Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote the poem The Lady of Shallot based on Arthurian legend. His poem would be so immensely popular that it would go on to inspire many artistic interpretations (even though it was an artistic interpretation itself). Victorian age artists adored this subject!
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, especially, would be inspired by this tale of a woman who literally died for her love! The PRB had a thing for tortured and dying women, ones who were deep and soulful. This is one reason why the other subjects, such as of Ophelia from Hamlet, were also popular.
Emotional depth and natural realism were of utmost importance to the Pre-Raphaelites. They began as rebels wanting to get back to the way art was before it became so stringent and methodical. The art movement of Victorian London prior to the Pre-Raphaelites was cold and lacking in emotional depth. They formed in 1848, and sought to change that, complete with a list of subjects that would never go out of style. Included on this list of master subjects for artwork were Shakespeare and Arthurian legend!
The Victorian age was a time of great change, and of technological revolution. This makes in unsurprising that artists, be they painters, sculptors, printers, or writers, would want to focus on life when it was simpler.
Many Victorians were obsessed with medievalism. This is what led Tennyson to write so many poems based in Arthurian lore! Many of the PRB were likewise obsessed with medievalism. Rossetti painted many Arthurian subjects, but also was incredibly influenced by the poetry of the medieval Italian poet Dante! Sir Walter Scott wrote many works set in medieval times, and he was one of the most popular authors of his time.
The subject of The Lady of Shallot, in particular, was taken up by several of the Pre-Raphaelites. These included William Holman Hunt, Lizzie Siddal, and John William Waterhouse. Well, technically Waterhouse was not a member of the Brotherhood, as he was much younger. Instead, it is more appropriate to call him an artist worked in the Pre-Raphaelite style! Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallot is by far the most iconic of these paintings.
I hope that you have enjoyed my rumination on the influence of medievalism on Victorian art. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is The Lady of Shallot by Lizzie Siddal (left) and William Holman Hunt (right). I found the image on eportfolios.macaulay.cuny.edu.
- Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites by Lucinda Hawksley