Grace Nuth Talks Pre-Raphaelite Mermaids

8 Jan

So Grace Nuth is a writer, blogger, and Faerie Magazine editor, as well as a gorgeous, luminous art-photography model with flaming locks. She is also a long-time lover of the Pre-Raphaelites and runs the all-things-Pre-Raphaelite blog The Beautiful Necessity (and another, Domythic Bliss). Recently, we were on a panel together about mermaids at FaerieCon, and she talked about her deep love for Pre-Raphaelite mermaids, while magically and obnoxiously looking just like a Pre-Raphelite mermaid. [OK: a few years back, yours truly was asked to model, clothed, for an art class. During this torturous few hours one of the painters said that I looked just like a Pre-Raphaelite model, causing me to love her eternally, and then the instructor immediately and rudely corrected her to say I was actually someone Rubens would have painted…!]

Obviously, I had to put my own past traumas aside and interview her. But first, here are a couple of photos of Grace being gorgeous and Pre-Raphaelite-y and hanging out with wolves:

"Shakespeare Faeire" by Richard Wood

“Shakespeare Faeire” by Richard Wood

A cropped image by Rachel Lauren

A cropped image by Rachel Lauren

So how did you become interested in the Pre-Raphaelites?
Like so many of us who love the Pre-Raphaelites, my discovery of them came like a slow-slide into Wonderland. I saw a poster of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott when I was sixteen, and from there I found out more about not only his art, but of the Brotherhood that came before him and inspired much of his work. My walls were soon covered with as many posters as I could find with art from Waterhouse, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and more.

However, it wasn’t until about seven years ago that I made friends with a few people who were enthusiastic not only about the art, but the artists themselves. I started reading books about the absolutely fantastical lives of Millais, Burne-Jones, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddal, and more. Their lives were almost more riveting than their art, which is saying something!

Coming up on February 4th, I’ll be celebrating the 5-year anniversary of my blog about the Pre-Raphaelites, The Beautiful Necessity. I’ve been blogging about their lives, their art, and its influence on us today for five years now, and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the fascinating stories they (and their art!) have to tell.

I understand that the pre-Raphaelites loved mermaids and featured them in their art regularly. Why do you think that was? What is the appeal?
The Pre-Raphaelites were considered artistic rebels in their time (for going against the status quo of what should be painted, the methods used, the education a proper artist should receive, etc). However, they were absolutely also a product of the Victorian era, a time that was simultaneously quite modern, and yet also still suffered from outdated stereotypes and attitudes. Specifically, the attitude of the male-dominated society toward women was still rife with fear, stereotype, and misogyny. A woman was only “good” if she was virginal and unmarried, or married and motherly and nurturing. I once did a blog post about the fascinating symbolism of hair in Victorian times. To see a woman’s hair down was an honor reserved only for her husband. Looking, then, at the free-flowing locks so ubiquitous to Pre-Raphaelite art, this gives us a very different view of what these women were meant to portray.

The Brotherhood was fascinated with women. This can be seen both in their private lives and in their public art. They consorted with women on the fringes of society, from backgrounds and lifestyles that were considered uncouth. And their love for (and yes, also fear of) these non-traditional and strong females came through in their art, through sensual and sexual representations that might seem sweet and romantic to us now, but at the time were considered almost pornographic.

Now, turning to mermaids in particular, I’m going to start by being blunt. Many Victorian artists painted mermaids for the same reason they painted faeries: an excuse to paint a nude woman and still have it legitimately hang-able in a gallery. But the Pre-Raphaelite depictions of mermaids just don’t seem to be solely an endeavor to titillate an audience. I truly believe that the simultaneous fear and fascination the Brotherhood felt toward females and femininity drew them to represent women in their art as symbolic figures, powerful mythic creatures, sorceresses, and yes, mermaids. Just as women were transforming from powerless to powerful, from voiceless to vocal members of society, so were mermaids, a creature of both land and sea, both mortal and fae, a perfect representation of this tumult and struggle. As women slowly found new power and voice in the evolving society, their confidence translated in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites to sensuous and beautiful depictions of bare-chested nubile maidens, tossing their long wild hair in the breeze for all to see, but lacking traditional sexual organs or means for pleasure to the viewer. They are the ultimate depiction of a tantalizing late Victorian woman finally realizing her own power.

Can you share some of your favorite pre-Raphaelite mermaid art?
My all time favorite artwork is Depths of the Sea by Edward Burne-Jones.

The Depths of the Sea

The fascinating thing about this particular artwork is how very different it is from most of Burne-Jones’ other mermaid paintings. Burne-Jones differed from the traditional mermaid depiction (or melusine, or siren, or nymph, all similar creatures often painted by the Brotherhood) in that his mermaids were often shown as sweet, gentle, and sometimes even nurturing mothers. My friend Kirsty has written a wonderful blog post about Burne-Jones and his love of mermaids.

