presentation due to time constraints, so I thought I’d share some some of those here.

One painting that I’ve been thinking about a lot is Frederick Sandy’s Medea ( 1868, shown below). I became very familiar with this work of art last summer, as it was one of the highlights of the Victorian Radicals exhibition that came to the Seattle Art Museum. It really is such a nice painting! There are a lot of fascinating details in this painting (including the copulating toads in the foreground – eek!), but lately I’ve been drawn to the background of the right hand side, as well as the balustrade-like railing behind Medea.

Frederick Sandys, Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, “Medea,” 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, detail of Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Frederick Sandys, detail of Medea, 1868. Oil on composite wood with gold leaf, 24.5 x 18.25 in. (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Behind Medea is a depiction of the Golden Fleece. This is the sacred fleece that inspires the Greek hero Jason to embark on a quest, since he is told that he can reclaim his right to a throne if he obtains the fleece. Medea is the daughter of King Aietes, the owner of the fleece, and she uses her magic to help Jason complete his tasks and get the fleece in his possession. Later, Jason spurns Medea for another woman named Glauce. In this painting by Frederick Sandys, Medea is depicted as a dangerous femme fatale, as she is in the process of concocting a poisonous garment that will consume her rival Glauce by fire.

As is typical in Frederick Sandys’ work, this painting includes several plants that are depicted with botanical precision. This imagery has heretofore escaped notice, but I think that that specific plants were used in order to references several literary sources. For example, Sandys clearly intended the Golden Fleece hang from an oak tree, and a few acorns are nestled among the oak leaves to emphasize this point.I think the oak tree might give evidence that Sandys was inspired by a specific version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the Orphic Argonautica from the 4th century CE. This version explains that the Golden Fleece was hung on an oak tree in the grove of Ares.

The Orphic Argonautica continues and describes many “noxious plants” that appear in the garden, surrounding the Golden Fleece. A long list of plants are named, including aconite (also known as aconitum, “wolf’s bane” or “monkshood”) and belladonna. These are two plants that Medea was said to have used to create poison, and Sandys paints them with detail so that they can be recognized. In fact, the foreground of the painting also includes belladonna leaves and berries, so there is a clear connection between this plant and the poisonous concoction Medea is creating.

Belladonna from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Belladonna from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

Monk's Hood from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Aconite (“Monk’s Hood”) from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

A British audience may have connected the inclusion of wolf’s bane (shown above) to a John Keats poem Ode on Melancholy (1819), mentions wolf’s bane as being a “poisonous wine.” This mention in the poem might be a possible reference to Medea. I’m also struck by how owls and beetles appear in Sandys’ railing and the first stanza of Keats’s poem, which may further solidify that Sandys was looking to this poem for inspiration.

I have had some difficulty identifying the plant farthest on the left (shown below), but I have two ideas. I think it looks like some kind of thistle. The Orphic Argonautica discusses how, in order to open the wall of the sacred grove, Medea helped to place magical herbs as part of a sacrifice laid on “black thorns.” Sandys might have used the thorny thistle as a way to reference these black thorns in the story.

Thistle? from Frederick Sandy's "Medea"

Artichoke thistle? from Frederick Sandy’s “Medea”

My other idea is that the plant might be a cardoon (artichoke thistle). This isn’t a common plant to associate with Medea, and it doesn’t appear in the Orphic Argonautica. However, a publication of the Horticultural Society in London in 1827 discusses how Medea must have created a concoction to restore youth and vitality with a cardoon, and I wonder if Sandys was familiar with this publication. In this mythological story, Jason is celebrating his return with the Golden Fleece, but notices that his aged father Aeson has become infirm and cannot celebrate. Medea withdrew blood from the veins of Aeson, inflused the blood with certain herbs (possibly a cardoon, according to these Victorian horiculturalists), and then returned the infused blood back into Aeson’s body, which revitalized and reinvigorated him.

