If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

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.

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot hal style avatar for user Andy Burt
    At they declare the Victorian viewer would know the young lady was a prostitute. How would they know this?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Jim
      One of key Pre-Raphaelite characteristics is the analogy being applied similarly to the allegory being used in Renaissance's arts. During the period of transition from feudalistic society to flourishing capitalism. People are struggling with values they were told as child and the new value. I learnt from Professor Wrightson of Yale university http://oyc.yale.edu/history/hist-251, specifically women from countryside were forced to prostitution being deprived economically after "enclosure movement". That is very self evident in English history from Tudor to Stuart dynasties.
      (5 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Allie
    why do they always put other paintings in these videos
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • winston default style avatar for user Carlo
    Why does she look scared, yet calm?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user AnMi
    I notice the most stunning color in this painting is the Blue color of her dress, which may be lapis lazuli - the color that previously would mainly be used for Madonna's cloak. Does it have any connection with her red hair, which is associated with Maria Magdalene's hair, you know, in terms of religion?
    Could you explain more about this Blue color, besides the sense of deep melancholy it brings? I think it is one of the most prominent features of the painting, and ignoring it would be a big oversight.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user RafayRizwan02
    why do all paintings with people look like they are staring at you?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    I have noticed a repeated usage of the red hair amongst the PRB. Why is this?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • sneak peak green style avatar for user Cybernetic Organism
    Why does this painting look as if it was influenced by medieval art and paintings in particular? Was the artist influenced by the medieval period?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Ealcyone
    This painting looks very similar to "Mariana". Any connections other than their similarity as Pre-Raphaelite paintings?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
    Is there a hint of a halo about her head? I definitely see some white lines above her head and on her hair on the side of her head, which made me think she might be wearing a very thin white veil, but I don't see a veil in front of her face.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user student.beginner
    the narrator says or describe many things in the picture.did the artist did this purposely or are the narrators making up stories
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      could be either way. each of us is free to make up our own stories from this material, too. That's one of the wonders of having things in front of us that are not already explained. Try it. Look at the picture again, or at any picture, and make up your own story.
      (1 vote)

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)