An interest in contemplation and dreaming is evident in many Pre-Raphaelite projects. For example, a subset of Pre-Raphaelite paintings of contemplative women, the pictures set in domestic spaces, are symbolic of the act of thinking. In these scenes, the domestic setting becomes an integral extension of the feminine psyche. Unlike Dante Rossetti's vision paintings, these scenes do not contain explicit representations of women's thoughts. Instead, the domestic space expresses the mood and thoughts of the human subject. Two examples of images that show a conscious or unconscious connection between the domestic space and the interior of the mind are Mariana (1851) by Sir John Everett Millais and Veronica Veronese (1872) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The domestic interior is in some ways the perfect setting in which to focus on themes of interiority. The home is a very secluded realm, entirely separated from the street and the external world. Victorian homes were often lavishly and carefully decorated in rich patterned fabrics and wall coverings. At least early on, warm and dark color schemes were favored. This style contributed to the very enveloping and containing feel of the domestic interior. It is no wonder that such a private physical space could become associated with private psychological spaces and thus with the mind.

In both the Millais and Rossetti images, an in others like them, the subject is a woman. In some ways, this genre of picture could only operate with a female subject. The home is traditionally the domain of women. In the Victorian age, they were still expected to stay there and to become a part of the decorated interior. Though the domestic realm is a useful metaphor to express the interior realms of the mind and soul, it is limited by an intrinsic link to the feminine.

In Mariana, Millais creates a portrait of a woman in inner torment, but does not focus on a theatrical representation of this state. His Mariana contains all her emotions, outwardly displaying only the act of contemplation, manifested by her distant gaze. The woman stands at her window, completely closed in by the walls of a dark chamber decorated with elaborately patterned wall coverings. Mariana is alone except for a mouse on the floor; indeed the space seems entirely private and secluded. The woman stares at a piece of stained glass depicting the annunciation. This element and the narrative of the Mariana story (from Shakespeare's Measure by Measure) are the only clues indicating the subject of Millais's figure's longing. In Shakespeare's play, Mariana has been deserted by a prospective husband when her dowry is lost at sea. The stained glass depicts a moment of impregnation, something Mariana might imagine but that she cannot achieve.

The last two stanzas of Tennyson's poem "Mariana," on which the Millais painting is based, (Leng) describe how Mariana's emotions and memories are projected onto her domestic surroundings:

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creaked;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shrieked,
Or from the crevice peered about.
Old faces glimmered through the doors,
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without ...

The sparrow's chirrup on the roof
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping towards his western bower (ll. 61-80)

The doors that contain "old faces" and the walls that "shriek" have become extensions of Mariana's psyche, displaying her memories of "faces...footsteps...[and] voices." Millais did not attempt to depict these manifestations of Mariana's thoughts explicitly in his painting, but his inclusion of the stained glass panel (not described by the poem) that mirrors some of Mariana's dreams serves a similar purpose. The picture on the glass could be read as a picture of what the woman holds in her mind.

Millais's Mariana shows the power of the domestic interior as a setting for images of contemplation and private thought. The darkness of the painted space and its finite boundaries help to focus the viewer inwards on the figure. The oppressive closeness of the setting helps to emphasize that Mariana is a picture representing the feelings and workings of one woman's soul. The privacy of the space creates intimacy and the sense that the realm depicted is not meant to be breached by any voyeur. Perhaps entry into this space is impossible. Mariana's rooms are populated only by the lady's thoughts. In fact, her surroundings are almost an extension of her thoughts. The exterior world does not exist in this scene, except as she imagines it. Millais has attempted to depict a truly interior subject — the private contemplation of disappointment and longing.

In Rossetti's Veronica Veronese, the domestic interior again serves a purpose, highlighting the process of absorption in interior thought that is central to the scene. The female figure, a pale red-haired beauty of the Rossettian type, sits at a desk upon which a book of music lies open. The woman fingers a violin's bow and strings absently, while staring dreamily into space. Behind her, a caged bird perches in a cage and sings. The domestic space that surrounds the figure is severely truncated - her little desk is pushed against one wall in front of her, and the bird cage creates another limit just behind her. A third wall draped with heavy-looking patterned fabric greatly reduces the depth of the room.

This claustrophobic domestic space resembles an extension of the woman's clothing. The figure wears an opulent dress of green velvet, the folds of which echo the drapery on the wall behind her. The colors of the wall and the garment are remarkably similar, heightening this effect. It seems Rossetti wishes to connect the figure and her surroundings, subtly implying the room is actually a part of the woman. As in the Millais image, this technique aids in the creation of a feeling of interiority. The walls and the woman are one. Nothing external to the female figure intrudes upon this private space, which is a prime setting for introspection and personal contemplation.

The idle woman represents this contemplation in every aspect. She is tranquil and still. The figure's vacant gaze and relaxed pose imply that she is absorbed in thought. The only action Rossetti portrays is the action in the woman' mind. The attributes she holds and those that surround her provide clues of what she is thinking (just as the stained glass in Mariana hints at that lady's dreams). The singing bird might represent musical inspiration that the woman is hearing and considering (Barringer 154). The book of music on the desk contains an unfinished score, as though the woman is in the process of composing. In this case, the thought process depicted is not one of longing or wishing but rather one of creation.

In Veronica Veronese, as in Mariana, the female figure's inner thoughts are projected onto her domestic surroundings, which become a perfect extension of her mind and soul. The space is connected to the figure with similar colors and its small scale creates increased intimacy. Furthermore, the figure herself has left the tangible mark of her thoughts on the room, in the form of the musical notes she has written at her desk.

Both Millais's Mariana and Rossetti's Veronica Veronese illustrate an interest in the depiction of interiority. Specifically, these paintings attempt to express the inner actions of the mind by portraying static contemplative women. The domestic setting, so intimately linked with the feminine and with the personal, is the perfect backdrop against which to present these scenes. Both artists use closed interior spaces to isolate their subjects, highlighting the personal and private nature of the contemplation that occurs in the paintings. In both works, the domestic space becomes an extension of the interior world of the woman's mind and soul. Her mental processes are subtly exposed and projected onto her surroundings.

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


Barringer, Tim. Reading the Pre-Raphaelites. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Leng, Andrew. "Millais's 'Mariana': Literary Painting, the Pre-Raphaelite Gothic, and the Iconology of the Marian Artist." The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Studies. 1 (Spring 1988): 63-74.

Last modified 26 December 2006