Victorian Morality

Issues of morality were central for the Victorians. With regard to sexuality, the Victorians believed that sex in mankind was unnatural and repression was necessary. With the strong societal enforcement of these beliefs, many Victorians lived with great shame, guilt, and fear of damnation. The extreme virtuosity that the women were expected to uphold is unimaginable in today's society. Passion was deviant, and thoughts of sexuality would cause insanity.

When the Pre-Raphaelites painted and wrote poetry on these themes of sexual morality, they held true to their goal of realism. However, as you would imagine, they were often met with shock and criticism.

Victorian society held a double standard for men and women. While it was unthinkable that a woman would have any sexual thoughts, it was understood that a man did. Although he was expected to control these urges the best he could, the man was allowed some latitude. Theoretically, he was expected to remain faithful to his wife, but if he occasionally visited a prostitute to "relieve himself of evils," his wife was expected to overlook this and welcome him back.

Awash in symbolism, The Awakening Conscience shows a kept mistress at the moment of her realization. Hunt intended to show her possibility for redemption. We know this woman's situation by her lack of wedding ring. As well, the man's hat on the table tells us he is a visitor to the home. The soiled white glove on the floor foreshadows the woman's reputation should she stay with her lover. The room was painted from a home where many married, wealthy men were known to house their mistresses. On the theme of her salvation, the music on the floor is Tears Idle Tears, which contrasted past innocence with present wretchedness. As well, the music on the piano indicates the woman's sad present situation. The light shining through the window represents Christ as the Light of the World and her possible salvation. The white roses in the garden are traditional symbols of purity.

"Why, Jenny as I watch you there,--
For all your wealth and loosened hair,
Your silk ungirdled and unlac'd
And warm sweets open to the waist,
All golden in the lamplight's gleam,--
You know not what a book you seem,
Half-read by lightning in a dream!"

Found was based on William Bell Scott's poem Rosabell and Rossetti's own poem, Jenny. The painting remained unfinished. As described by Helen Rossetti, the painting is about "A young drover from the country, while driving his calf to market, recognizes in a fallen woman on the pavement, his former sweetheart. He tries to raise her from where she crouches on the ground, but with closed eyes, she turns her face from him to the wall." The young woman had since become a prostitute. Note the symbolism of the netted calf struggling to break free.

by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Here, we see a remark on illegitimacy. Brown places the viewer of the painting in the role of the perpetrator. The theme is the traditional one of the fallen woman and child, but instead of displaying the typical Victorian shame and guilt, the woman shows pride. Her attitude of defiance confronts the father, wanting to know what he will do about the situation.