Ellyn Smith von Huben took a second trip to the Chicago Art Institute this Lent to get a closer look at the classic "stunners" in Pre-Raphaelite art. Comparing their captivating beauty to the stunners of Christian art and sculpture, Ellyn proposes a slight redefinition of the term.
I was and still am a big fan of Pre-Raphaelite art. I did my senior paper about Women and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, from which you are spared copious quotations, due to the fact that I kept it for a few years and then lost it. Or maybe threw it out. My husband would mention the "A" that I received and say, “you should really write more”. But writing was not that appealing to me, so maybe I threw it out to drive away the spectre of myself pounding away at the keyboard. Like the “Hound of Heaven”, both God and writing chased me down and wouldn’t let me get away.
In an epic display of youthful egotism, I began the class presentation of my paper with a short piece on Ellen Smith – one of the “Stunners” of the PRB. Ellen Smith—Ellyn Smith, get it? At least I didn’t go to bed the night before with braided hair in an attempt to display the lush, wavy locks that are so often seen in the beautiful Stunners in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. (Had tried it once – didn’t work.) Some part of me didn’t want to just write about the Stunners, it wanted me to be one.
Ellen Smith is often noted as having the background of a “poor laundress”. I could say the same about myself, though motherhood has made me a better laundress. All joking aside, Ellen’s career as a model was ruined when her face was slashed by a jealous suitor. And she didn’t make one of the marvelous marriage matches that most of the other PRB models did. She married a cabbie and lived the rest of her life in obscurity. Just one more poor Ellen Smith...
This Lent, we've asked one of our favorite writers, Ellyn von Huben, to look at some works of art though a "Catholic lens." And boy, does she see some incredible stuff. This week, she gives an oft-ignored work by Ivan Le Loraine Albright a good once-over, and we are all better off because of it.
There is a painting that I stop to see every time I visit the Art Institute of Chicago. This has been going on for many years, since my first trip to our city’s splendid repository of great art. In fact, it is probably my favorite. Many people have a great deal of affection for Grant Wood’s American Gothic or Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But I've always been the most drawn in by the poignant and grotesque That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do by Illinois’ own Ivan Le Loraine Albright. It is known also by the simple title, The Door.
While most works of art are sufficient with no title attached, it is the sorrow in the painting’s longer title that makes it a great work for contemplation. Regret. The artist’s own verbalization of deep regret is the final touch that makes Albright’s work magnificent. No matter what it was that the artist regretted, viewing it stings our own sense of regret.
More people are familiar with Albright because of his portrait of Dorian Gray, painted for the movie version of Oscar Wilde’s book, which was filmed in the 1940’s. There is not a lot I remember about the movie — I think Donna Reed was in it — except for the revelation of Gray’s portrait as being a wonderful depiction of what must have been in Wilde’s imagination. But for me, it is The Door that is Albright’s masterpiece. This is a masterpiece of 10 year’s toil. Albright went through several wreaths, the hand model finally quit and he had to use a plaster cast of a hand. For Albright, great productivity consisted of the completion of a square inch of the painting, often using brushes with only one or two hairs...