Pre-Raphaelites were famous for their interest in realism, symbolism, and revival of medieval and literary subjects. However, another shared interest is implicit in many Pre-Raphaelite works: a preoccupation with interiority and the depiction of the inner life of the mind. This preoccupation is present in both visual and written work.

As moral and religious subjects became less central to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, art produced in a more aesthetic vein became the norm. Pictures no longer had to be inspiring, as long as they were beautiful. Later Pre-Raphaelites declared that personal concerns and studies of mood were valid artistic subjects. These new themes redefined, in some ways, the artist's relationship with the world at large, resulting in lingering anxieties. Artists had to define their new role in society. They had to experiment with appropriate subjects for expressing new personal and subjective themes. Pre-Raphaelites produced many studies of the tension between interiority and exteriority to work through their questions and concerns. The results display a wide variety of solutions to the problem of how to appropriately depict the subjective reality of the soul.

In poetry, a greater attention was given to extremely personal subjects. Emotions, experiences like love and sex, and internal turmoil are recurring themes at this time. A.C. Swinburne's extremely sensual poems are an example of this type. Christina Rossetti's religious poems also present very personal subjects, including a character's renunciation of physical love ("The Convent Threshold" (1862)) or a ghost's remembrances of her living friends ("At Home" (1862)). In all of these works, a fascination with a subject's soul and mind is the main concern. Dramatic actions and narratives are absent or of secondary importance. Some of Tennyson's poems, which were quite influential for the Pre-Raphaelites, treat the role of the artist's soul in society using female characters. In "The Palace of Art," (1832, revised 1842) for example, the soul becomes a character in an allegory dealing with the moral responsibilities of the artist.

In the visual arts, the trope of the contemplative woman is used by almost all the Pre-Raphaelites (especially the later ones). In pictures of this type, a female subject stares into the distance or otherwise averts her gaze from the viewer. These images are static, and primarily depict a mood. Their main subject becomes the act of thinking and of turning inwards. A subgenre of these paintings, in which the contemplative woman is situated in a small domestic space, is particularly effective at conveying a feeling of inwardness. A claustrophobic and secluded setting forces a feeling of intimacy between viewer and painted figure. For example, Mariana (1850-51) by John Everett Millais and Veronica Veronese (1872) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti make a domestic interior an extension of the woman's mental interior and provide hints about what she thinks.

Rossetti's Beata Beatrix

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Another type of painting of women treats similar themes related to the mind and the soul. Works such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix (1864-1870) depict women and their visions or dreams. These images are especially interesting because artists like Rossetti had to be creative in order to depict dreams in a realistic Pre-Raphaelite style. Rossetti tackles the same problem in many paintings, trying out modes of representing the contents of a contemplative woman's mind. These themes in visual arts and literature are all indicative of a Pre-Raphaelite concern with the representation of personal subjects and the creation of portraits of private mental realms.

Sometimes Pre-Raphaelites depicted the inner workings of a woman's soul, as in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting, The Blessed Damozel. Elsewhere, the Pre-Raphaelite-style woman became a metaphor for the artist's soul. This is especially apparent in two works by Alfred Tennyson, "The Lady of Shalott" (1832, revised 1842) and "The Palace of Art" (1832, revised 1842) that influenced the Pre-Raphaelites.

Picturing the life of the mind: Pre-Raphaelite Preoccupation with Interiority


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Last modified 26 December 2006