Image of the Week: Mariana by John Everett Millais
Perhaps it was reading Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” that drew me in, for it is so that many of the topics that interested me as a teenager were happened upon in connection to others I had read about. Rossetti’s brother Dante was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of English artists whose works are recognized by millions not only from the paintings themselves, but also facsimile in the form of greeting cards and other commercial products.
The Pre-Raphaelites, as they were later known, were not fond of the academic style of art taught at the time, which focused on strong light matched by dark shadows. Instead they favored bright color and great attention to detail. My eyes marveled at the massive amount of fine line and brilliant color; it would take days, weeks to “read” such paintings and drink it all in, for consuming it was what one did.
It is difficult to decide which painting could possibly be the best, for the group deliberately avoided any sort of dogma that would inhibit the individual artistic interpretation of its members. Later growing from the original three—Rossetti, Millais and William Holman Hunt—to seven, with the addition of Rossetti’s brother William, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner, the group inspired such artists as Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse.
Nevertheless, there were some I particularly favored, including Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin, given my lifelong affinity for the wizard. Spotting the image on a book cover led me to being a reader of the novelist A.S. Byatt, and I made the connection after reading Possession (which itself is filled with an abundant amount of detail), that just as reading an entire book gives you a greater appreciation of its story, so too could the taking in of a painting. I recall learning in class about how an image is meant to draw your eye to one portion, a center of interest. For me, however, that point alone left the painting’s story untold; the narrative unfolded as more of the canvas was explored.
That moment came for me when I saw Millais’s Mariana. Apart from its connection to Tennyson’s poem “Mariana,” I admired the subject’s dress; it accentuates her hips, those of womanhood, today often brushed, or worse starved, out of photography and painting. The color is lovely and the soft feel of the velvet extends the sensory effect of the image.
Mariana seems tired, perhaps a bit stiff, as evidenced by her arched stance that indicates a need to stand up and stretch. She is looking outside, perhaps an implication of longing in the days of women’s confinement; ahead is the light, behind her the dark. In this manner the painting points to a distinction between indoors and outside, as well as gloomy days, hinted at by the shadowy background with its bed curtains, perhaps suggesting a life not of literal sleep, but a dull one in which a person exists rather than lives.
She waits for her love, but the passage of time does not bring his arrival and
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary;
I would that I were dead!”
Thickly-crusted flower pots, rusted nails and broken sheds denote a passage of time that Millais also demonstrates with the embroidery Mariana had been doing, though she leaves it sitting on the table in front of her. Neither Tennyson nor Millais indicate any movement in their respective narratives: Mariana is stuck in her painful position, living a life of discomfort and mental anguish.
Though not a singularly cheerful focus, the painting enables the observer to see and have what Mariana cannot: a view to lovely details and opportunity for choice. Are the leaves, for example, symbol of the outdoors that could present a piece of another world to Mariana? Or do they merely represent to her the dying season that she would become part of?
Mariana hears the passage of time in her state of non-movement, with the ticking of the clock. There is a sparrow chirping as well, though at the point she hears more, she has begun to lose her mental agility, and what she sees matches the mood of her auditory abilities: the sunlight represents not cheer, but only something to reveal how
[…] most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers,
the dust serving as one more mocking reminder of the passage of time, and her aloneness within it.
Connected via Tennyson to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Mariana utilizes a Victorian context to present an historical view of women. This connection furthered my own journey through art and literature and through the Rossettis (Dante illustrated Christina’s first volume) the same could be seen, as
Day after day, night after night,
Laura kept watch in vain
In sullen silence of exceeding pain.
She never caught again the goblin cry,
‘Come buy, come buy’;
She never spied the goblin men
Hawing their fruits along the glen:
But when the moon waxed bright
Her hair grew thin and grey;
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay and burn
Her fire away.
Though sisters Laura and Lizzie experience a completely different circumstance in “Goblin Market” to Mariana, it too reveals historical context within its composition: of women, the author and society at large. (Brief consideration of where one could go with a fuller compare/contrast of Mariana and “Goblin Market.”) At the time, untested as I was in the world, I found it fairly astounding—and intriguing—how one could glean history from fiction of various sorts: art, music, poetry, even, as I learned later, textiles and cuisine. Moreover, one could build from an extant foundation—I mean utilizing more than inspiration. I supposed it could be flippantly stated that Mariana is a sort of Victorian fan art (though of course of a greater quality than most of what we see today), which led me to wonder how long people have been doing this sort of fan art/fan fiction thing.
Which isn’t to make little of such endeavors—people are generally aware of their abilities and shortcomings; they don’t typically engage in fan followings for fame or fortune. They simply recognize their own connections to various art forms and the many practitioners of it, and through them, with varying linkage and results, build the narratives of their own—our own—lives.