The title of the painting is taken from Tennyson's poem, 'Mariana':
"She drew the casement-curtain by,
And glance athwart the glooming flats,
She only said, 'The night is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!""
Although this was the convention to which Hughes usually adhered - that a painting should have a 'subject', ideally one taken from poetry, or mythology, or fables, or history - Mariana at the Window is in fact simply a very fresh, direct and intimate painting of his wife of less than one year. While pulling back a curtain as in Tennyson’s lines, Tryphena looks anything other than weary and certainly not wishing she were dead. Instead she reveals wide, playful eyes, the hint of a grin, rosy cheeks and loose, slightly dishevelled hair. It captures her at the very beginning of their 60 years of married life.
Hughes had met Tryphena Foord in 1850, they were engaged in 1851, and married in 1855. At about this time he started his most famous painting, April Love for which Tryphena was obviously the model. Completed in the following year, April Love was described by John Ruskin as: “Exquisite in every way; lovely in colour, most subtle in the quivering expression of the lips, and sweetness of the tender face, shaken, like a leaf by winds upon its dew, and hesitating back into peace.” Indeed the great Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones proposed marriage to Georgiana MacDonald in front of the painting when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856.
Curiously enough, in April Love and in many of Hughes’ best-known works Tryphena plays a tragic role – a jilted lover, bereft sister, desperate fiancé – yet their marriage is universally considered a very happy one. Perhaps this security enabled Hughes to cast her in these melancholy works, but it is delightful to see her in a work that is freed from any imposed tragic narrative.
Born in London, Hughes was educated at Archbishop Tenison's Grammar School, and entered the School of Design, Somerset House, London in 1846, studying under Alfred Stevens. In 1847 he won an art studentship at the Royal Academy Schools, exhibiting his first picture, Musidora, at the Academy two years later.
Although a Pre-Raphaelite sympathiser and intimate of their circle, Hughes was never a member of the group. He converted to Pre-Raphaelitism in 1850 after reading the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ; in the same year he met William Holman Hunt, D.G. Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown. He exhibited his first Pre-Raphaelite painting, Ophelia (Manchester City Art Gallery), in 1852, and met Millais that year. He produced some of his best-known Pre-Raphaelite works during the 1850s, including April Love, 1855-6 (Tate Gallery N02476) and The Long Engagement, c.1854-9 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery). From about 1852 to 1858 he shared a studio with the sculptor Alexander Munro. In 1855 he also began a successful career as an illustrator, becoming associated particularly with the works of Thomas Hughes, George Macdonald and Christina Rossetti. He devoted much of the subsequent two decades to illustrating. He was one of the contributors to the Oxford Union decorations in 1857. He moved from London in 1858 and in 1862 made a short visit to Italy. He exhibited for the last time at the Royal Academy in 1908. He died at Kew, near London. A sale of his works took place at Christie's in 1921.
Retrospective exhibitions of Hughes's work were held by the Fine Arts Society in 1900, Rembrandt Galleries in 1904, Walker Galleries (memorial exhibition) in 1916, and the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff and Leighton House, London in 1971.