Detail of plants and railing in Sandys' "Medea"

Detail of plants and railing in Sandys’ “Medea”

Each of these plants is aligned with writhing cobras that appear as a repeating decoration of the railing behind Medea. It almost is as if the cobras serve as exposed roots for the plants! In this context, the writhing cobras – depicted in the style of the Egyptian uraeus – seem to serve as symbols of exotic and mystical witchcraft. The specific alignment of the repeating cobras just underneath the stalks of the plants creates a visual effect that suggest that these mystical and powerful plants are rooted in Medea’s withcraft.

Any other ideas what this plant on the left might be, if it isn’t a thistle? I haven’t found too much discussion of this specific painting from 19th-century sources, but if anyone knows of some, please share!

— 1 Comment

Queen Victoria’s Taste in Art

Frans Xaver Winterhalter, "Queen Victoria and Her Cousin, the Duchess of Nemours" (1852). Oil on canvas, 26.2" x 20", Royal Collection.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, “Queen Victoria and Victoire, the Duchess of Nemours” (1852). Oil on canvas, 26.2″ x 20″, Royal Collection.

These past few months I have been delving into the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris, largely due to the Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement  traveling exhibition that is in Seattle. I recently was asked what Queen Victoria, a supporter of the arts and an artist herself, would have thought of the Pre-Raphaelites. She definitely had an awareness of the movement (which I will discuss later), but her aesthetic preference seemed to veer more toward a more academic style, not only for public commissions but even private ones. Here are some of the contemporary painters whom she commissioned for portraits or purchased art from:

  • Sir George Hayter was appointed principal painter to Queen Victoria and also drawing teacher for the princesses. Hayter painted Victoria in a portrait that was made between c. 1838-1840. He was knighted in 1842, and he also didn’t receive any royal commissions after this year as Victoria turned her interest to Winterhalter and Landseer’s paintings.
  • Franz Xaver Winterhalter was one of Queen Victoria’s favorite painters. He made several official portraits for Queen Victoria, but he also made a private portrait (described as Albert’s favorite painting of his wife), and other portraits that included family members like her cousin, such as Queen Victoria and Victoire,  the Duchess of Nemours (1852, shown above)
  • Edwin Landseer also was commissioned to paint pictures of Victoria, her family members, and also her family pets. One such painting, Queen Victoria at Osborne, was commissioned to express and display her grief after Albert’s death. Landseer was so favored by Victoria that she even gave him a knighthood in 1850.
  • Alfred Edward Chalon was commissioned to make a portrait of Queen Victoria, and she appointed him to be a watercolorist for the royal house. One of his images became used for stamps of the queen.
  • Charles Robert Leslie painted an image of Queen Victoria in her coronation robes, and the queen said that she “like[d] the painting so much” that she bought it.

If you look at these art by these painters, particularly Winterhalter and Landseer (who both painted often for Victoria), it’s clear that she favored a traditional style of painting that included smoother brushstrokes and the color palette of the Academy (often, but not always, primary colors, which appropriately also fit with the red and blue colors of the Union Jack flag) .

John Everett Millais, "Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop)," 1849-50. Oil on Canvas, approx. 2.8' x 4.5'. Tate Museum

John Everett Millais, “Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop),” 1849-50. Oil on Canvas, approx. 2.8′ x 4.5′. Tate Museum

She was aware of the artistic scene in England outside of her own royal artists, though, including news about the Pre-Raphaelites. When John Everett Millais’ painting “Christ in the House of His Parents” was exhibited in the Royal Academy show of 1850 and viciously attacked in the press, the Queen was so curious that she asked to have the painting brought from Trafalgar Square to the palace so she could see it herself.1 The news of the queen’s request was conveyed to Millais, and he in turn wrote to his friend William Holman Hunt, in perhaps a mix of both jest and sincerity, “I hope it will not have any bad effects on her mind.” I have read one account that the Queen applauded Millais for his efforts with this painting, but I haven’t found it substantiated by a primary source (does anyone know of one?).

William Morris, VRI Wallpaper, 1887. Balmoral Castle

William Morris, VRI Wallpaper, 1887. Balmoral Castle

It is certain, however, that Queen Victoria did like the work of William Morris. In 1880, Morris created lavishly complex wallpaper for the Grand Staircase at Saint James’ Palace. Then in 1887, he was commissioned to create a unique wallpaper for Balmoral Castle which contained the cipher “VRI” (see example above). These projects helped to secure William Morris’ reputation and career.

