Perspective: The Female and Male Gaze in Pre-Raphaelite Artistry


By Katrina L. Gallegos, M.A. Candidate, Department of Museum Studies

Currently at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) I have an exhibition entitled Mythic Women which explores the theme of the male gaze in Robert Browning’s (RB) poem “Fifine at the Fair” (Fifine). However, this blog post will briefly explore a counterpoint to this theme which I call the female gaze. RB and his corpus of work are firmly situated in the Victorian era which was a time of constraint but also exploration and evolution in art. A subgenre emerged called Pre-Raphaelite which reinterpreted and explored through painting, photography, and poetry classical Roman mythology and other timeless themes such as death and beauty. Many Pre-Raphaelite artists were men who explored via canvas paintings the stories of classic literary characters such as Helen of Troy. These men often illuminated the femininity of their canvases’ subjects using models who in their perception epitomized female beauty. These painting exemplify the male perspective of female beauty and desirability which is contemporarily called the male gaze. However, during this time there was a countermovement of Victorian women artists who were also exploring the themes of death and beauty and reinterpreting classic myths. This post highlights two of these women, mainly Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn De Morgan.

Evelyn De Morgan (De Morgan) was born in Great Britain to an upper middle-class family and was privately tutored alongside her brothers, an unusual occurrence during this time. She proved to be an adept artist however her mother and father disapproved of her goal to be an artist. Interestingly, her father allowed her to travel to France and Italy with her uncle to study Old Master paintings. She eventually enrolled in art school in England and developed her skills and won several prizes for her skills in life drawing and composition (De Morgan Collection). During my preliminary research for this exhibition, I came across the works of Evelyn De Morgan and was inspired by her attention to detail in her subjects’ facial expressions and the vividity of colors in her paintings. I then envisioned my exhibition would compare the female and male gazes of Pre-Raphaelite artists and authors and use Fifine as a conduit to explore this era of creativity. However, in the end I decided against this because it took me farther away from Fifine and RB. Evelyn De Morgan was a later contemporary of RB, and it should be noted that while RB may not be considered a Pre-Raphaelite he did move within their broader cultural and professional circles and was a source of inspiration for many of them. As with many artistic movements there is always overlap, a genre or its subject does not belong to a single artist or a single professional group. Artists such as De Morgan were often painting the same subjects as their male counterparts, an example of this overlap can be seen in De Morgan’s rendition of Helen of Troy.

Helen of Troy by Evelyn De Morgan

Her interpretation is of a beautiful, blonde statuesque woman draped in a bright pink dress surrounded by doves and white roses. Helen appears to not have a care in the world aside from her own vanity. This rendition is an example of the female gaze, and it is subtle. The way Helen looks at herself in a handheld mirror as she plays with her long, silky hair in a relaxed stance speak to an inner understanding of femininity that only a woman could accurately portray. The paintings composition also evokes a female gaze, Helen does not look at the viewer nor does she look upon Troy, which is in the background; Helen is looking at herself in a beautifully adorned mirror and she is not concerned with history’s opinion of her. As a woman I see and understand De Morgan’s rendition of Helen, she is young and knows her beauty, yet she appears to not understand or recognize its power. Contrast this rendition with the famous male Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Rossetti’s interpretation of Helen of Troy.

Helen of Troy by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

From composition to coloring, everything in Rossetti’s rendition is opposite of De Morgan’s. This Helen of Troy is facing the viewer, she is young and wears a heavily draped golden garment, her lips are red, her skin white, and she has voluminous blonde curly hair, her two hands play with a pendant attached to a necklace. The background is blurred with faint outlines of buildings behind her. She is painted from the waist up and appears seated. While she faces the viewer, she does not appear to look directly at us, and her expression gives the appearance of shyness or disinterest. Yet, she appears innocent. Unlike De Morgan’s Helen, this Helen does not seem to be self-aware, she is almost doll-like. This depiction is characteristic of a male gaze perspective on femininity and female beauty, it is something observed from afar and the woman is unaware, inactive participant. Rossetti’s painting is beautiful, and his skills are undeniable but there is no personality nor interest in Helen’s self-beauty. The viewer sees and interacts with his perspective. Although it should be noted that De Morgan also presents her own perspective but, because she is a woman she consciously or subconsciously painted personality and self-awareness into Helen. Both paintings are excellent examples of their era’s trends. As a 21st century woman when I think of Pre-Raphaelite Helen, it is De Morgan’s and not Rossetti’s that comes forth in my mind’s eye.

