Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pre-Raphaelitism in Oxford

Even though giving a conference paper requires a lot of work in terms of research, writing, image & PowerPoint preparation, etc., sometimes the very fact that your paper has been accepted makes the work all worth it. Case in point: I'm going to be giving a paper at Oxford University in September. Now who wouldn't want to participate in that opportunity? Not only am I flattered to even have this experience, it will actually be my first visit to Oxford itself, so I'm definitely looking forward to this. The conference is called Pre-Raphaelitism: Past, Present and Future, and it's going to be held at the Ashmolean Museum and St. John's College at Oxford. The speakers will be presenting "new and innovative approaches" to this once-again popular Victorian art and literature movement. The organizers have released the preliminary program to the speakers, and there are some wonderful speakers planned. Even better, Dr. Carolyn Conroy, my colleague, friend, and co-coordinator of the Simeon Solomon Research Archive, will be speaking along with me about our Anglo-Jewish homosexual artist. Her paper is on Solomon's works deposited at the Ashmolean Museum. I will be speaking about the painting you see here, The Mother of Moses (image: Delaware Art Museum), focusing on the mixed-race model Fanny Eaton who posed for Solomon. (She also posed for his sister Rebecca in a painting I blogged about in a previous post.) Here is the abstract of my paper. Enjoy!

"Pre-Raphaelite Exotica: Fanny Eaton and Simeon Solomon's Mother of Moses"
by Roberto C. Ferrari, Ph.D.

At the 1860 Royal Academy exhibition, nineteen-year-old Simeon Solomon displayed his first major oil painting, The Mother of Moses.  Although praised by some critics for the use of color and the portrayal of maternal sentiment, Solomon’s painting was harshly judged for its depiction of the female Biblical figures Jochebed and Miriam.  They were described as too Egyptian, too African, too dark-skinned, or even too Jewish.  This criticism can be read as Victorian racism and misogyny, but it also suggests an inability to label or identity with the exoticism of the women themselves.  This is not surprising when one discovers that the model for both figures was the mixed-race Fanny Eaton, who was born in Jamaica to a former slave.  Eaton’s origins and features enabled her to model for a number of Pre-Raphaelite exotic subjects by Solomon and his sister Rebecca, as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Albert Moore, and Joanna Boyce Wells.

Scholars know well the stories of many Pre-Raphaelite models, from Annie Miller to Jane Morris, but little is known about Eaton.  This paper will rectify this by presenting new biographical information, and then contextualizing Eaton’s place in this community by drawing on a range of scholarship, from writings on race by Douglas Lorimer and Jan Marsh, to theories on exoticism by Peter Mason.  Although Eaton came be seen in different exotic roles in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, from an ancient Roman to an Indian ayah, her first appearance in Solomon’s Mother of Moses was most significant, both for the model and the painter.  As the daughter of a former slave, Eaton could empathize with the plight of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt; and as a Jewish artist whose father was among the first generation of post-emancipation Jews in London, Solomon drew attention to his heritage by depicting Jochebed holding Moses, the emancipator of the Hebrews.  The exoticism of Eaton in Solomon’s Mother of Moses thus transforms this narrative painting into a political statement about slavery and freedom.

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