Confusing Images

In researching the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' there is an obvious need to compare the ladies with images of the Bronte Sisters. Unfortunately there are historic problems with these portraits, due mainly to errors made in the 1890s which have never been resolved.

There is also the question as to whether the artist created a lifelike or idealised portrait.

This page gives an overview of the problems.

There is a belief that the Bronte sisters all looked very similar and if you look at these portraits published over the past 120 years this would seem to be the case.

This is in complete contrast to contemporary sources:

Charlotte, in Branwell’s portrait (below) has the “veritable square face” described by her friend Mary Taylor which her sisters didn't have.
According to Charlotte, Emily looked like George Henry Lewes and yet he certainly didn't resemble Anne or Charlotte.
Ellen Nussey wrote that Anne was quite different in appearance from the others.” 

Why then do these portraits show such a close family resemblance?

1) Charlotte Bronte (above). This portrait was considered by her friends “entirely flattering” and was paid for by her publisher, possibly with a view to future publication. In Branwell's portrait (right) she has a straight or retrouss√© nose and a square face but in the portrait by George Richmond he has given her an aquiline nose and oval face. When it was completed Charlotte burst into tears because it looked so much like her sister Anne.

2) Emily Bronte? The second portrait is identified as Emily but this has been disputed since it was discovered in 1914; the evidence on the next page should prove that this is Anne.

3) Emily Bronte? Wild-looking Emily is based on Anne in the Pillar Portrait.

4) Anne Bronte This is Anne in the Pillar Portrait, the only sister who actually had an aquiline nose. In recent years it has been suggested that this portrait should be re-identified as Emily, partly because of the similarities in the previous two pictures of Emily (which are of Anne).

"Anne-esque."

The combination of one idealised portrait of Charlotte and two images of Anne - wrongly identified as Emily - has distorted our view of the sisters.  All three were quite different from one another as they are in Branwell's Pillar Portrait. If you doubt this then look at descriptions of them by their contemporaries.

How did this happen?

Charlotte's nose became aquiline1. thanks to George Richmond's portrait of her but Emily's nose became aquiline by accident. In the 1890s two 1830s portraits of Anne were wrongly identified and published as illustrations of Emily; these have been reproduced in various forms ever since.

The Victorian errors have been repeated by later historians who, faced with very few written descriptions of Emily, based their own descriptions upon these erroneous images. Layers of myth have built up so that Emily and Anne are sometimes viewed virtually as twins; the exact opposite of what the original sources tell us.

To what extent have these portraits influenced historians and the public over the past 120 years?

There is only one 'identified' portrait 2. of Emily Bronte, that seen in Branwell's 'Pillar Portrait' (right). At least one portrait was made by Charlotte and it probably still exists. This is unlikely to be recognised as a portrait of Emily if historians are convinced that she resembled Anne.

The following pages attempt to explain how this happened and which portraits are misleading or erroneous.

 

1. Charlotte Bronte and George Richmond were interested in physiognomy; an aquiline (Roman) nose denotes intelligence and good breeding.
2. There is also a tracing of Emily, (labelled 'Anne') relating to the Gun-Group Portrait but doesn't have Anne's aquiline nose.