Women who had given in to seduction, living a life in sin, received the name "fallen women" during the Victorian period. Though both a recognizable and sizable segment of the female population, it took some time before the fallen woman could be accepted as an allowable subject in art.
The Outcast. Click on thumbnail for larger image.
Richard Redgrave first broached the topic with his Royal Academy exhibition of The Outcast in 1851. A melodramatic painting, it showed a father casting out his daughter and her illegitimate infant while the rest of the family weeps, pleads, or beats the wall with excessive emotion. The depiction of the girl, pretty and naive though she may be, serves to warn other young ladies to avoid temptation and ruin.
The married fallen woman receives even less sympathy, for no one will grant forgiveness to the the wife and mother who betrays her family. Augustus Egg makes such a woman his subject in the three part series Past and Present (1858), originally exhibited with the quotation, "August 4th - have just heard that B_ has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!" The first panel depicts the moment of the husband's discovery. He sits in morbid shock, limply holding the condemning letter in hand as his wife lays at his feet, having thrown herself to the ground. The children, who were busy constructing a house of cards which has just fallen, cast anxious glances. The next two paintings show simultaneous moments in the present. In one, the now-adolescent daughters grieve the loss of their parents as one of the sisters gazes at the moon. In the other, their mother sits under an arch, holding her illegitimate child as she too looks up at the moon. No sympathy is forthcoming for the woman who destroys her own family; her punishment is death. Egg meant no coincidence in painting the mother's setting as the Adelphi arches under the Waterloo Bridge, the same scene of George Fredric Watts' Found Drowned. She will no doubt be driven to a watery suicide out of her guilt and remorse.
George Fredric Watts. Found Drowned.
D. G. Rossetti. Found. Click on thumbnail for larger picture.
However, not every fallen woman was painted with such harsh criticism. The Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and Ford Madox Brown all recognized the complex emotions within the fallen woman and her situation. In Rossetti's Found, a drover discovers his former beloved, now a prostitute, slumped against a wall. The unfinished painting focuses in on the struggle between them as the man tries to lift her, but she seems both too ashamed and self-determined to go with him. The question of why she should resist him when his face is so contorted in pity and concern, forces the viewer to look at the drover's calf in the background, trapped and struggling within a web of restraints. It seems that either the woman is too entangled in her life of sin of else she refuses to be caught in the impositions of married life, represented in the net which holds the calf. At any rate, Rossetti problematizes the all-too-easy instant condemnation of the fallen woman and her motives.
W. Holman Hunt. Awakening Conscience. Click on thumbnail for larger picture.
Holman Hunt pushes this idea even further with his Awakening Conscience (1854), in which he treated the popular Victorian theme of a sinner resolved to repent in a new light: that of the fallen woman. Victorian critics adored unraveling all the symbols and clues in Holman Hunt's depiction of his repentant sinner, a kept mistress, suddenly leaping up from her lover's lap as they were at the piano singing songs. He chooses to focus on the hope for redemption and the beauty of a once sinful life being saved, instead of a righteous sense of punishment for the straying woman.
Lastly, Ford Madox Brown calls attention to the man's role in the fallen woman's sin in his unfinished painting Take Your Son, Sir. A woman in a saintly pose thrusts forward a naked child; a circular mirror behind her serves as a halo around her head and a window to show the accused man she faces. She demands shared responsibility for the child, who also gazes pointedly out of the canvas and towards the position of his father and the viewer. Both are charged with not admitting their role in the situation earlier.
The fallen woman, though a potential destroyer of the family, did not lack advocates in the artistic world. Both artists and viewers learned to appreciate the complex issues surrounding her.
- Prostitution in Victorian England
- The topos of the fallen or lost woman in Phiz's illustrations to David Copperfield
Last modified 21 December 2009