The Pained Heart by Arthur Hughes

The Pained Heart or Sign no More, by Arthur Hughes
The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood started as a 'rebellion' against conventional art, the rules that had been molded and taught in art schools based off the masters of the Italian Renaissance, in particular Raphael Sanzio, hence the name Pre-Raphael.

Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck
They wanted to harken back to the Flemish and Quattrocento or Byzantine styles. It's quite natural that I'm drawn to their art as I really love those styles, especially Dutch art (Van Eyck, Vermeer, Rembrandt).

Although Hughes' are enhanced with a Victorian eye for patterns and a softer look in the subjects, if you compare his painting to that of Van Eyck's famous Arnolfini portrait, you'll notice a few similarities in the styles, and use of symbols, and color.

But what do the symbols mean?

On the left side, if we look out the window a sparrow is perched on the bush outside. 

"The sparrow shown near a window, perched on a ledge, flying in a window, flying outside a window or perched on a branch outside a window, represents the soul of a recently deceased loved one..." Source

The elder lady is wearing mourning clothes but the younger is not. A death does not seem quite the right meaning. How else could we interpret the symbol?

Let's take a look at the subtitle of the painting. You probably recognize it from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing:
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh nor more;
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never;
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into. Hey nonny, nonny.

Perhaps its not the death of a loved one but the death of an image she'd built of the man she loves; her heart has been broken or is about to be.

What about the lute? Vermeer uses the instrument in quite a few of his paintings:

Love Letter, by Johannes Vermeer
"The lute is rich not only in repertoire but in could be an emblem of lust or lasciviousness... If the lute's sensuous and delicate tones evoked the pleasures of love, the fleeting nature of its sound, and the physical fragility of the instrument made it a fitting emblem of transience and death..." Source
Again we have the ideas of passion and death. It's on the floor rather than being played, as though cast away in her reverie.

To the right of the painting, hanging on the loom is a shell. Similar to the one used by  Botticelli in his Birth of Venus. Shells often represent sensuality, fertility, and wealth.

You'll also notice the pink rose petals on the floor. Do you see the light pink roses flying about to the left of Botticelli's painting? Venus, in Roman mythology was the goddess of love.

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli
Victorians used flowers convey meaning both in art and literature. A pink rose means 'grace' and do you see the bluebells embroidered in the curtain? They symbolize humility.

What secrets do you see? What do you think her story is? Has she just discovered the truth about her love? or does it loom before her as the  concerned and kind-looking elderly lady does?


Cassandra said...

Katherine, once again am I amazed to see how much you are able to discover in paint on a canvas! Although I love arts I would never be able to look at a painting so scientifically: to me this was just the picture of a beautiful, unhappy girl and since I, unlike you, had no key to unlock the secret and decipher all the hidden symbols I simply decided on a story that seemed fitting to me.

To me the young woman is intelligent and strong, she is curious and wants to see the world, but she is drowning in her environment's expectations. Everyone knows the course the life of a wealthy young lady is supposed to be, and there are certainly no adventures involved.
So, I always thought she was dreaming of freedom and the elder lady came to tell her that a rich, boring noble man had come and asked to be engaged to her, thus destroying all her hopes of an independent, happy future.

But of course all of this was before you crushed my carefully woven story with pure logic ;)
Anyway, perhaps it's a combination of our two ideas (no, I won't give my freedom idea up!)?

She fell in love with a man who pretended to understand her, to offer her the future she had always dreamt of: an exciting life. What if he had promised to ask the girl's father for her hand in marriage this morning, and she had been looking out of the window all day, awaiting his arrival, but he didn't come, he only sent a letter to say that he did not want to see her again.
The young lady already foresees that he has left her and now the elder lady turns up to tell her about the message in the letter.

Quite dramatic, isn't it? But I can't stop creating stories when I see such beautiful paintings, stories like the paintings themselves: beautiful but sad.

Katherine said...

@Cassandra Thank you. I took an Art History class in high school and research the symbols I don't know of online.

I love your story. The nice thing about Art is you can interpret it many different ways, just like Literature. People see different things.

You can do the same with interpreting the symbols and background information. It's always debatable, for example, you could turn it around to support your story! :)

The symbols of death could be the death of her freedom. The lute on the floor could be she must lay down her wishes in love and follow convention. The shell hung up on the loom could be giving up or putting aside her passions.