Does anyone know of other instances in which Queen Victoria saw or commented on works of art by the Pre-Raphaelites (or William Morris, for that matter)? I know that the Queen prohibited Millais’ wife Effie from coming to court, due to her previous divorce from John Ruskin. Even when Millais received a baronetcy, Effie was banned from court. She was only received at an official function when Millais requested as much from the queen while on his deathbed.2 Interestingly, at some point her photograph also entered the Royal Collection, so now she keeps a continual presence with the royal family.

1 Charles Dickens was one of the critics who was appalled by this painting and its “loathsome minuteness” of style. He described the Christ child as ‘a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown’ and said that his mother Mary looked “so hideous in her ugliness that … she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England” (Household Words, 15 June 1850).

2 The anecdote of Millais deathbed request (“Yes, let her receive my wife”) is recorded by Suzanne Fagence Cooper in “Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin, and John Everett Millais,” p. 235-236. Found online here:


The Awakening Conscience

Although my mom was never really into art (she said that nude figures made her “embarrassed”), there are a couple of 19th century artists and artistic movements that she liked. It was my mom who first introduced me to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood when I was in high school (or perhaps a freshman in college?). She excitedly pulled me aside, held out a reproduction of The Awakening Conscience (1853, see left) and asked, “Have you heard of the artist William Holman Hunt?”

Mom liked Hunt’s art because it was highly religious and moralistic. She liked The Awakening Conscience because it explored the theme of redemption. This painting depicts a prostitute or mistress who is sitting on the lap of her lover. They are playing the piano together, and it appears the lyrics of the song have pricked the conscience of the young woman. The painting captures this woman’s precise moment of enlightenment and realization. I especially like looking at her expression and knowing that she is staring out an open window (which you can see reflected behind her in a mirror).

There are many moralizing references that are included in the painting. Here is a list of some objects which give clues to the story and moralistic tone of the painting:

– Music on the piano: “Oft in the Stilly Night” is a nostalgic song in which a the singer reflects upon childhood innocence and missed opportunities. (On a side note, this song is mentioned in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce – you can listen to the song by going here.)
– Music on the floor: “Tears, Idle Tears” is Edward Lear’s musical adaption of Tennyson’s poem. The sad poem seems to express sorrow over the woman’s predicament. (You can read the poem here).
– Rings: The woman wears rings on all of her fingers except her “wedding finger.”
– Hat and glove: The clothing objects are hastily cast aside, which indicates an abandonment of decorum. Because the hat is placed on the table, it shows that this man is a visitor and not a permanent resident in the house.
– Unraveled threads: A reference to the woman’s wasted life.
– Cat and bird: The cat is chasing a small bird underneath the table. This vignette is a reference to the woman’s predicament (the man = the cat, the woman = the bird).
– Light on the floor: Suggests enlightenment and potential redemption for the woman.

I especially like the inclusion of the cat and bird. Is there any specific object that you like?

The Awakening Conscience will forever remind me of my mother. Did a friend or relative ever introduce you to a work of art? Do you remember the experience?



I recently read George MacDonald’s novel Lilith, which caused me to think about the Jewish legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. Legend holds that Lilith was God’s first, unsuccessful attempt at creating a female companion for Adam. This dreadful attempt resulted in a female demon who attempts to corrupt the human race through lust.

One of the best sources for the Lilith story is a medieval text called Alphabet of Ben-Sira (c. 10th century AD). According to this text, Lilith was made from the earth at the same time as Adam. Lilith was an independent woman. Since she and Adam were created the same way, Lilith refused to acknowledge Adam’s superiority (was she the first feminist? ha!). Eventually she left Eden to consort with demons that live in the Red Sea. When making a second female companion for Adam, God made Eve out of Adam’s rib so there would be no question of superiority.1 Some sources also refer to Lilith as a half-woman, half-serpent. Filled with jealousy for Eve, Lilith reportedly took on the form of a serpent in order to provoke the Fall of Man (as recorded in Genesis).2 You can read a little more about the Lilith legend and history here.

