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The Representation of Colored Textiles in Victorian Painting (2013-2014)

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This collaborative research project aims at shedding light on the way the material culture of weaving was conceived and represented in the changing industrial age by painters who longed to retrieve artistic traditions from the past, notably from the Middle-Ages.

As the starting-point of this project, we will carry out a series of non-invasive chemical analyses on three major late 19th century paintings preserved in UK and USA to explore the representation of textiles from the past. The identification of the materials used to produce the multiple hues of textile fibers is a challenge because of their potential complexity : it is difficult to consider that only traditional pigments were used ; new materials probably including cadmium-based pigments and synthetic organic dyes (like new aniline dyes) were probably mixed together to enrich the chromatic palette of the artists. The results of the analyses will be compared with the letters and orders written by these painters to the English colourmen.

Then we will look at literary connections with the medievalist poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose very pictorial style inspired many Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic artists longing to escape the ugliness of the modern age. The different paintings that we have selected perfectly illustrate this colourful encounter with the Middle Ages – an idealized period during which the craftsman/woman, using natural, organic products, was more deeply involved with his/her creation than the modern worker in the English textile industry, according to William Morris.

However the choice of weaving women also raises a series of questions relating to gendered as well as aesthetic issues. The William Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shalott has abandoned her domestic chores to escape from the tower in which she is held captive – the coloured threads literally and metaphorically figuring this entanglement. This implicit questioning of gendered roles echoes the changing perceptions of women in the late 19th century.

Head of this project : Dr. Charlotte RIBEYROL, Senior Lecturer at the Paris-Sorbonne University, Voix anglophones, littérature et esthétique, EA4085, with the collaboration of Philippe WALTER, LAMS

Analyses by X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and spectrocolorimetry of the pigments on the Lady of Shalott, William Holman Hunt (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum, Hartford, Connecticut, USA), in November 2013.