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Sat, 16 Sept


Virtual Event

A Fishy Tail: Gendering Pre-Raphaelite Mermaids and Sirens

Speaker: Cecilia Neil-Smith

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A Fishy Tail: Gendering Pre-Raphaelite Mermaids and Sirens
A Fishy Tail: Gendering Pre-Raphaelite Mermaids and Sirens

Time & Location

16 Sept 2023, 11:00 BST – 17 Sept 2023, 11:00 BST

Virtual Event

About the event

Cecilia's PhD research focuses on androgynous depictions of mermaids and sirens in Victorian art and literature,  exploring the possibility that they acted as a symbol for trans and non-binary communities during the latter half of the nineteenth century. This paper focuses on the works of two highly influential Pre-Raphaelite artists, Evelyn De Morgan and Edward Burne-Jones and their exploration of gender nonconformity, both in their own lives and their artwork, but crucially through their interpretations of selected literature. De Morgan's mermaid triptych, based upon Hans Christian Anderson's 'The Little Mermaid' (1837) will be analysed in relation to the tale itself, and to both De Morgan's and Anderson's unconventional lifestyles. She will argue that, through the use of the androgynous mermaid, these three images - namely 'The Little Sea Maid' (1886), The Sea Maidens (1888) and 'Daughters of the Mist (1914) - act both as a vehicle through which to support the ongoing fight for women's rights, and as a symbol for gender nonconformity. Edward Burne-Jones's two large-scale marine works, 'The Depth of the Sea' (1886) and the unfinished oil painting 'The Sirens' (1870-98) will also be discussed, as reflections of the artist's progressive views on changing gender roles in the Victorian era. Cecilia will be relating the paintings to their textual sources - namely Homer's 'The Odyssey', which experienced a surge in popularity during the late nineteenth century, and the sea-themed poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She hopes to reveal how text and image can unite to convey a message of acceptance and empowerment for gender nonconforming individuals in the Victorian era.

Cecilia is in her second year of PhD studies in Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter, and her project focuses on mermaids and sirens as figures of indeterminate gender in art and literature between 1860 and 1910. She previously studied English (BA) and Victorian Literature, Art and Culture (MA) at Royal Holloway, University of London, before studying for a History of Art Postgraduate Certificate at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research interests include Pre-Raphaelite depictions of gender, Victorian Spiritualism and the representation of mythical creatures and monsters in British art.


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