This mesmeric and strange painting is inspired by Alfred Tennyson's poem of the same name, published in 1842. Tennyson pays tribute to Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women - a series of monologues by mythical women who displayed particular courage or devotion. However Tennyson diverts from his medieval source, a structured poem which includes Helen of Troy, Dido, Thisbe and Philomela. Tennyson's main protagonists are Helen of Troy and Cleopatra, but his subsequent characters are a more random mixture of biblical and historical figures - linked perhaps only by the soulful yet macabre imagery their stories provide.
They are Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon; Jephthah's daughter; Rosamond Clifford, mistress of King Henry II; Margaret Roper, daughter of Thomas More, and Eleanor, wife of King Edward 1. Tennyson's own sources were personal and eclectic; his description of Iphigenia, for example, uses imagery derived from a Roman fresco based on a lost 4th century BC painting by Timanthus.
Corbould's painting is similar in feel to Tennyson's poem, in that its drama occurs in passages, and yet the whole is subsumed within an ethereal woodland landscape, the foliage itself forming transparent interweaving layers. Within this fragile yet dense accumulation, various personae are edged out by silvery light. Like a tableau vivant, each expresses in mood their individual story; the distance between these poised figures may be physically small, but like ghosts, their own history enfolds them and separates them from other matter.
Three women dominate Corbauld's work, as they do Tennyson's: Iphigenia, Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. Each is recognisable as their archetype. Helen's disdainful beauty contrasts with that of the more modest Iphigenia, who extends towards her a gesture of mournful opprobrium. Their fates are linked by the Trojan War. Helen's husband Menelaus invaded Troy in order to retrieve his wife from her lover Paris. Iphigenia, daughter of the Greek leader Agamemnon, was proposed as a sacrifice to appease the goddess Artemis, who had disadvantaged Greek fleets when one of their troops offended her. Here Corbauld shows the burning Troy as a backdrop, a fire which illuminates fleeing masses: a symbol of desecration and destruction.
Cleopatra, whose voice is the strongest in Tennyson's poem: combative and witty, sits resplendent in her diaphanous Eastern robes. Her poetic disparagement of voluntary death, and its orchestrator, the asp - is shown here by the casual way she has tossed it into the river. It is an eternal part of her mythology, but subordinate to Cleopatra's own transcendent appeal, as the war is to Helen and Iphigenia's.
Tennyson's Dream permits the juxtaposition of cultures and centuries. Rosamond Clifford, mistress of Henry II, kneels next to Cleopatra. She was reputedly murdered by his vengeful wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and is shadowed by her nemesis; the dark queen, whose spectral form looms above, urges her to drink from a poisoned chalice. Their interraction is present for us to witness, so evoking Dante's Hell, where the essential nature of pain is that it should continue unabated.
In the middle distance we see Jephthah's daughter, a model of purity, and further back, Joan of Arc in her glinting armour. Beyond this we can just discern Margaret Roper, daughter of Sir Thomas More, who retrieved her martyred father's head from the stake and stored it in a box, weeping over her grisly talisman. These characters appeal to Tennyson at the end of his dream, their effect diminished by the weakening of the poet's vision. Accordingly, they are hidden by undergrowth in Corbauld's painting, removed from our keenest apprehension.
Courbould, who exhibited at the Royal Academy 1834-75, was drawn to subjects wherein reality merged with fantasy. He often formatted his compositions like a stage set, with foreground characters witnessing a vision or marvel. The Earl of Surrey 'Beholding the fayre Geraldine in the mirror' (1853) and A Fairy Scene - Rothkappchen (1855) embody this idea. They, like A Dream of Fair Women, are strewn with anecdote, wreathed with mists. These paintings have not lost their power to enthral; their very eccentricity is an integral part of their charm.