The story of Lilith has inspired artists for many centuries. In the Middle Ages, many artists included a half-female serpent in depictions of the Temptation of Adam and Eve.3 One Renaissance example of the half-serpent Lilith is by Michelangelo, found on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the late 19th century, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a poem about Lilith and also painted a scene of the seductress combing her golden hair (Lady Lilith, painted 1868-69, shown to the left). Scholars agree that this painting was inspired by the description of Lilith in Goethe’s Faust (Walpurgisnacht scene).2

The most interesting article I’ve read about Lilith is by Virginia Tuttle. She argues that Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1505-1510, left panel of altarpiece shown below) actually includes a depiction of Adam and Lilith, not Adam and Eve. I have always wondered why there are demonic beasts in the foreground of this Garden of Eden scene (it doesn’t seem too paradisaical, does it? Although, one can’t take Bosch too seriously; this whole altarpiece is a little absurd.). However, if one considers this woman to be Lilith instead of Eve, the presence of demonic beasts makes sense.

Tuttle also convincingly argues that this left panel scene does not conform to the iconography of traditional Creation of Eve scenes. Traditionally, Adam is shown asleep or lying on his side, so that Eve easily can be created out of his rib. In other triptychs, Bosch follows this traditional iconographic format (see details in his Last Judgment triptych and Haywain triptych). However, in the Garden of Earthly Delights, Tuttle argues that it appears Lilith has been “raised up from the earth, as if she were created independently and immediately following Adam’s creation.”2 I think this is a convincing argument and I recommend that people read Tuttle’s article (it can be found in JSTOR). My only reservation about this argument is that it doesn’t seem to be widely accepted. This article was written almost twenty years ago, but recent art history texts continue to label this panel as Creation of Eve. Does anyone know of (or have) criticisms for this argument?

What do other people think?

1 To read a synopsis Lilith story in the Alphabet of Ben-Sira, see Virginia Tuttle, “Lilith in Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights,” Simiolus 15, no. 2 (1985): 123.-24.

2 Jeffrey M. Hoffeld, “Adam’s Two Wives,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series 26, no. 10 (June 1968): 434.

3 For Medieval examples, see Ibid., 430-40.
4 Virginia M. Allen, “‘One Strangling Golden Hair’: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith,” The Art Bulletin 66, no. 2 (June 1984): 286.

5 Tuttle, 123.


Elizabeth Siddal

I’ve been feeling rather out of my element lately (what a surprise, after having moved across the country!), and I realized today that it is partially because I haven’t been able to read any art history articles. So, today I read up on Elizabeth Siddal, the infamous model for several Pre-Raphaelite painters. Elizabeth Siddal has fascinated art historians and writers for a long time, particularly due to her relationship with the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Probably the most famous story regarding Siddal is when she modeled for Millais’ painting of Ophelia; she lay for hours in a bathtub, fully clothed, and later became sick due to the prolonged exposure to cold water.

Siddal modeled for this painting, A Pet, by Deverell (exhibited 1853). The painting depicts pet birds surrounding Siddal in a garden setting. In an interesting article that uses this painting as a starting ground, Elaine Shefer explores the idea of birds and pets in comparison with the relationship between Siddal and Rossetti.1 Shefer analyzes different Pre-Raphaelite paintings, as well as poetry by Siddal and Rossetti, to show how the model was like a “bird in a cage” in her relationship with the painter. Undoubtedly, Siddal had a very sad life (which ended in a purported suicide). Some really fascinating aspects of Shefer’s argument comes at the end of the article. For example, she includes discussion of how Rossetti was haunted by the voices of birds after Siddal’s death; on at least two occasions the birds “spoke to him accusingly, once with the voice of Lizzie.”2

This is a really interesting psychological analysis of the relationship between two well-known figures from 19th century art. I haven’t found a plethora of scholarly analysis on the Pre-Raphaelites (with the exception of a few writings, like those done by Griselda Pollock). However, this article by Shefer is a nice psychological study that is well-supported with social-historical evidence.

1 Elaine Shefer, “Deverell, Rossetti, Siddal, and ‘The Bird in the Cage’,” The Art Bulletin 67, no. 3 (September, 1985): 437-48.

2 Ibid., 446.


Email Subscription



This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.