Annie Louisa Robinson Swynnerton (1844–1933) was an English painter whose work reflects a transition from Pre-Raphaelitism to Symbolism. She trained at the Manchester School of Art and the Académie Julian in Paris. Swynnerton was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite artists George Frederic Watts and Edwards Burne-Jones as well as by the rustic realism of the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage. She was an active feminist and suffragette and co-founded the Manchester Society of Women Painters in 1876. Although she may have been regarded as “liberal” in her time, her activities as a feminist reflected humanism within the framework of the traditional religious and philosophical view of the world.
The Manchester Art Gallery is currently holding the first major exhibition of Swynnerton’s work since 1923. One site makes the claim that her work fell into obscurity during the 20th century due to “dominance of male artists, administrators and historians in the art world and prejudices that deemed women incapable of creative thought and vision equal to men”. Such a claim is severe disinformation. Male artists as well as females who expressed the metaphysical tradition in the early 20th century were marginalized by modernist agendas.
As I did research for this post, I found articles on online which placed Swynnerton’s activity within the framework of a socialist class struggle but none which focused on the poetry of her art. The lead sentence for the Manchester Art Gallery Swynnerton exhibit web page claims she “challenged convention in art and life”. Give me a break, Swynnerton’s lovely Cupid and Psyche doesn’t challenge convention any more than Bouguereau’s figures challenged convention. Yes, there were restrictions during the Victorian period prohibiting women from painting nude figures but the freedom Swynnerton sought was not a transgression against tradition. Many feminist theorists such as Mary Devereaux would regard Cupid and Psyche as an “oppressive text” and would object to Swynnerton’s seeing the world “thought male eyes.” Only feminist doublethink could appropriate Swynnerton’s art.
I’m sure when Swynnerton’s painting was titled Illusions there was an understood allegorical meaning of the painting. Swynnerton was a symbolist painter, I assume she would have hoped for an interest in her symbolism! I couldn’t find any articles online that interpreted the title of the painting but I did find a site that describes the painting as a “half-length portrait of a young girl with blonde hair, dressed in a suit of armour and chain mail…A bird sits on the girl’s right shoulder with a ploom that extends dramatically to the chest area.” The “bird” that sits on the girl’s shoulder does not have an eye or beak since the feathers are part of the girl’s left wing, part of the other wing can be seen to the left of the girl’s sun lit hair. The girl in Illusions is a painting of what is known to people with traditional beliefs as an angel. As far as the interpretation of the painting, my best guess is that the angel is visiting from the metaphysical realm, she has extended her right hand to touch our world, but fortunately, she is armored against the illusions of materialist perception.
Several of the articles I found on Swynnerton gave attention to the loose brush work of her paintings, comparing her work to the Impressionists. But such a comparison is misleading, English artists had painted with loose brush work since the time of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792) founder of the Royal Academy. Reynolds’ loose hand was actually was the source of scorn for the original Pre-Raphaelites. But later Pre-Raphaelites, such as George Frederic Watts painted with looser strokes, in turn, Swynnerton was inspired by Watts’ work. So Swynnerton’s loose hand was certainly not a challenge to convention.
A preoccupation with brush strokes is like reading a poem to enjoy the sound of the words without reflecting on what the words mean. The most “challenging” aspect of Swynnerton’s art is the symbolism of her paintings which is generally ignored. The subtext of New Risen Hope reflects a faith in the innocent subject who has not been disenchanted by the artificial organization of the modern world. Rather than placing faith in the collective progress of intuitions, the painting expresses the sacramental dignity of being human. The semantics of New Risen Hope are in complete opposition to the transhuman arc.