Henrietta Rae 1859 – 1928

While searching the Pre-Raphaelites I stumbled across Henrietta Rae. I’m sure y’all know by now how important the femme is to my life and art, and considering the Pre- Raphealite’s seemed more of a boys club it was a brilliant discovery!

Born on 30th December 1859 in London, she started her formal arts training at age 13 as the first female student at Heatherley’s School of Art. Apparently she applied to the Royal Academy of Arts five times before she obtained a seven year scholarship – persistence pays!

Rae married fellow student and painter, Ernest Normand in 1884 and kept her maiden name which just wasn’t done then, but she was already making a name for herself on the art scene. Love this woman!! Headstrong and rebellious with feminist attitude to burn! They lived in Holland Park which was the place to be as an artist. Frequented by other creatives including Millais and Leighton to name a few.

In 1890 the couple moved to Paris to study at Academie Julian before moving back to Upper Norwood to custom built studio. What I wouldn’t give for a custom built studio! I really can’t complain as I have a large studio space with loads of natural light though the ceiling is rather low. Anyway I digress….

Like her Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries, Rae drew inspiration from classical literature and mythology. her painting of Florence Nightingale (also known as the Lady with the Lamp) is probably her most well known artwork but I feel she had so many better pieces.

Considering women weren’t allowed to attend life drawing classes (WTF??) Rae’s paintings show a femininity that isn’t apparent in the likes of Millais and Waterhouse. Her use of gold, flowers and the sheerness of some of her fabrics are so beautiful. But she also could show strength in her subjects like Florence Nightingale and Ophelia.

Rae broke down barriers helping make the nude a socially acceptable painting in the 1900’s. She was a feminist and suffragette juggling two children and an impressive art career. She had many exhibitions including one she organised in 1897 for women artists to commemorate Queen Victoria’s jubilee.

My practice is already verging on the whimsical fantasy and floral like Rae’s but I can learn much from her composition and female nude. I particularly love her paintings of nymphs and the colour choices which seem much softer and almost dreamy. Rae continues to inspire new generations of femme artists.

Into the Light: Henrietta Rae and the academic nude


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