So the odd thing about this painting is how very dark it is, both literally in color and feel and figuratively in subject and mood. The mermaid looking out from the canvas is masterfully painted, with an expression I can only describe as Mona Lisa-like in its mysterious secrecy and amoral amusement. The first time I saw this artwork reproduced, it literally stopped me in place and kept me from breathing for a moment. It perfectly represents the entirety of faerie to me…the seductiveness of its mystery, and the simultaneous danger of its amorality. Faerie creatures, mermaids included, are often described as missing the moral or emotional compulsion that mortals have. They are neither forces for good nor evil, but are capable of both in following their capricious whims. This is embodied perfectly in The Depths of the Sea.

There are other artworks of mermaids I love, namely Waterhouse’s famous mermaid combing her hair on a rock (I actually prefer the sketch instead of the finished piece for whatever reason):


and The Cave of the Storm Nymphs by Poynter (not quite technically mermaid art, but quite similar):


But The Depths of the Sea is by far my favorite.

Do you yourself have an affinity for mermaids? What is their appeal for you?
Like so many women, as a young girl I spent a bathtime or two or ten pretending I was a mermaid rescued by a handsome prince and awaiting a spell to turn my tail to human legs. I have to admit though that my own fascination and affinity for sea creatures leans more in the direction of the selkie, a Celtic creature who can change at will from seal form to mortal, as long as her or his seal skin is not stolen. However, the reason behind my fascination with selkies is quite similar, I would assume, to the draw of mermaids for so many people: the way that she is a creature who represents a transition between two realms.

I think it is the rare person who feels wholly one thing or another. Even the sweetest of us has a dark side, even the darkest can show some kindness. And those of us who are drawn to fantasy, to fairy tale, to Faerie, often felt as if we were outsiders in our own lives, in school, at work. Mermaids appeal to us as something we can hold secret, hold close…a creature who also is not wholly one thing or another, who belongs in two worlds, as some of us also feel we do.

What, if anything, distinguishes a Pre-Raphaelite mermaid from a modern-day one?
I already mentioned how the Pre-Raphaelite mermaid was in many ways a product of her Victorian era. The modern mermaid, by contrast, is often seen as more sweet, more a symbol of innocence and gentle grace. (the awesome depiction in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides being a rare exception) Of course part of the reason for this could not only be the social changes in our opinion of women and what is “proper” for their behavior and social place, but also the fact that the world, and its seas, seem to hold far less mysteries anymore. With less mystery and more scientific knowledge comes less fear and feeling of danger. When we know much of what the ocean holds, mermaids become less something that could really exist in an inaccessible part of the ocean to the Victorian sailor, and more a storybook creature to charm and enchant our children.

And finally, do you have any advice for aspiring (pre-Raphaelite or not) mermaids?
A true mermaid is, in my opinion, neither fully the creature of danger and rebellion depicted in Pre-Raphaelite art, nor the wholly sweet and bubbly creature of the children’s books and movies we may see today. Just as the beauty and character and charm of womankind varies, so does the nature and character of the mermaid. We can take comfort in their variety, their transitory nature, and of course their mystery that so enchants us!

5 Responses to “Grace Nuth Talks Pre-Raphaelite Mermaids”

  1. Jenny January 8, 2013 at 10:49 AM #

    Two of my favorite women discussing a topic I love! Now that was a great way to start the day… Brings to mind the book “Idols of Perversity” which is on my to read list… the love/hate/fear/worship of women/madonna/mother/whore at the turn of the century.

    And in a touch of artistic irony – I am working on a nautilus & mermaid necklace today….

  2. cwaloski January 8, 2013 at 10:55 AM #

    Mermaids are the mothers of all life, presiding over an amniotic sea.

  3. Faeriedaughter January 8, 2013 at 12:22 PM #

    Mermaids rule! So do the pre-raphaelites and all their woman worry! My art teacher’s always said I looked pre-raphaelitey, which I wasn’t so keen on as my main experience of pre-raphaelites had been Rosetti and I really didn’t like his stuff, and then when I was a bit older I found Waterhouse’s mermaid painting and was astounded as the mermaid is almost an exact likeness of myself. Hells yeah!

  4. Vanessa Witschi January 8, 2013 at 5:11 PM #

    Grace, you might like to see my John William Waterhouse mermaid sculptures – I make polymer clay mermaids and I did a series on the JWW mermaid painting. If you want to look at them they are at my Facebook page called Mermaids Dreaming by Vanessa Witschi or click on the link below to get there directly.
    I’d be really interested in following your Pre-Raphaelite blog too as I love the art that came from that style and have also enjoyed reading about their lives and lifestyles! Very interesting!

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