While De Morgan and Rossetti were sketching and painting other artists were experimenting with the then new technology of photography. Julia Margaret Cameron (Cameron) was an English photographer during the Victorian era and the ABL has ten of her original photographs along with some accompanying correspondence. Cameron subjects were diverse, she had her maid pose as the Virgin Mary/Madonna and she also photographed fellow Victorian artists such as Robert Browning, Tennyson, and Rossetti. This blog page has featured her life and works in several posts linked here and here.

Cameron, like De Morgan, was experimental with her subjects’ composition, while they are clearly modeling for the camera the viewer feels a sense of rawness and excitement when analyzing the photo’s subjects. Sitting for the camera and sitting for a painting are two different experiences for a model, the former allowing for experimentation and vulnerability the latter requiring control and stability. Cameron’s photographs are less adorned than both De Morgan’s and Rossetti’s paintings and she takes multiple shots of the same subject. An example of this is the photograph entitled “Sappho”. The MET Museum and the V&A Museum have original copies but Cameron’s model, Mary Hiller, is posed differently in each photo. The subject is posing to the side and the viewer can see her profile, she wears a necklace and an embroidered top, and her hair is loosely tied back. This style of photo is simple and is opposite of the heavily adorned photographs which were popular during the Victorian era.

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This simple style of composition can also be seen in Cameron’s photographs of Robert Browning. The ABL has five original photographs taken during the year 1865. They all appear to be taken during the same sitting, but RB is posed differently in each photo. There is also an intimacy and vulnerability seen in the subject that is evocative of De Morgan’s Helen, Cameron knows her subject and captures his personality and self-awareness without being intrusive. These photographs exemplify the female gaze in artistry, the artist attempts to create relationship with their subject as opposed to imposing their perception of the subject upon the subject.

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The male and female gaze are perceptions, as such they are subjective and contemporaneous to their unique culture and time. My own female gaze perceives society and culture through the lens of a 21st century woman who has her own biases, opinions, and experiences. Given this I still appreciate the artistry of Rossetti, De Morgan, and Cameron as people who, like myself, are attempting to understand culture and society from a unique perspective.

Works Cited

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Robert Browning. 1865. The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, Waco. The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Robert Browning. 1865. The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, Waco. The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Sappho. 1865. Victorian & Albert Museum, London. Victoria & Albert Museum, Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Sappho. 1865. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Daher, Nadine and Katzman, Lily. “The Women Behind the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 22 Jan 2020, Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

De Morgan, Evelyn. Helen of Troy. 1898. De Morgan Museum, Canon Hall, Barnsley. De Morgan Museum, Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

“Evelyn De Morgan.” De Morgan Collection, Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Rossetti Archive. Exhibits and Objects, Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Helen of Troy. 1863. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Accessed 15 Oct 2022.


Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: The Best Laid Schemes

By Joshua Brorby, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Associate, English, Washington University in St. Louis; now Visiting Assistant Professor of English, University of Missouri

Joshua Brorby, PhD

Joshua Brorby, PhD

When I began planning my research visit to the Armstrong Browning Library, the COVID pandemic was in its early days. I thought that by summer 2020 things might be opening back up, and if not in summer, then perhaps by Thanksgiving. As waves came and went, I deferred my plans several times. Finally in June 2021 I arrived in Waco, TX ready to delve into the archive, though with one minor problem: the dissertation I had begun when I initially applied for the fellowship was nearly finished. My research priorities had changed.

