I often see criticism of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s work that describes his paintings of women as masculine. Some people see Rossetti’s frequent depictions of elongated necks and broad shoulders and are instantly dismissive. This is not a conventional beauty, they think, this is not a goddess.
The fact that Rossetti’s paintings of women fall outside the accepted notions of feminity is precisely what appeals to me. Perhaps Rossetti is an acquired taste. Don’t reject him at first glance, my friend. The more you study his work the more you find that images you previously overlooked seem to develop a certain appeal. And then one day you realize you absolutely love them.
Rossetti captures Jane Morris’ features and adds an element of mystery. I’ve seen her face described with words like brooding, enigmatic, haunting. Rossetti’s paintings of her stay in your mind, growing on you as if his art has a sort of cumulative effect. Maybe you’ve dismissed Jane as Proserpine because you’ve seen it so much on book covers, posters, and even commercials. But that’s not really seeing or understanding the painting, that’s skimming it because of overexposure. Really look at that work, look searchingly, and you can’t ignore the power and the beauty of it.
No matter how much I love Rossetti’s works, there will always be those who will not see what I see. To each his own, as they say. However, I do wonder if their reactions to his works are because their minds are mired in the thought that for women to be beautiful, we should be diminutive and have delicate, angelic faces. We should be the weaker sex with small, dainty features painted with elegant strokes, right? Now we see even the most beautiful of our modern models whittled away by the same elegant strokes in photoshop. The girl-next-door posts her selfies enhanced with Instagram filters. In an age of cookie-cutter notions of beauty, I find myself even more drawn to the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the fact that his paintings show beautiful women that seem powerful and unique.
Here’s Rossetti’s painting Astarte Syriaca. I’ve blogged about it numerous times and I’ll repeat my words again. This is the Rossetti goddess for me. He bestows upon her strong arms that are capable of anything, a steady gaze that could cause enemies to wither, a countenance that tells me that this goddess fears nothing. She is calm and resolute. She is in control. I would like to draw upon that strength. Call her masculine if you want, but all I see is a strong, feminine power. This is bold. This is beautiful.
Perhaps you still do not see Rossetti’s works as both feminine and beautiful. We can agree to disagree. Yet I hope that there are readers of this website who understand and feel that Rossetti’s images of women are just what they need. Like me, they can see Rossetti’s images of women as a metaphor for both beauty and strength. Together, we can draw upon that.