Mariana, by Valentine Cameron Prinsep

Mariana Valentine Cameron Prinsep Pictures, Images and Photos
Valentine Cameron Prinsep’s 1888 painting of Mariana borrows much from Millais’ version. Both paintings feature Mariana gazing out the window of her “moated grange.” Prinseps’ version is decidedly cheerier, and unlike Millais’ autumnal painting featuring a backdrop of dying leaves, Prinseps’ is set in spring, with tulips in abundance. The painting was originally exhibited in 1888 as part of a collection of twenty-one paintings entitled “Shakespeare’s Heroines.”

Valentine Cameron Prinsep is a lesser-known painter of the Pre-Raphaelite school, but his connections are fairly impressive! He was born in Calcutta, India in 1838, into a rather well-known family. His aunt was the pre-eminent photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, grandmother of Virginia Woolf (do you ever get the feeling that every person you read about is somehow related?). Valentine was good friends with Millais, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones, and his artwork definitely shows his friends’ influence. During his life he wrote several books and plays, but he is best remembered for his artwork.

Source consulted: Shakespeare Online (The English Department at Emory University is responsible for this great resource–I highly recommend it!).

John Everett Millais’ Mariana

Millais Pictures, Images and Photos
For myself, one of the most enduring appeals of Pre-Raphaelite art is its strong relationship to romantic literature. Millais’ 1851 work, Mariana, is a great example of this. The painting is based on a poem of the same title by Tennyson that in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure. In Measure for Measure, the character Mariana is abandoned by her fiance, Angelo, when her dowry is lost in a shipwreck.

Millais’ illustration of Mariana at the window reminds me of other stories, such as that of Penelope. Like Penelope, Mariana is engaged in needlework. Autumn leaves have blown in through the window and are scattered about the room–on the floor as well as on her needlework project, which the gallery description at the Tate suggests represents “the burden of her yearning as time passes.” She is staring at a stained-glass image of the annunciation, which according to Tim Barringer was seen “as a quasi-sexual event” for both Millais and Rossetti in their paintings (42-43). There definitely is an undercurrent of frustration and longing in the painting.

Millais originally exhibited the painting along with several lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Mariana:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

Tomorrow: another Pre-Raphaelite vision of Mariana.

image courtesy Tate Gallery
Source consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Everyman Art Library, 1998

William Holman Hunt “The Hireling Shepherd”

The Hireling Shepherd
The subject of William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd was actually taken from William Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the play, the character Edgar sings a song about a shepherd neglecting its flock, and Hunt used the song as an inspiration for his work.

King Lear Act III, Scene VI.41
Edgar: “Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm.”

If the song is rather reminiscent of “Little Bo-Peep,” it’s no accident. King Lear is actually referred to as “Bo-Peep” by the court jester earlier in the play (I.iv)

Fool: Then they for sudden joy did weep,
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-peep,
And go the fools among.

In King Lear, the shepherd analogy is used to show that the King has been distracted from his calling as “shepherd” to his “flock.”

William Holman Hunt actually wrote a letter on this subject that I found on Shakespeare Illustrated–a great website that connects 19th century paintings to their roots in Shakespeare’s work.

Shakespeare’s song represents a Shepherd who is neglecting his real duty of guarding the sheep: instead of using his voice in truthfully performing his duty, he is using his “minikin mouth” in some idle way. He was a type thus of other muddle headed pastors who instead of performing their services to their flock–which is in constant peril–discuss vain questions of no value to any human soul. My fool has found a death’s head moth, and this fills his little mind with forebodings of evil and he takes it to an equally sage counsellor for her opinion. She scorns his anxiety from ignorance rather than profundity, but only the more distracts his faithfulness: while she feeds her lamb with sour apples his sheep have burst bounds and got into the corn. It is not merely that the wheat will be spoilt, but in eating it the sheep are doomed to destruction from becoming what farmers call “blown.” (Quoted by Landow, 39).

I really enjoy the humour in this painting. At first glance, the viewer is presented with an idyllic setting–rolling hills dotted with sheep, a happy young couple, a winding stream and a field of golden wheat.

But on closer inspection, it turns out that a number of the sheep are lying on the grass, unable to get up! You can see one of the sheep on the left of the canvas is even helplessly flailing his legs! One of the sheep has wondered across the stream and is eating barleycorn (note: in King Lear, Edgar refers to the sheep being in the corn–in Shakespeare’s day, corn meant barleycorn–there was no maize until after the European discovery of the Americas), which probably isn’t good for him, and refers directly to the song from King Lear. The lamb resting in the girls lap is eating green apples, which are probably making him sick as well. The girl, who at first blush seemed to be relaxing in the grass happily with the shepherd boy, actually looks a little uneasy. The shepherd boy is showing her something–a death’s head moth! He’s also totally neglecting his work and seems oblivious to what is happening to his flock.

The painting was first exhibited in 1851.