Between the drafting of the dissertation prospectus, the arduous writing of the first chapter, and the final stages of revision before the defense or viva, one’s arguments, investments, and critical apparatus are bound to change—sometimes drastically. As much as a dissertation is a verifiable contribution to a field of knowledge, it is also an exercise in self-knowledge, in coming to know one’s capacities as a critic and one’s fixations as a scholar. My dissertation-writing experience was no different. When I first considered visiting the ABL, my dissertation was focused on exploring and elucidating the myriad (often hidden) theories of translation that contributed to the omnivorous body of English literature in the nineteenth century. Think Edward FitzGerald, for example. Think Richard Burton. As I dug into this body of work—all the time keeping in the back of my mind Terry Hale’s claim that Victorian translations were often anonymous or “concealed” as adaptation—I discovered that a great deal of energy concerning translation as a process, with no guarantee of success, could be located in religious writing.

I began reading about F. Max Müller, the philologist and “scien[tist] of religion” who directed the Sacred Books of the East, a massive project to translate forty-nine Middle, South, and East Asian religious texts into English. And I scoured the writings and letters of George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë for clues to their thoughts on their own work as translators. Familiar mid-Victorian crises of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation, like the publication of Essays and Reviews and the controversy around Bishop Colenso’s The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined, provided compelling contexts for my developing arguments. Thus, the ABL’s Theological Pamphlets Collection and its Tract Collection seemed the perfect archives in which to explore the religious milieux of the writers central to my dissertation, Faith in Translation: Rewriting Secularity in the British Empire.

By June 2021, as I made revisions to my fourth chapter and my introduction, my project had already started to change. I was looking ahead to the book manuscript, now in progress, which would begin to emerge from my dissertation. (I have changed the subtitle to Imagined Religious Pluralism in Victorian Literature.) In reading about the translation of non-Christian sacred texts into English, as well as the rediscovery of diverse Greek sources for the Christian Bible, I recognized a pattern in the work of both translators and novelists: they are often engaged in defining or imagining visions of pluralism that might come to actually exist in an unstable imperial context. They ask not only how Christian parties at odds might reconciliate—Protestants and Catholics, e.g., or Anglicans High, Low, and Broad—but whether the impetuses for religious belief and the yearning for something transcendent might be found across religious traditions and throughout religious history. How alike are Manu and Moses, as Eliot and others have asked? Does the literary, flexible reading of the Bible, suggested by Benjamin Jowett and Matthew Arnold, indeed disclose something universal about inspiration?

The Higher Criticism

Cyprian T. Rust’s The Higher Criticism. London: William Hunt and Company, 1878. ABL 19th Cent OVZ BS1225 .R875x 1878

My search through the Pamphlets and Tract Collections became a search into the ways believers in the nineteenth century wrote about pluralism (not as the holding of multiple benefices in the Church of England, but as the conditions in which multiple religions coexist). The ABL’s organization of each of these collections by denomination was incredibly helpful. Much of the extant work in my dissertation concerned mainline Anglicans. With the ABL’s flexible search functions, I was able to dig specifically into materials from Roman Catholics, as well as anti-Catholic tract writers, and Unitarians—the latter of which were especially keen on discussing the problems of interfaith apprehension and overlap. James Martineau’s assertions for the authority of Reason over that of Scripture proved compelling. And I was pleased to find a book by his atheist sister Harriet Martineau—herself a translator of Comte—addressing itself “to the disciples of Mohammed.” Martineau’s 1833 essay anticipates some of the almost pantheistic claims Müller would make half a century later; in a dialogue between a Christian and Muslim, she declares, “There is no God but God,” uniting these two Abrahamic faiths under a banner of similitude. But as the essay progresses, Martineau takes a turn toward familiar Victorian supersessionism, based in the view that Protestantism lies at the endpoint of a quasi-natural development of religious evolution. Other religions merely pave the way for the message of Christ. This isn’t far from Müller’s own position. They are each of them pulled by this tension: between assertions of similitude and superiority.

