Mary Magdalene. James Smetham. Oil on panel, 11.5 x 7 inches; signed and dated 1868. Private Collection. Photographs, caption material and text by Mike Hickox. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images to enlarge them.
A label on the reverse is inscribed "The Stone Gallery. Mary Magdalene. Oil on panel. Signed and dated 1868. 12 X 7 ½." An older label, perhaps contemporary with Smetham, is inscribed "Charles Roberson Artists Coloursman 1870 Long Acre London." In the 1970s The Stone Gallery, Newcastle, handled a number of Smetham's works. Charles Roberson supplied artistic materials to many of the major artists during the nineteenth century. The picture is reproduced on the front cover of the first book to appear on Smetham in the twentieth century: Morchard Bishop and Edward Malin's James Smetham and Francis Danby: Two Nineteenth-Century Romantic Painters (1974).
The picture shows Mary Magdalene visiting Jesus's tomb at dawn. She is in a state of despair after discovering that the stone guarding the entrance has been rolled away and that the tomb is empty. The picture should be seen in the context of Smetham's close friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti which was particularly close in the period 1862 to 1868. He was a member of Rosseti's circle although his intense personal religiosity, deriving from his Wesleyan Methodist background, meant he was emotionally detached from the rest of the group. Rossetti also gave him help in completing some of his pictures most notably The Mandolin Player of 1865. Smetham was strongly attracted to Rossetti's drawing Mary Magdalene at the House of Simon the Pharisee which would certainly have influenced his own picture. He writes of Mary Magdalene in the drawing "endeavouring to force, with persistent violence, her way past temptation, and scoffing, and resistance to the presence of the Saviour, whose face, holy and compassionate, is seen through a small opening in the wall of the house" (qtd. in Casteras 86). Jacqueline Banerjee notes in her commentary on the same drawing that all the attention of the other figures is focused on her emotions rather than on the head of Jesus. Mary Magdalene is not depicted as the penitent Fallen Woman as in much traditional Christian art, but as a powerful figure who takes centre stage.
Something of the violence Smetham notes in the Rossetti drawing is present in his own version. Mary embraces the face of the empty tomb passionately At the same time the light dawning in the sky anticipates the return of Jesus i.e. the Resurrection.
In terms of technique the picture also reflects the influence of Rossetti in the 1860s since Smetham moves away from his earlier tighter Pre-Raphaelite style towards a greater concern with colour. This can also be seen in his Dante and Virgil in Vallombrosa (1866).
Casteras, Susan. James Smetham: Artist, Author, Pre-Raphaelite Associate. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1994. P. 114.
Created 13 April 2021