Sunday, August 12, 2012

Artistic Perception Of The Past--An Example

The Pre-Raphaelite painting shown below is a famous, but incomplete work by Dante Gabriel Rossetti called Found, which is meant to depict a drover taking pity upon a "fallen" woman. Like many of the works painted by the Pre-Raphaelites, it is meant to depict medieval clothing, in a general way. This painting is interesting because, to anyone even casually familiar with modern histories of medieval clothing, it evokes the 19th century much more powerfully than the Middle Ages.
"Found" (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Victorian spats*
Late medieval shoe*
Perhaps the most obvious anachronism is the drover's footwear.  Over very modern shoes with hard soles and stacked heels, he wears a kind of gaiters called "spats", that reach above his knee. One of the photographs below shows a more typical pair of late Victorian spats, but the style of the item is similar to the item shown in Rossetti's painting. In the late Middle Ages (the period Rossetti intended to evoke, judging by the drover's hat, shoes with hard soles and built-up heels had not yet appeared. The recreated medieval shoe shown on the right is more characteristic of a typical medieval shoe in style and shape than the "modern" shoes and spats shown in the painting.

The next item of clothing that is clearly not medieval in style is the drover's off-white garment.  This garment was called a "smock", and was still worn by farmers and other rural folk into the early 20th century, as the photograph of the man in the chair shows.

Tissot's The Confessional*
The fallen woman in Rossetti's painting appears to be wearing some kind of a fringed shawl or cloak. Although some early medieval cultures (particularly in the Baltic countries) wore fringed shawls, they are not shown in British artwork of the late medieval period. However, fringed garments looking more like the woman's garment in Found than like any medieval wrap survive from the Victorian period, and are shown in period paintings.  The fringed cloak worn by the woman in Tissot's The Confessional looks a lot, to me, like the garment the woman wears in Found. Moreover, the pleated cloth garment with a feather that appears behind the woman's head in Found looks more like the sort of bonnet worn by the woman in Tissot's painting than like any hood, veil, or other headdress worn in the late medieval period.

Countryman's Smock, 1904**
Finally, the woman's gown in Found bears a printed floral pattern.  Fabric printing does not appear in western European clothing to any great extent in the late Middle Ages, and the delicate floral pattern shown in Found would be beyond the fabric painting or dyeing technologies of the medieval period.

The object of this little essay is to show the peril of assuming that artwork from one historical period necessarily is a correct representation of the clothing worn in another, earlier, period. Artists in the Victorian period, though skilled as artists, did not have the benefit of information about medieval costume that we have developed, with the aid of archaeology, since the 19th century.   As a result, these artists had to draw upon their assumptions, or imaginings, of what medieval clothing had been like, or perhaps, in the case of garments like the smock, assumed that existing unfashionable garments were older in origin than they truly were.

*    All photographs from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise specified.

**  Photograph of "Countryman's Smock taken by Gertrude Jekyll, scanned by George P. Lindow. (This photograph may be found here on The Victorian Web. This image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose.   More detail about the conditions under which similar images from The Victorian Web may be used can be viewed here).


  1. In a similar way, science fiction projections of the future are very much creations of their time. One of the interests / pleasures of reading 'classic' science fiction is to see how people in (say) the 1950s thought the future would unfold. Sliderules in a faster-than-light rocket ship anybody?


  2. In one of his books - I believe it was _The Ra Expeditions_ - Thor Heyerdahl mentioned seeing a temple in Ethiopia (IIRC) with murals portraying various biblical scenes. In the one depicting the aftermath of Moses parting the Red Sea, Pharaoh's drowning soldiers are wearing steel helmets and carrying rifles.

  3. i was always of the mind that these paintings are mostly good for what the artist considered "old-fashioned", perhaps a generation or two back, nothing more.

  4. I agree with everything all of you have said so far. Artists do tend to depict other times in the clothing of the present--even when they're writing about the future (note the beehive hairstyles in 1960's science fiction movies about the future, for example). I thought it would be amusing to point out what I thought was a particularly glaring example that I found recently while reading about a different subject.

  5. I do not think Rossetti intended hte costume to be medieval. Smocks of this type are not medieval. Your own commentary highlights non-medieval features, notably the drover's boots, printed fabric, woman's shawl. The drover's hat could simply be a pleasing shape for the artist - if anything, it looks Russian but no-one is suggesting that this is a picture of Russians ! When the Pre-Raphaelites did paint medieval/Renaissance scenes intentionally, these tended to be well researched . see Millais' "Isabella". See also Roy Strong's "And When Did You Last See Your Father?" (first edition) for a good account of how much research on historical costume existed in this period. Here I think Rossetti is contrasting the rustic virtue of the drover with the decadence of the town which has led the woman to her " destruction". Rossetti tended to favour clothing that was timeless !

    1. Hi! Welcome to my blog.

      I'm inclined to agree, upon further reflection, that Rossetti was not attempting to specifically depict medieval clothing. However, my major point in this post was to observe that his idea of "timeless" wasn't so much timeless as it was kind of a hodge-podge of different historical styles. Such hodge-podges do not fool people who have specific knowledge of historical costume, and Rossetti may well have made his choices of what garments to use purely for artistic reasons, but I think they tend to be misleading to laymen who are ignorant both of Rossetti's art and historical costume.

  6. Further to my previous comment, which has not appeared, could I point out that Rossetti wrote of this picture :
    The picture represents a London street at dawn, with the lamps still lighted along a bridge that forms the distant background. The drover has left his cart standing in the middle of the road (in which, i.e. the cart, stands baa-ing a calf on its way to market) and has run a little way after a girl who has passed him, wandering in the streets. He has just come up with her and she, recognizing him, has sunk under her shame upon her knees, against the wall of a raised churchyard in the foreground, while he stands holding her hands as he seized them, half in bewilderment and half guarding her from doing herself a hurt. [Correspondence 2:13] (The Victorian Web) The referene to lamps being lighted, and their appearance over the bridge, suggests very non-medieval gaslight .
    In addition, the subject of the "lost" woman was very Victorian ( though with biblical resonances). This picture is usually taken as a rare attempt by Rossetti at a " modern life" picture.

    1. Your prior comment had not appeared at the time you wrote this one because I use comment moderation on this blog for comments on entries more than a month or so old, to minimize the appearance of spam comments. As you'll see, your other comment is here and I've replied to it.

      Regarding your comments about Rossetti's intent and the statement that "[t]his picture is usually taken as a rare attempt by Rossetti at a 'modern life' picture" (do you have a specific source/s for that statement?) I'm a bit surprised by it. "Found" strikes me as neither Victorian nor of any other one historical period. Perhaps Rossetti's comment shows that he really did equate "timeless" with "a mix of striking but inconsistent historical details"! But it doesn't strike me as a "modern life" picture of any era, including Rossetti's, and I'd be interested in knowing whether his contemporaries viewed it as such.