Interview with Katrina Gallegos, Curator of “Mythic Women”

Interview Questions by Anna Clark, M.A. Student 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.

I had the opportunity to ask Katrina Gallegos some questions regarding her exhibit, Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in “Fifine at the Fair.” 

Gallegos is a M.A. candidate in the Museum Studies department at Baylor University. This past spring semester, Gallegos partnered with the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum to curate an exhibit exploring the topics of the male gaze, the sexual objectification of women, and Greco-Roman symbols in Robert Browning’s poem “Fifine at the Fair” on its 150th anniversary of publication.

Gallegos’ exhibit is on display in the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum Hankamer Treasure Room through February 15, 2023. We invite you to come see the exhibit before it closes this winter.

How did you become interested in creating an exhibit on Robert Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair”? 

“Fifine” was actually my second choice. Originally, I was going to curate an exhibit based on women poets of Texas. However, as I was researching secondary sources in ABL’s closed stacks I came across literature that swayed me to curate an exhibition based on the poem. This poem is one of Robert Browning’s more obscure works and it was published later in his life. 2022 celebrates the poem’s 150th anniversary.

A 1872 first edition of Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair” on display

How did your previous research experiences assist you with this exhibit? 

My background is in Spanish and the culinary arts, but my experience as a graduate student in the Department of Museum Studies aided my research. I have taken an exhibition curation course which taught us how to conduct preliminary research when developing a new exhibit. Additionally, my experience as a McNair Research Scholar at the undergraduate level assisted me in finding the secondary sources to support my thesis of the male gaze. There are published literary works in the Armstrong Browning Library’s periodicals which explore and analyze this theme. 

In your exhibit, you highlight how Browning wrote about the provocative subjects of sexuality, desire, and the male objectification of women in a conservative Victorian society. Why do you think Browning was willing to address such topics that were generally considered taboo in Victorian England?

Robert Browning

After reading the secondary literature and comparing that against contemporary sources one can find many examples of explicit sexuality in Victorian Literature. For example, Charlotte Brontë ‘s novel Wuthering Heights contains a few erotic scenes and sentiments. A specific example is when Heathcliff goes to Catherine’s bedchamber and replaces his rival’s hair with his own. The language of that and the succeeding scenes are erotic. And while not in the same generation, Lord Byron and the Romantics of the proceeding generation were a little scandalous. Also, if one looks to the Pre-Raphaelite movement of painting one can see both the male gaze, desire and sexuality. One famous painter Rossetti who was both a mentee and friend of Robert Browning painted many women who are beautiful and flirtatious. Also, if one considers the date of publication, 1872 one can posit why R. Browning wrote such a poem. By this point Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) had been deceased for 11 years and R. Browning never remarried nor taken a lover, a close friend, nothing. One can only imagine he must have had moments of loneliness and desire, he was after all, a living breathing human just like you and me. However, there are some contemporary and more recent secondary sources that argue that this poem was written as a critique on the Rosetti’s love life. As mentioned before R. Browning and Rosetti were friends, yet Rosetti was not as devoted to his wife as R. Browning was with EBB. After the poem was published, Rosetti was furious and ended his friendship with R. Browning. Browning was astonished, and nothing could persuade Rosetti to reconsider. Rosetti believed it was a personal and public attack on his behavior. From my research I could not find any document written by R. Browning which supports this theory. If I were to be very generous, I’d say both could be true. R. Browning was lonely, still had desires, and also disapproved of his friend’s behavior. The Victorians were and were not conservative. As with any society it is nuanced. The era is named after one individual, Queen Victoria, who was conservative. Queen Victoria’s successor, her son Prince Albert, known as “Bertie” was a scandalously licentious in his behavior. He took many lovers outside of his marriage and was a disappointment to his mother. I believe we, 21st century denizens, attribute much of our beliefs of this time around one person’s values and behavior. This is a disservice because there is much more to this era than one person.    

How do you think Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair” contributed to late 19th century discussions regarding women’s suffrage, the cult of true womanhood, the aesthetic dress movement, and women’s role in both the private and public spheres? 

I do not think the poem contributed much to these discussions. If anything, the poem reinforces the idea of “true womanhood” through its fetishization of a minority woman in direct comparison to a white English woman. As far as women’s suffrage I am only guessing therefore the following is an opinion, Donna Elvire has less than 20 lines of speech in this poem, and it is only at the beginning. If I recall correctly, Fifine has none. Therefore, I’d argue that R. Browning was not appealing to the females in the room. Could a woman have read it and its content affirmed her belief that a woman should have a voice and a right, sure. But I cannot definitively say that it had that effect. I am not entirely familiar with the aesthetic dress movement so I cannot speak to it. However, I do think R. Browning’s wife, EBB, contributed much more to women’s rights. She delicately balanced her public and private roles in a way that was far more unexpected and influential than her husband’s. He did what was expected, she did not. EBB wrote poems about slavery and child labor; she was a poet activist.  

