First glance at this painting reminded me of a scene in Jane Eyre, both the movie and the novel, where Jane returns to Thornfield Hall after the wedding, devastated after finding out about Mr Rochester’s real wife.
‘I was in my own room as usual–just myself, without obvious change: nothing had smitten me, or scathed me, or maimed me. And yet where was the Jane Eyre of yesterday? Where was her life? Where were her prospects?
‘Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant woman–almost a bride, was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects were desolate. A Christmas frost had come at midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hayfield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud:lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, today were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and flagrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway. I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing…‘ (Chapter 26)
Even thought The Wedding Dress was painted in 1911, it reflects Victorian tastes, especially the popular themes of death and weddings. Frederick William Elwell was born in a small town of Beverley in East Riding of Yorkshire, and, apart from his brief stay in London, he spent his life in Beverley where he enjoyed painting and gardening. He was known for using local people as models, and thus he used a local woman, Mrs Violet Prest, as a model for the sorrowful bride in this painting. Ironically, Mrs Violet faced the same unfortunate destiny in her own life; not long after this painting was painted, she lost her husband in the First World War, which adds the painting a certain mystical dimension for the modern viewers.
There are many elements that make this painting thematically a typical Victorian painting. First of all, the already mentioned Victorian fascination with death partly due to Queen Victoria’s rigid practice of mourning after the death of Prince Albert. This painting also shows the contrast between the innocence, symbolised by the white wedding dress, and experience, symbolised by the dark attire of this weeping lady. A certain level of intimacy was achieved by hiding the lady’s face – she appears to be crying in solitude, in a gloomy chamber, tormented by the sudden loss of her husband. Nobody is watching her, but us.
Vision of the bright future was tainted by death. A home which could have been a place of warmth and joy, filled with children, laughter and domestic happiness, is reduced to a drab domestic room. Painful present brings no relief. The old wedding dress, filled with memories of the more innocent times, remains the only comfort for the inconsolable young widow. Now the death has destroyed the fragile world of innocence.