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Ophelia (1852) by John Everett Millais


20 November 2023

The Power of Pain : The Reclamation of Women’s Pain Throughout Art History


‘Women are born with pain built in’: a thought-provoking and polarising quotation from Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, which inspired this exploration into women’s pain. Throughout history, the pain of women has been portrayed in a myriad of ways, ranging from relatively positive and appreciative, to fetishistic and appropriative. This made me wonder about the extent to which these interpretations are inherent in fine art, as well as the extent to which female artists intentionally manipulate their audiences using their pain. I’m intrigued by how the almost intrinsic pain of ‘womanhood’ is perpetuated and mirrored by different people throughout time. Artists such as Elisabetta Sirani and Artemisia Gentileschi during the Baroque period show pain during this time through the female gaze, while later pieces such as Ophelia (1852) by John Everett Millais will enable the exploration of the male gaze in the context of women’s pain, allowing for a contrast to be obtained through these differing sources. We see the male gaze persistently in media, where women have little purpose beyond their looks, whereas the female gaze appreciates women as they are: think of Margot Robbie in James Gunn’s Suicide Squad, as opposed to the actress’s role in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Emerging into the 20th century, artists such as Frida Kahlo and Marina Abromović show the evolution of women’s reclamation of their own pain to the present day.

First, a prominent female Italian painter of the Baroque period, Artemisia Gentileschi, illustrates a perspective from which we can see women being taken seriously within the art world for the first time. Painting throughout her childhood, she rose into the public eye with her painting Susanna and the Elders (1610), later claiming patrons including King Charles I as well as the Medici family. Gentileschi also boasted the position of being the first woman to be accepted into the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. Perhaps fuelling her artistic success is the fact that the painter was bereaved at age 12 by the death of her mother and left to raise her three brothers. Then, at the age of 18, she was raped by a family friend. These traumas heavily influenced her artwork, as she put her own spin on traditional narratives to empower women, as simultaneously much of Ginteleschi’s work depicts vengeful women who have been wronged, despite never painting them in the position of a victim. For example, her artwork Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-13) depicts the apocryphal story of Judith, who seduced and murdered Holofernes for planning to destroy her village. Gentileschi incorporates the typically passive old maid into the painting as a woman of roughly the same age as Judith, in a position of power directly over Holofernes. We see the two women actively inflicting pain in response to the proposed pain that would’ve been inflicted upon them and their homes. This scene was a popular inspiration for artists from the Medieval period through to the Baroque, as it explored relatively liberal themes of gender roles and power within the context of religion, though Gentileschi’s interpretation depicts the women in a significantly more capable and empowering manner than many others working contemporaneously to her.

Judith acts subversively, dominating Holofernes as her knuckles strain against his hair, seen through the use of light and shadows on her, and the hair entrapped between her fingers. The women’s power is enhanced and emphasised through the use of light, starkly contrasting the dark background. The white sheets, connoting purity and innocence, are corrupted through Holofernes’ blood. While there is the obvious symbolism of the bed representing sex and lust as Judith seduced Holofernes, Gentileschi transgresses this narrative by using the piece as a source of imagined revenge against the sexual violence which she endured; this interpretation also fits into the idea of female artists during the Baroque era often portraying themselves as biblical heroines both for the practical reason of using themselves as subjects when painting, and for the transgressive reason of reasserting their own power. 

Contemporaneously to Caravaggio’s interpretation (Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1602), Gentileschi was strikingly graphic in her depiction of blood, and she depicts her women in a significantly more commanding manner than her male counterpart. Already we see women subtly reclaiming their own pain and subverting the expected depictions of traditional stories in order to advertise their power and wills. Caravaggio presents Holofernes as incredibly muscular, and dissimilar to Gentileschi he appears to have been attacked in his sleep rather than amidst a seduction. Furthermore, Judith is dressed in virginal white and is sporting an incredibly disgusted expression next to her very stereotypically Jewish looking and old maid (while Judith appears overwhelmingly caucasian despite being Jewish herself), in an incredibly visceral likeness to Elisabetta Sirani’s Judith with the head of Holofernes.


