Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Women, Water, and Death

In his essay for the new book on John William Waterhouse, art historian Peter Trippi observes that during the Victorian period there were a lot of paintings that associated women, water, and death. (Below: John Everett Millais “Ophelia”)

Some of these images showed women as tragic figures or martyrs; others took the form of the seductive femme fatale, who emerged from the water to lure men to their deaths. (Below: Herbert Draper “Ulysses and the Sirens”)…


…or sorceresses who poison rivals. (Waterhouse “Circe Invidiosa”)

This topic is explored in some detail by Barbara Gates, Professor of English at the University of Delaware. (Below: Delaroche “Young Christian Martyr.”



In this web article, Dr. Gates explores the subject of female drownings in the larger context of Victorian women and suicide. "Women were fictionalized and mythologized much as were monsters in Victorian England," she writes. "They too were made into "others" -- weaker vessels or demons, angels in the house or fallen angels."

10 comments:

dragonladych said...

Funny you should mention these. Did you see the new series on BBC? It's called Desperate Romantics and shows the lives of the PRB.
Third episode is tonight. But I've heard you can get them on iTunes?

mordicai said...

"Were" & "...in Victorian England" are pretty unnecessary caveats, more is the pity...

i, me said...

As a painter, I always get a good chuckle from 'art historians' 'interpretations' of art. Add some post-marxist profspeak, and its an unintentional laugh riot.

"Women were fictionalized and mythologized much as were monsters in Victorian England." ummn, and they weren't before "victorian england" banshees, cutty sark, harpies et al? But weren't men also?

As for suicides..I think the most famous 'suicide' painting I can think of is the death of Socrates...oh wait, he's a male....

side note
I understand that many young men committed suicide dressed as a character from one of Goethe's plays. it became something of an epidemic in early 1800s Europe.

Vicki said...

Scrolling down the page I see the four women and water images, and then below them another woman in water picture, but she is smiling AND she has an umbrella and a slicker. Could those facts be linked? Is all the Victorian to-do about women and water caused by a paucity of adequate raingear?

Anyway, nice linking of images. It makes the photograph of the young artist SO refreshingly happy and down to earth.
Those PreRaphaelites painted really pretty pictures, but there is a bit too much swooning and dying in beautiful clothing in them.

Steve said...

You expressed my thoughts, Vicki. That picture of Emilee Lee from yesterday is a beam of light surrounded by water.

I wonder if the Ophelia paintings "inspired" Virgina Woolf to end her life as she did.

Philip Koch said...

Peter Trippi's book on Waterhouse has lovely, lush, high-quality reproductions. Highly recommended.

Mark Heng said...

In classic dream interpretation, water usually symbolizes sex, and I think we enjoy these pictures today because of their dreamy, sensual nature. By the way, I saw the Waterhouse show in London last week, and it was pretty good! Some of the paintings have a bit of a glow.

Saskia said...

'Over her dead body' by Elisabeth Bronfen also deals with this subject, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.

wheelwithin said...

A music prof of mine wrote a similar article, "Revisiting the wreck: PJ Harvey's Dry and the drowned virgin-whore," where he also references Ophelia. I seem to remember that it was a fairly accessible article, found here on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/pss/853631. Needs a log-in, though.

Mark vander Vinne said...

One of my all time favorite paintings is by Toby Rosenthal, title "Elaine". While it she is not in the water, she is dead and being transported across the water. Not sure why it moves my so much, but I do find something fascinating about death and water.

Here's a link to an image of the painting http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/72320