The Fitzwilliam has always been my local museum, giving me the opportunity to stroll through the galleries many a time. The museum has a full spectrum of ages, from Ancient Egyptian to the Victorians, and being in the heart of Cambridge it makes it a bustling artistic, and historic, hub.
Being a literature student, I have always linked art with my literary knowledge and this is what led me to my dealing with ‘The New Woman’. It is a late Victorian feminist idealism which strays away from the social constructs of their age, promoting a more independent woman, with a more prominent social role , with a particular emphasis placed on education and employment.
Upon my visits to The Fitzwilliam I began to pick out pieces which reminded me of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, one of my favourite novels which is ‘New Woman-centric’. The above oils are what I found to be most reminiscent of the protagonist, Tess. These seemed especially fitting as they are all from the Victorian period, and Dante being the brother of Christina Rossetti created a nice bridge between literature and art. These are the three portraits which have stuck in my mind over the years as being a representation of Tess. For those of you who don’t know the story, Tess is born the eldest daughter of a poor west country farmer. Being an innocent and poverty stricken young woman, she becomes ‘falls’ (meaning she is unchaste) due to various events surrounding money and heritage, although one must know that her parents were to be blamed for the events. However, Hardy always portrays her as the ‘pure woman’, despite her circumstances, and playing into the late Victorian idea of the ‘new women’. One can simply glance at the full title of the novel (Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented) to see that Hardy was a defendant of the ‘ fallen woman’. This makes it unsurprising that Tess’, somewhat, sexual freedom is something which Hardy deals with throughout his novels.
Tess is described as a beautiful girl with red hair, full lips and fair skin, therefore playing directly into the models of the paintings. These oils also show Tess in all of her forms, making them an interesting trio to study in this context. Millais’ The Bridesmaid shows a young woman who is in a state of hopeful longing, much like Tess’ wait for her true romantic love to requite her feelings. One must note that Millais’ figure is front on, with her head tilted upwards, and she shows a dominance, a she is looking directly at the viewer, and yet she is also shows a suppressed vulnerability, and ideals of beauty, as her jugular is exposed and long.
Although Millais painted an intriguing portrait, in which we can delve into the figure’s psyche, the other two paintings are what hold greater value within this context. If you are not familiar with Tess then it will be illuminating to know that Rossetti’s painting is of Joan of Arc, whilst Fairfax Murray’s depicts Helen of Troy. These two historical women match Tess’ characteristics extremely well.
Joan of Arc was executed at the young age of 19, due to charges of heresy, in 1432. However, after her death she was retried and found to be innocent some 20 years prior to the event. She was a strong woman, with a great sense of will and determination, with both her attitude and story translating to Hardy’s novel. Although Helen of Troy also has very strong parallel to Tess, but in terms of story, rather than in personality. Helen was said to have been abducted by the Trojan prince , Paris. The legend of Helen is extremely debated, much like Tess’, especially when dealing with her intentions surrounding the two men. Tess gets, somewhat, forced into a marriage with a wealthy but cruel man. However, she is in love with a farmer’s son and so is torn between her husband and lover, causing dramatic consequences (without giving too much away!). Some will argue that Tess isn’t as innocent as she first seems, but I will leave this to you to decide.
After a somewhat long winded rant, which I could have extended well beyond this, I am hoping to show a greater link between literary characters across the ages, as well as across mediums. When you next to a gallery you may notice portraits, or various landscapes, which remind you of your favourite figures and I implore you to follow these links, develop your knowledge and discover a, exciting new side to the familiar art which you wouldn’t normally give another thought.
Click here for The Fitzwilliam’s online resources page which allows you to browse a wide variety of wonderful art!