Sirani (1628-65) was another contemporary of Gentileschi, who was proclaimed a ‘virtuoso’ by many of her colleagues, a title usually exclusive to male artists. She opened the first painting school for women in Europe and is considered to have overshadowed the work of her father; though she died at the age of 27 she left an expansive portfolio of nearly 200 paintings. Sirani also interpreted the story of Judith and Holofernes. This painting is in a style far more typical of iconography than other paintings of the Baroque era (which tended to be significantly more dramatic in terms of lighting and tone), with Judith portrayed in the same shade of dress which is quintessential of the Madonna. This is paired with porcelain white skin, in distinct contrast to the comparatively haggard maid next to her. These two interpretations show that while both Gentileschi and Sirani as ‘proto-feminists’ (meaning a feminist before feminism as a concept was properly developed) were purposeful in the subtle manipulations of their audiences, they employed their own pain (or the more fundamental understanding of their subjects’ pain) in markedly different manners. Sirani portrays Judith as incredibly detached from the rest of the painting, though, unlike the other two examples, Sirani’s Judith is the focal point of the painting, with the elaborately draped fabric of her sleeves at the centre of the painting, and Holofernes to the right edge. Despite this composition, the direction of Judith’s arms and the swathes of fabric around her are all drawing attention to Holofernes’ resigned and drained head. 

Each of these paintings considered it is clear that despite the differences, Gentileschi and Sirani were far more considered, sensitive, and female-focused than their male counterparts’ interpretation, even to the extent of the almost cartoon-esque, bright red blood in Caravaggio’s painting, juxtaposed against Gentileschi’s deeper and more grounded depiction. 

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, (1852)

Ophelia by John Everett Millais is an iconic painting of the pre-Raphaelite era depicting the Shakespearean character Ophelia. Amongst the patriarchal oppression of the world in which she lives, the character drowns as she is dragged under the water by the weight of her own clothes. Her death is shrouded in mystery as she was driven to a state of madness caused by the murder of her father by her lover, meaning there is much speculation of suicide. The subject of the painting is in an entirely submissive posture while surrounded by nature. Additionally, Ophelia is depicted at the moment of her death when she’s half submerged: underwater women have long been a symbol of social oppression in Western literature, and by extension, art. While being cleansing, water is also destructive; in this instance, it cleanses Ophelia of the pain of the society in which she lives, while simultaneously it is taking her life. 

Millais, as a man during the Georgian era, would likely not have understood the almost archetypal feminine experience of oppression on the most basic level, let alone the extent of the specific emotions quintessential of female oppression which could lead to suicide. This is not to say that men did not have their own struggles, yet the persistent force of the patriarchy did not enable a deeper understanding of the struggles of women; instead, it was perhaps the most significant contributing factor to the difficulties faced by women and in many ways remains as such today. As a pre-Raphaelite painter, Millais focused on nature, love, and death. His focus was on realism, and initially, he drew inspiration from Christianity, before looking to poetry and literature to pique his imagination. Even in death, Millais expects the woman as the subject of his painting to be beautiful and still, her complexion is clear and her eyebrows are neat, her hair is drawn back from her face and flows elegantly in the water - none of this suggests that she is in pain, it’s quite the opposite as she appears to be at peace, with some speculating that his goal was to paint the very act of dying as something beautiful. Ophelia’s expression is vacant and relaxed, her lips slightly parted in a manner bordering on seductive, the viewer is encouraged to judge and observe Ophelia’s morality based on her appearance.

Furthermore, Millais incorporates flowers into the painting. Within the play of Hamlet, flowers play a significant role as they are filled with symbolism, and this is no different within the context of the painting. However, amongst the daisies, crowflowers, nettles and orchids all referenced within the play symbolising Ophelia's delicate nature and the corruption which surrounded her, Millais also painted poppies which, within the context of Victorian England, were well known to be a symbol of opium, sleep, and death. In doing so, Millais has subverted the symbolic iconography detailed by Shakespeare in the original text to offer a more personalised and alternative interpretation of this famous scene.

In terms of form, Ophelia’s hands are turned upwards and she doesn’t resist her fate. This is suggestive of acceptance and overall the piece has a peaceful atmosphere as a result of the tones used and the overwhelming presence of nature. This is in contrast to the theme of pain, again emphasising Millais’ romanticisation of the subject. 