Satirical cartoon on what it means to be “a lady” versus “a woman”

What do you believe is the most enduring legacy of Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair” on its 150th anniversary of publication? 

That people change yet remain the same. Even today, different can be seen as exotic and desirable and a welcome relief from what expected and common. Also, famous people, poets, politicians, etc. are just people, they’re just trying to express themselves and figure it out like the rest of us.  

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

 

Analyzing “Fifine at the Fair” Through Symbology

by Anna Clark, M.A. Student 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.

Examining Browning’s Characters Through the Lens of Symbology

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.

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.

Don Juan

Gallegos explains Browning’s usage of Don Juan, a fictional folk figure throughout European literature whose reputation is synonymous with being a womanizer. From the first introduction of Don Juan in the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster and and the Stone Guest, the Casanova character of Don Juan lives in the public imagination as a man who enjoys the thrill of seduction and conquest of women regardless of socioeconomic class and marital status.

In “Fifine at the Fair,” Don Juan is portrayed by Browning as a Victorian gentleman of education and rank. He is married to Donna Elvire, his wife of many years, and the two are first depicted as having a loving relationship. However, Gallegos points out that this marriage is not as happy as it appears. Despite his respect for Donna Elvire’s virtues, Don Juan has the roving gaze of his namesake and unjustly compares his loyal wife to a gypsy woman he sees at the fair named Fifine.

Gallegos describes how Don Juan attempts to justify his sexual objectification of both his wife and the gypsy through reference to Greek and Roman myths.

A satirical cartoon depicting a man’s sexual fantasies

Donna Elvire

The symbols used to describe Don Juan’s wife Donna Elvire are, as Gallegos points out, nautical. In the poem, Don Juan compares his wife to a “calm sea” and a “sturdy ship.” Gallegos connects these nautical metaphors to Greco-Roman mythology in which women were often associated with the sea. The mythological characters of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty who rose from the sea at birth, and the sirens, female mermaids who led sailors to their death by their enticing songs, are important symbols in the poem.

A woman in Victorian dress

It is of note that Donna Elvire is compared to a calm sea and a sturdy ship, not to the beautiful Venus or the enchanting sirens of myth. Instead, Gallegos argues that Donna Elvire is a passive character, who is along for the ride like a ship at a calm sea and steady wind. She is silent throughout most of the poem, overtaken by the dominating personality of Don Juan and his monologues on idealized female beauty.

Fifine

Whereas Donna Elvire is plain and respectable, Fifine is depicted through Don Juan’s male gaze as alluring and seductive. Gallegos notes the comparisons to various femme fatales throughout Greco-Roman mythology: Helen of Troy, the goddess Venus, and Cleopatra. Fifine is described with a “Greek-nymph nose,” “Hebrew eyes,” “spangled hips,” and “wiry hair,” which all add to her exotic appeal.

In the poem, Don Juan peers upon Fifine as she is changing and refuses to avert his gaze. Instead of acknowledging his wrongdoing, Don Juan blames Fifine’s attractive appearance for his lustful eye and thoughts. Gallegos explains how Don Juan attempts to use his comparisons to Greco-Roman mythological symbols to justify his betrayal of his wife and objectification of a young gypsy girl; like the Helen and Cleopatra figures of old, Fifine’s irresistible beauty has left Don Juan at the whim of his passions.

Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty

Gallegos asks her audience to reflect on the issues of the phenomena of the male gaze and the objectification of women through her study of Browning’s characters. These topics of lust, sexuality, and objectification are especially interesting in the context of Robert Browning’s Victorian England of 1872.

Come and celebrate the 150th anniversary of Browning’s complex poem “Fifine at the Fair” through the research of Katrina Gallegos. The exhibit will be on display in the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum’s Hankamer Treasure Room through February 15, 2023.

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

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

Image

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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, https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/photograph-of-robert-browning/768790. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Robert Browning. 1865. The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, Waco. The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/photograph-of-robert-browning/768778. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Sappho. 1865. Victorian & Albert Museum, London. Victoria & Albert Museum,  https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O130461/sappho-photograph-cameron-julia-margaret/. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Sappho. 1865. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/282044. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Daher, Nadine and Katzman, Lily. “The Women Behind the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 22 Jan 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/revisiting-women-behind-pre-raphaelite-band-brothers-180974035/. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

De Morgan, Evelyn. Helen of Troy. 1898. De Morgan Museum, Canon Hall, Barnsley. De Morgan Museum, https://www.demorgan.org.uk/collection/helen-of-troy/. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

“Evelyn De Morgan.” De Morgan Collection, https://www.demorgan.org.uk/discover/the-de-morgans/evelyn-de-morgan/ Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Rossetti Archive. Exhibits and Objects, http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/s163.rap.html. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Helen of Troy. 1863. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg. Hamburger Kunsthalle,  https://online-sammlung.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/en/objekt/HK-2469. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

 

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'”: