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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

Lesson 2: The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, exhibited 1859, oil on canvas, 864 x 508 mm (Tate Britain, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Steven: She stands against the window, looking out, but really looking in In a terribly gaudy purple nightgown. Out the window, we can see the city of London. We can see the Thames River. Beth: We're looking at John Roddam Spencer Stanhope's Thoughts of the Past. Steven: If we were Victorian looking at this painting, we would immediately recognize that she was a prostitute. Beth: And that she's thinking about her past life as a virtuous woman, likely from the countryside, who had come to the city and who had fallen, in Victorian terms, a fallen woman, a prostitute. Fallen women were the subject of paintings and literature during this period, a kind of social problem for artists and writers to deal with. Steven: So she's a sympathetic figure to a large extent and we, as a middle-class public, were expected to grapple with her predicament. Beth: Exactly and who was at fault and what could be done about it? You can see how closely the artist ties her problem to the problem of the city and the growth of the city. Steven: Well, let's look out that window. It's this bustling port on the Thames, on the river that bisects London. I can almost hear men yelling to each other across those boats and in the foreground, we see what looks like hay on a barge and that hay, of course, would have been brought to the city from the country in order to feed the horses and it does make it kind of analogy to this woman who has become a kind of commodity, something that is bought and sold. Beth: Apparently, this part of the Thames was an area that was well-known for prostitution. So all of this would have been recognizable to a Victorian viewer. Another thing we can immediately notice, just the fact that this is painted very much in a Pre-Raphaelite style. We have those intense colors that are really saturated, like this purple and the greens and the reds and showing a female figure with long, red hair is also very Pre-Raphaelite. Steven: One of the things Pre-Raphaelites are so known for, is to imbue almost everything with a kind of secondary meaning with a kind of symbolism. They were looking back at the great paintings at the very beginning of the Renaissance, perhaps, for instance The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, which is in the national gallery now. So when you look at that red hair, does that secondary reference to the Renaissance tradition of representing Mary Magdalene with long, red hair and of course the tradition of her being a prostitute, but there there's a sense of redemption and here, I think, that's an open question. Beth: We're not sure what her future holds. She's thinking about her past. She's thinking about what's happened to her and perhaps her family in the countryside, her lost childhood, her lost innocence. As you said, all of that is also indicated by the accessories in this room. Steven: In the lower left corner of the painting, I see a potted plant, maybe two, and they're little bit too low, so the plants have been stretching up to get back to the sun. They're dry. They're not tended. They may die. Beth: And their leaves are turning yellow. Steven: Perhaps worse, up in the lower right corner of the painting, you can see those ... those violets, there's purple and white, which are linked directly to the colors that the woman wears and they've been discarded and they will now wilt and die. Beth: And if you look at the Arnolfini Wedding, everything in that painting speaks about the wealth of the couple that's represented, but here we have furniture that's chipped and worn. Even her jewelry on the table looks cheap and tawdry. Other details in the room that tell us about her life are a little bit hard to see, perhaps, in the foreground on the left, we see a man's walking stick and glove. Steven: So this painting in many ways, is a wonderful window into the moral preoccupations of Victorian life in the city at this time. (piano music playing)