John Liston Byam Shaw worked to revive Pre-Raphaelite influences in his paintings. He is credited with keeping the Pre-Raphaelite traditions alive at the turn of the century. One such PRB-influenced piece is his The Caged Bird, a work that focuses on a beautiful young woman, a common subject of his paintings. The brunette girl is the picture of a proper, well-bred young woman. Her hair is neatly pulled back into a bun, and her exspensive, fashionable clothing is well kept. Her dress is a modest shade of tan-gray, and white sleeves and a sizable purple bow at the collar complete the ensemble.
Shaw paints the young woman in the middle of the canvas. She kneels on the grass of a manicured yard. The girl holds an empty black wire bird cage and gazes to her left, up at the sky, apparently looking at the bird that flew out of the cage. The girl appears drab in her subdued tan-gray dress in comparison to her lush surroundings which contain vividly green grass, meticulously trimmed bushes, and a carefully tended, brightly-colored flower garden. However, it is the girl's facial expression which captures the viewer's attention immediately. Her clear blue eyes, fresh face, and flushed red cheeks provide a sense of urgency and vitality within the young woman. On the whole, the vividness of color and painstaking attention to detail characterize this painting.
1. According to Christopher Wood, Shaw was influenced by the work of Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt. How might have each of these three artists influenced the various elements of this painting? What are some specific details or qualities within the work that support your claims?
2. Like many PRB artists, Shaw incorporated symbolism into his pieces. In this painting, the caged bird is released. The girl, however, is not free like the bird she released; on the contrary, she is not free to follow her heart. "As the youngest daughter, her duties lie with her ageing parents" (Nahum and Burgess). Even if one does not know this story, what visual cues lead the viewer to a pessimistic conclusion of the girl's fate?
3. Shaw used his favorite pupil, Maud Tindal Atkinson, as his model for this painting. Could this painting reflect a disappointing relationship between Shaw and Atkinson, similar to the situation between Rossetti and Jane Morris? Nahum and Burgess say that "the symbolism of the release of the bird in Seventeenth-Century Dutch painting signified the loss of virginity of the owner." They suggest a possible connection between this hidden symbol and the relationship between the artist and model. Does this seem to be a plausible connection? Why or why not?
Nahum, Peter, and Sally Burgess. Pre-Raphaelite-Symbolist-Visionary. London: Peter Nahum at Leicester Galleries. Catalogue number 46.
Cole, Rex Vicat . The Art & Life of Byam Shaw. Seeley Service & Co, London & J B Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1932.
Last modified 30 November 2004