Oil on canvas; signed, inscribed 'London' and dated 1859
31 x 21 inches
Royal Academy, 1859, no 165
When this picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859, it was titled in full: Mary Magdalen with spices, approaching the tomb of our Lord; study for a part of a picture of the holy women passing, at daybreak, over the place of crucifixion. The larger picture alluded to in the full title does not seem to have been exhibited, or to have survived, and was perhaps never painted. Herbert exhibited paintings of the Magdalene at the RA again in 1869 (St. Mary Magdalen, on the day of the Crucifixion of Our Lord) and in 1873 (St. Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross. “And the sun was darkened, etc.” - St. Luke). All four gospels agree that Mary Magdalene witnessed Jesus’s crucifixion (the 1869 picture), and that at dawn on the third day after His death, she visited the sepulchre with spices to anoint His body (this picture) and found that He was not there. Only Luke placed the Magdalene at the foot of the cross (the 1873 picture). In Western art, the Magdalene has usually been depicted as a reformed prostitute - because apocryphal accounts since the Gospels have mistakenly conflated several different Marys - but nowhere in the Bible does it say or suggest that she was. Herbert, who converted to Roman Catholicism in about 1840 (perhaps influenced by his childhood friend, the architect A.W.N. Pugin), has depicted a devout, demure and sorrowful Magdalen, as described in the Bible.
The clear light and bold colours in Herbert’s paintings of the 1840s were in the manner of the Nazarenes, whom he had encountered on an early visit to Italy. These pictures had a formative influence on the early work of Hunt, Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites, who aspired to ‘out-Herbert Herbert’. Rossetti and Herbert seem to have shared an interest in St Luke, who was patron saint of artists and known as ‘The Painter’ (apocryphal Christian tradition has it that Luke painted a picture of the Virgin Mary). Rossetti’s sonnet of 1849, ‘St Luke The Painter’, drew on this idea. As the online Rossetti Archive notes: ‘For DGR in 1849, the work of the Pre-Raphaelites was a mission of art to redeem it from its “soulless” worldliness’, as St Luke was said to have done. Herbert’s painting projects this idea, as Ruskin noticed when he saw it exhibited: ‘Very beautiful, and an interesting example of the noble tendency of modern religious art to conceive scenes as they really in probability occurred; not in merely artistic modification or adaptation’ (Notes on Pictures, 1859).
Rossetti treated the subject of the Magdalene just before Herbert, in his drawing Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee (1858, Fitzwilliam Museum). Ruth Herbert (no relation, ‘Herbert’ being her stage name) sat for it, and whilst Rossetti was waiting for her to turn up to his studio, he wrote to William Bell Scott: ‘I am in the stunning position this morning of expecting the actual visit at 1⁄2 past 11 of a model whom I have been longing to paint for years – Miss Herbert of the Olympic Theatre – who has the most varied and highest expression I ever saw in a woman's face, besides abundant beauty, golden hair, etc. Did you ever see her?O my eye! She has sat to me now and will sit to me for Mary Magdalene in the picture I am beginning. Such luck!’ She sat regularly to Rossetti for two years thereafter. Frederick Sandys, a close friend of Rossetti since 1857, drew Ruth Herbert in about 1858 (British Museum). When he exhibited his first oil paintings in London, at the British Institution in 1860, one was his own Mary Magdalene, very sensual, with golden hair, in which the model looks like Ruth Herbert, as does Herbert’s. Rossetti must have thought it amusing for Miss Herbert to sit to Mr Herbert. Spencer Stanhope also painted Miss Herbert as a repentant prostitute at the time in Thoughts of the Past (1859, Tate Britain). Virginia Surtees, Ruth Herbert’s great- granddaughter, wrote that having left her rakish husband, besieged by many admirers, Miss Herbert enjoyed being associated with Mary Magdalene and wore a 'golden bauble on a gold chain inscribed on its surface with “Noli me tangere” [Jesus’s words to Mary Magdalene when she was the first to recognise Him after His resurrection] - the perfect badge for the courtesan she had become’ (The Actress and the Brewer's Wife: Two Victorian Vignettes, Michael Russell, 1997, pp 35-7). Aside from Rossetti, Stanhope, Herbert and Sandys, several other artists including Watts, Prinsep, Frith and J.R. Swinton drew and painted Miss Herbert, and she was a regular at Little Holland House.
When Herbert’s Mary Magdalen was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859, the critic of the The Art Journal wrote: ‘The mind is at once affected by the inward suffering betrayed by these features. The eyes are inflamed with excess of weeping, and the face is wan with watching. It is a half-length figure; she carries the vessels containing the spices, and although but half of the person is visible, we see that she is in motion. With the most perfect propriety the costume is not conspicuous; the head is enveloped in a white drapery, which falls onto the shoulders, and beside this, there is a white robe and a blue mantle, and we doubt not this arrangement, as it is managed, has been a subject of anxious study. But the effect is the triumph of the picture: the time is just after daybreak, and the yet feeble morning light falls upon the left cheek with just sufficient power to bring the head gently forward from the background. The subject is mournful; there is, consequently, no prominence of colour, and with equal good feeling no parade of manner. In deep and touching sentiment the work is not surpassed by any other of any time or any school.’