Hello, I love your blog. Apropos of 1800s week, my friend who is studying Victorian art just told me about this woman known as Mrs. Eaton who was used by a lot of pre-raphaelite artists as a model anytime they needed someone vaguely ‘eastern’. The only two portraits I can find of her are Joanna Boyce Wells’ ‘Head of a Mulatto, and Edward Poynter’s ‘Adoration to Ra’ where her face is actually used for an Egyptian man:Do any of you know anything else about her? It’s neat to come across a pre-raphaelite model who is not lily-white with red hair.
[mod note: as always, it’s hard to find information on many models and artists of color, especially when there’s been an effort to make people “forget”. There’s an article somewhere in The Independent about this woman, but they’ve got it under their paid subscriber’s section. Here’s what I could find out, along with a few more paintings and studies!]
Mrs Eaton, a model of African extraction, was much in demand among the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic circles of artists in the late 1850s and 1860s. She had prominent cheek-bones and a strong chin, while her cheeks and eyes appeared rather hollow. Her face therefore showed as a variety of powerful planes, and lent itself to a sculptural style of drawing. In addition, she had a mass of dark hair, worn on the back and sides of her head and parted at the centre of her head, and which lent a distinctive and - in the context of mid-Victorian English art - most unusual appearance.
Simeon Solomon seems first to have drawn Mrs Eaton in November 1859, in preparation for the figures of Jochabed and Miriam in his painting The Mother of Moses (Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware). Two drawings, each related to one of these two figures who were mother and daughter but apparently both showing Mrs Eaton, are in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The finished painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1860. The present drawing, which shows Mrs Eaton’s head and face looking to the left, was made the following October.
Joanna Boyce made a study of Mrs Eaton in 1861, showing her head and shoulders in profile, in preparation for a painting called A Sibyl (the sketch is in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut). Mrs Eaton was the model for Albert Moore’s The Mother of Sisera (Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle), also of 1861. In 1865, she was used by D.G. Rossetti for the figure of the bridesmaid in his The Beloved (Tate). Rossetti’s drawing of her head made in preparation for the painting is in the Stanford Museum, California. In August 1865 Rossetti responded to an enquiry from Ford Madox Brown about her, telling Brown that her address was ‘24 Cromer Street, Gray’s Inn Road’, and explaining that ‘She isn’t Hindoo but mulatto’, and that ‘She has a very fine head & figure - a good deal of Janey [Morris]’ (quoted, W.E. Fredeman et al (eds), The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Cambridge 2002-, III, p.322).
Mrs Eaton seems to have given up modelling and disappears from the artistic scene after the middle of the decade. No further biographical information is forthcoming.
During her career Fanny Eaton sat for quite a number of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Her features can be spied in a number of finished canvasses and preparatory drawings. And yet more often than not her importance as a Pre-Raphaelite model is often overlooked or forgotten.
When scouring the ‘stunner lists’ put together by art historians and fans of Pre-Raphaelite art Eaton is always omitted from the string of familiar names, Siddal, Cornforth, Wilding, Miller, Stillman, Zambaco and Morris. This begs the question why? What makes one woman a stunner and another not? So what is the reason for Eaton’s omission? Could it be……
…..The calibre of the artists for whom she sits? Well, in Eaton’s case she sat for prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle including Rossetti, Millais, Sandys as well as a wide number of associated artists including Rebecca and Simeon Solomon, Albert Moore and Joanna Boyce, so that can’t be it.
In August 1865 Rossetti writes to Madox-Brown and describes Eaton as having ‘a very fine head and figure-a good deal of Janey’ (letter 268). The last part of his statement is very telling and important as it demonstrates how Rossetti saw Eaton. He equates her beauty as being equal to that of Janey’s (and we all know how he felt about her!), therefore by extension for Rossetti at least, Eaton had stunner qualities and status.
I was once informed that the reason that Eaton was overlooked was that she didn’t appear in any important paintings unlike the other ‘stunners’. I would beg to differ. When I have shown images containing Eaton there is always an audible gasp at The Mother of Sisera and The Head of Mrs Eaton, and I am always asked which gallery these works are in. This response, the interest people show in wanting to see these pictures; that they are drawn to them tells me that these are important pictures.
Alas, Eaton’s modelling career for the Pre-Raphaelites seems to have been a short but intense one; she modelled out of necessity to augment her earnings when her employment as a ‘charwoman’ (daily cleaner) was not enough to sustain her family of seven children. By 1881 Eaton had been widowed and was working as a seamstress, and then later she is living on the Isle of Wight and working as a domestic cook. After this we lose sight of her……..