In terms of form, Ophelia’s hands are turned upwards, and she doesn’t resist her fate. This is suggestive of acceptance and overall, the piece has a peaceful atmosphere as a result of the deep tones of the foliage which melt into the softer tones of the subject herself. This is in contrast to the theme of pain, again emphasising Millais’ romanticisation of the subject. Modelling for Ophelia was Elizabeth Sidall, who posed in a bathtub heated by oil lamps. On an occasion, the lamps extinguished and Sidall was left in the increasingly cold water, leading her to become ill and spend time in the care of a private doctor. Millais was causing pain to the very person and subject whom he was attempting to appreciate, thus revealing the pervasive nature of male entitlement and the devastation which it can cause. This power dynamic is evident in the painting through Ophelia’s pained expression and contradictorily stiff and lucid body language. Her lack of interaction with the viewer, her absent gaze and apparently unintentional hand placement, and the side-on perspective blocking her from truly connecting with the viewer all bolster the connection between beauty and pain within art as the model is disregarded in the search for aesthetic magnificence. However, as much as this conclusion has strength, it must be acknowledged that Millais, as the painter, was likely aware of many of these attributes, and could manipulate them in ways that he saw fit. 

In the early 1900s, Frida Kahlo took a step forward. We had previously seen women masking their pain behind characters and biblical heroines, subtly injecting their own stories under the guise of a facade. However, Kahlo unapologetically portrayed her own pain, reclaiming the narrative through her honesty. She was disabled by a bus accident when she was aged 17, and she suffered 3 miscarriages likely as a cause of the injuries sustained to her pelvis. Similarly to Gentileschi, Kahlo presumably employed her art as a form of therapy to process the pain which she had endured. However, dissimilar to the 17th century artist, Kahlo’s pain did not solely stem from the actions of men. Though arguably, the turmoil of her marriage with muralist Diego Rivera, which was rife with affairs, provided Kahlo with plenty of pain with which she could employ to fuel her works. 

One of Kahlo’s most viscerally painful pieces is The Broken Column (1944), painted when she was aged 37. In this painting, Kahlo portrays the pain which she endured as a result of surgeries following the bus accident. She is alone in the middle of a green yet empty landscape where the sky is muddied with clouds, representing the emptiness which she often felt in life and her struggle for happiness. Mimicking her broken body is fractures in the landscape, at right angles to herself. This symbolises the disharmony that she felt with her natural body as well as nature itself. Kahlo is wrapped in a white brace, with white fabric covering her body below the waist, which contrasts each other in the extent of their rigidity: the brace is holding her together almost restrictively, while the fabric sweeps and drapes around her form. Her body is studded with metal nails of varying sizes, the largest being on her left breast and another of the same size puncturing the column in place of her spine. These nails are an indisputable visualisation of the pain which Kahlo endured; she does not attempt in any measure to conceal it. 

Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, (1944)

The focus of the painting, the column, is cracked and crumbling as the title of the painting would suggest; it appears to have gouged a canyon through the centre of Kahlo’s body as if it would tear her into two if it weren’t for the corset-esque brace holding her together.

Despite her severe pain, Kahlo’s’ body still conforms to beauty standards: her waist is thin, her hair smooth, her breasts support themselves without sagging and her nails shine. Kahlo likely depicted herself this way due to expectations of the time. The early 20th century still held many prejudices towards women, especially women of colour, and therefore while she very much did push the boundaries, Kahlo would likely have been heavily impacted by these ideals. Additionally, the contrast between her apparently perfect body and her imperfect ‘broken column’ adds to the shock value of the painting. However, her unibrow is incredibly defined in the style typical of her works, in a purposeful statement rejecting stereotypes about what conventional beauty looks like. Additionally, despite the tears on her face, Kahlo is stoically facing forward with her shoulders square and gaze turned directly towards the viewer, defiantly and challengingly. All of this contributes to the environment, atmosphere, and culture of pain surrounding Kahlo’s entire oeuvre. Even the medium which she manipulates seeps through to create sensations bordering on morbid; ‘in her work oil paint mixes with the blood of her inner monologue’, as Andrea Kettenmann said. Her experiences are inherently intertwined with her work, inescapably influencing each brushstroke to the extent that pain is so often seen as the overarching theme connecting each artwork created by Kahlo. Her bold nature and the extent of her expressiveness define her as an artist, affirming the vulnerability of the self in ways that remain radical today.

Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0, (1974)

The Serbian artist Marina Abromović varies greatly from the other artists discussed in this study in that her medium is performance, as opposed to the traditional paint used by Gentileschi, Sirani, Millais, and Kahlo. Abromović harnesses her body, using it to manipulate and influence her audience, and allowing the audience to influence and manipulate her. For example, her performance piece Rhythm 0 (1974) involved Abromović standing still in a room in which a table filled with seventy-two objects, ranging from perfume to a loaded gun - “I put the objects on the table very carefully chosen, because the objects were for pleasure, and there was also the object for pain and objects that can bring you to death”. The audience was instructed to use these objects on the artist's body as they desired, to treat Abromovic as simply another object - she stated that the audience would not receive consequences for their actions nor have to take any responsibility. 

Throughout the performance, the audience took advantage of Abramović’s willingness to be vulnerable. The artist recalled:


“In the beginning, the audience was very much playing with me. Later on, it became more and more aggressive. It was six hours of real horror. They would cut my clothes. They will cut me with a knife, close to my neck, and drink my blood, and then put the plaster over the wound. They will carry me around, half-naked, put me on the table, and stick the knife between my legs into the wood. And, even somebody put the bullet in the pistol, and put in my hand and see if I were pressing it, her hand against my hand if I would resist.”

Through this piece, Abramović not only tested the boundaries of what her audiences and critics deemed acceptable, but she also tested the boundaries of her own endurance. Evolving from a means through which to process pain (as in the cases of Gentileschi and Kahlo), this artist used her performances as a means through which she could experience pain; her work blurs the definition of masochism as although she willingly undergoes public torture verging on humiliation, she does not derive any considerable amount of pleasure from the experience. On the contrary, the performance (of Rhythm 0, at least) was traumatic for Abramović, resulting in physical injuries as well as emotional turmoil, Abramović said that she still has scars from Rhythm 0 and that it was difficult to get rid of the feeling of fear for a long time. With Abramovic’s retrospective exhibition at the RA this autumn and winter, 2023, the topic of pain feels as pertinent as ever, as she brings her work to a new generation. 

The way in which women interpret their own pain tends to be as a means to process their lived experiences and seek solidarity with other women, as is the case for all of Sirani, Gentileschi and Kahlo’s work, or as a means to shock and raise awareness to an extent within the reach of their demographic, as is the case for Abramović. However, male artists' representation of women in pain tends to be (assuming Millais is representative of a masculine perspective) appropriative. Certainly, in the case of Millais, for whom the depiction of pain resulted in the infliction of further pain on a woman. Women depicting female pain isn’t new, it is constant throughout Western art history, from some of the first female career painters. To return to Fleabag, the idea that ‘women are born with pain built in’ is nothing new, though we’ve seen here an evolution of women separating themselves from their pain, from Gentileschi and Sirani seeing themselves in the stories they’ve been told, to Kahlo processing her disabilities, to Abromović creating pain in front of an audience. She monetized her experience and benefited from what had previously not been a choice but a presumed inherent trait of femininity. Despite the apparently inherent pain, it is clear that women have the power to manipulate it to their advantage, reclaiming the way in which it is portrayed and taking back the narrative. 


Works Cited:

Courtney, Carol A., Michael A. O'Hearn, and Carla C. Franck., 'Frida Kahlo: Portrait of Chronic Pain', Physical therapy 97.1, (2017).

Editors of, ‘Frida Kahlo’s Husband, Diego Rivera’.

Goshen College, ‘Pregnancy Loss and Visual Expressions of Grief: an Examination of Frida Kahlo’, (2010)

Graf, Stefanie., ‘Rhythm 0, a Scandalous Performance by Marina Abramović’, The Collector (2022).

Hessel, Katy.,The Story of Art Without Men, (2022).

Kettenmann, Andrea, and Frida Kahlo, Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954: Pain and Passion, Taschen, (2003). 

Kratz, Jessie., ‘Facial Hair Friday: Frida Kahlo’, National Archives (2/10/2020).

Marina Abramović in Conversation with Glen Lowry, ‘Marina Abramović. Rhythm 0. 1974’, MoMA.

Mulvey, Laura., Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, (1973-5).

Ross, Charles.,‘Underwater Women in Shakespeare Films’,  Comparative Literature and Culture 6.1, (2004).

Slava S., ‘Story Behind… Ophelia’, Museio, (2020).

Tate, ‘The Story of Ophelia’. 

Tibol, Raquel., Frida Kahlo: An Open Life, (1993).

Tikkanen, Amy., 'Book of Judith', Encyclopedia Britannica, (2019).

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