The Brontës had a profound and continuing interest in the visual arts. Their habit of reading pictures and their own practice of drawing and painting were crucial to their development as writers. Charlotte was an exhibited artist in her own lifetime, her earliest aim was to be a visual artist, and Branwell practised as a professional portrait painter from May 1838 to May 1839. Elizabeth Gaskell notes the strong yearning the Brontës had for the art of drawing and their habit of analysing ‘any print or drawing which came their way’ (Life, 1. 96). The sisters were taught art as one of the female accomplishments and in preparation for their careers as teachers; Branwell progressed from watercolours to oils and had lessons with the professional portrait painter William Robinson. Their earliest drawings date from about 1828 when Charlotte was 12, Branwell 11, Emily 10, and Anne 8; the sisters continued to draw until about 1845 when the publication of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell occupied their attention, and Branwell drew self-deprecatory sketches and illustrated his letters until his death in 1848. There are approximately 180 extant drawings by Charlotte, just over 130 by Branwell, 29 by Emily, and 37 by Anne, with new paintings still coming to light after years in private hands. During the Brontës' lifetime many were given away as gifts, some discarded and others used as barter for frames (see wood, william). A number of drawings survived through the collections of Revd A. B. Nicholls and Martha Brown in particular. The majority of Brontë art works are meticulously copied pencil drawings and delicate water-coloured portraits. A number of manuscripts and books owned by the Brontës are annotated with sketches. At least ten large professional oil portraits by Branwell are extant, plus his two famous early portraits of his sisters.
From The Oxford Companion to the Brontes in Oxford Reference.
Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century).