Jane Morris: More than a Pre-Raphaelite Star

Recognise this woman? She appears in so many of the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, especially those done by Gabriel Rossetti as featured here. Her beauty is famous. But who was she? Read on.

Jane Morris (née Jane Burden, 1839-1914) was an English artists' model who embodied the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty. She was a model and muse to William Morris (1834–1896)and eventually married him. In fact she modelled for the only known painting done by Morris- La Belle Iseult. Jane was spotted at a theatre by Edward Burne-Jones and Gabriel Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelite artists who saw the potential her beauty provided for them as a model. Here she is as painted by Edward Burne-Jones for his Sidonia von Bork.
And here she is in another painting by Gabriel Rossetti with whom she had a long time affair. In fact, Jane was so deeply attached to Gabriel that he co-habitated with Jane and her husband William Morris. This is Aurea Catena. Portrait of Jane Morris.
Jane came from a very ordinary background. But she was a willing and able student because when William Morris married her together they began her transformation into a lady- a real life Eliza Doolittle. In fact, there is some suggestion that George Bernard Shaw based his play Pygmalion on her. Shaw certainly knew the family as he had an affair with Jane and William’s daughter May! Oh, speaking of affairs, Jane also had a long term one with the poet and political activist Wilfred Scawen Blunt. Here she is as herself, taken in 1865 when she was 36 years old.

So there is much to admire in this woman. But not only was she beautiful and remarkably able at managing her relationships (I believe William wasn’t particularly happy about Gabriel Rossetti living with them!!) she was also renowned for her embroidery. Where she found the time to do it I don’t know but this is a sample of what she achieved in Honeysuckle.
This is one of very few surviving pieces that can be definitively attributed to her hand. She worked it with her eldest daughter, Jenny basing the design on an original 1876 design by William Morris. Here are a couple more examples.
This is some detail of a bedcover Jane embroidered with her daughter May, 1910.
And this is a Daisy wallhanging, designed by William and embroidered by Jane.

Jane and her sister Bessie passed on their embroidery skills to Jane’s daughter May who was encouraged her to develop her own designs. We are going to learn more about May Morris tomorrow.

I got thinking about Jane who ended up living a very good life, far better than her lowly beginnings would have indicated. Although the men in her life gained a great deal from her beauty, especially Rossetti who invented a whole new way of perceiving women, Jane was also capable of exploitation herself. Somehow she managed to get her husband William Morris to agree to have Gabriel Rossetti live with them!

So I want to introduce you to a Dutch artist- Margje Bijl who has made it her mission to change the image the world has of Jane Morris-the personification of Gabriel Rossetti’s ideal image of a woman. Margje Bijl states on her website:
As a contemporary female artist my viewpoint differs from Rossetti’s. It is my underlying intention to free Jane Morris of the myth that has been created around her. I have created a role for myself, based on Jane Morris’ history to complement and modernise her persona. If you are interested follow through on http://www.reflectionsonjanemorris.com/

Tomorrow, International Women's Day, is going to feature Jane and William's daughter May Morris who was an extraordinary woman.

Anne Newman

Oil Painter in realistic genre style, predominantly buildings and people. To continue the discussion contact Anne on anewman@netspace.net.au or phone +61 407 516 522

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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