J.S. Banks's Christianity and the Science of Religion

J.S. Banks’s Christianity and the Science of Religion. London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1880. ABL 19th Cent OVZ BR 127 .B3

The ABL’s religious texts collections also proved useful for exploring the “science of religion” as it was developed or criticized by writers not party to Müller and his extensive research network. The Rev. Cyprian T. Rust and the Rev. J.S. Banks—two figures with whom I was unfamiliar until coming to the ABL—both produced responses to the nascent science of religion in 1878 and 1880, respectively, that I uncovered in the archives. These Anglican hermeneuts each provide a window onto a mode of religious inquiry growing out of the earlier German higher criticism. As I found myself lingering over texts by names I had never read, I also found that the ABL was providing different pathways: both to new research and to opportunities to enrich old research. For instance, the plenitude of anti-Catholic tracts held by the ABL greatly added to my existing chapter on Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. A translated 1869 tract by M. Sauvestre gave my chapter a nice historicist twist, by which I might consider how anti-Catholic writing pitched celibate priests, nuns, etc. as having no family ties and, thus, disrupted the domestic organization of the state as based in the family. Considering Lucy Snowe’s total non-narration of her own family history in Villette, this correspondence to Catholic stereotype has continued to spur my thinking.

My time at the ABL was in part a personal sojourn from life in St. Louis during a pandemic. In June 2021 things had really lulled. And finally my partner and I were able to get out of St. Louis with our infant—his first big trip!—and explore a new city. Jennifer, Laura, and Christi at the ABL were incredibly helpful not only in my research but in planning family outings (a recurrent theme in some of these blog posts). Traveling to Waco brought us a sigh of relief. I think that in spending so much time scheming out my diss in its early days, I had closed off potentially fruitful avenues for further research. The wide-ranging collections at the ABL, along with its helpful finding aids and its fantastic staff, rekindled my interest in expanding on my project, something that may not have happened had I been able to visit when I first planned. What was needed, in a sense, was time away before revisiting my existing work. Such sojourns are a boon, especially when what waits on the other side is a rich and exciting archive brimming with possibility.

Introducing the Mythic Women in “Fifine at the Fair”

by Anna Clark, Master’s Candidate in History and Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

This fall, the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum is hosting “Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in ‘Fifine at the Fair,'” an exhibition exploring the topics of sexual desire, social class, and the male objectification of women in Robert Browning’s 1872 poem “Fifine at the Fair.” This exhibit was curated by Katrina Gallegos, a Master’s student of Museum Studies at Baylor University. Gallegos’ exhibit is on display in honor of the poem’s 150th anniversary from August 17, 2022 – February 15, 2023* (date extended).

The Victorians are remembered for being conservative—in their dress, their customs, and their culture. Therefore, it is surprising to see provocative subjects explored in Victorian art, literature, and poetry. Victorians explored topics such as desire, infidelity, gender, and sexuality, and used their art as an expressive outlet in response to a restrictive society.

Because of the conservative nature of the dominant social culture, authors and artists used coded language to express their inner desires, thoughts, and emotions. This coded language often employed classical symbols from Roman and Greek antiquity. Victorians also used this coded language to prove their intellectual prowess among their peers. For modern readers and viewers, these examples may not seem provocative because the authors and artists used complicated language and obscure references. Some memorable authors and artists who employed provocative language and themes were Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lord Byron, and Julia Margaret Cameron. 

Katrina Gallegos’ exhibit Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in “Fifine at the Fair” decodes the complex language found in Browning’s poem, “Fifine at the Fair,” specifically, examining the themes of sexuality, desire, the male gaze, and social class on the poem’s 150th anniversary.

Gallegos is a graduate student at Baylor University pursuing her Master’s degree in Museum Studies. Employing her interest in symbology, Gallegos’ exhibit explores Greco-Roman symbols she uncovered through her analysis of Browning’s poem and how these symbols connect to the topics of sexuality, desire, and male objectification of women in the late 19th century.

Helen of Troy, one of the mythic women symbolized in the poem

Particularly, Gallegos explains the symbols Robert Browning employs to describe the three central characters of the poem: Don Juan, Don Juan’s staid wife Donna Elvire, and Fifine, the exotic gypsy woman who is the object of Don Juan’s sexual desire.

Gallegos’ exhibit will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room from August 17th through February 15th, 2023. We invite you to visit this exhibit to explore the symbols in Browning’s work and reflect on the enduring legacy of “Fifine at the Fair” 150 years after its publication. 

If you are not familiar with the poem or would like to refresh your memory, we have attached a hyperlink to a first edition copy of Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair” for your convenience: #3 – Fifine at the fair : and other poems / By Robert Browning. – Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library. 

Frontispiece of the 1872 edition of Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair”

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in ‘Fifine at the Fair'”: