Art in Context | Finding Fanny Eaton: The Challenge of Victorian Britain’s Perpetually Painted but Never Seen Black Model

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About this program

The unmistakable likeness of Afro-Jamaican model Fanny Eaton appears in several works by artists affiliated with the Pre-Raphaelite circle (PRB). Exploiting her racially ambiguous appearance, the painters for whom she modeled cast her in a diverse array of “ethnic” guises, using her figure to represent any racial identity other than, ironically, her own. Moreover, while aficionados of Pre-Raphaelite art will likely recognize her familiar face, her name remained virtually unknown until recently.

Now, after well over a century as little more than a curious footnote in the annals of art history, Fanny Eaton is finally getting her fifteen minutes of fame— resurrected as the Pre-Raphaelites’ token Black “stunner” and hailed as “the Black Pre-Raphaelite muse that time forgot.” However, this all-too-easy elevation of Eaton to “PRB it girl” status denies the important differences between her position relative to the movement and those of the sisters, wives, lovers, and friends who make up the conventional roster of legendary Pre-Raphaelite beauties (many of them important PRB culture-makers themselves). What then—beyond biography and without making overly speculative claims about her agency or her place in the history of Pre-Raphaelite art—can we restore to Fanny Eaton?

This talk addresses some of the challenges of maintaining Eaton’s position at the center of inquiry into pictures that were never meant to represent her—even when they featured her face (sometimes twice!) at the center of the canvas—and models some potential strategies for negotiating them. Thinking about whether, how, and where we might find Fanny Eaton in these paintings highlights broader concerns that museums must consider as they move forward with the project of responsible interpretation and expanding the range of representation of their collections.

About Mia L. Bagneris

Mia L. Bagneris is an associate professor of art history and Africana studies and director of the Africana studies program at Tulane University. Focusing primarily on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British and American visual culture, much of her scholarship explores the representation of race in the Anglo-American world and the place of images in the histories of slavery, colonialism, empire, and the construction of national identities. She is the author of Colouring the Caribbean: Race and the Art of Agostino Brunias (Manchester University Press, 2018) and the coauthor, with Anna Arabindan-Kesson, of a forthcoming collection of essays, Reframing “Black Art”: Case Studies in Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture (Routledge, 2024). She is currently completing her third book project, Imagining the Oriental South: The Enslaved Mixed-Race Beauty in British Visual Culture, 1865–1900. Dr. Bagneris’s research and other scholarly activities have been supported by grants and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, Harvard University’s W. E. B. DuBois Institute, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the Terra Foundation, and the Yale Center for British Art. She and colleague Stephanie Porras were recently awarded a major grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop Tulane’s new innovative, interdisciplinary graduate program, Crossroads Cohort: Africana Studies at the Intersection of Art History and Practice.


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Art in Context

Presented by faculty, staff, Student Guides, and Visiting Scholars, these talks focus on a particular work of art—often in the museum’s collections or special exhibitions—through an in-depth look at its style, subject matter, technique, or time period.

Top image
Joanna Mary Wells (née Boyce), Fanny Eaton, 1861, oil on paper laid to linen, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund