Leighton House Museum has announced an upcoming exhibit: A Victorian Obsession (November 2014 – March 2015), which will present fifty exceptional and rarely
exhibited paintings by leading Victorian artists including Lawrence Alma-Tadema,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne Jones and Lord Leighton
himself amongst others. The collection which belong to Mexican collector Juan
Antonio Pérez Simón, has never been shown in the UK and will be hung throughout the
stunning interiors of Leighton House.
Leighton House Museum has announced an upcoming exhibit: A Victorian Obsession (November 2014 – March 2015), which will present fifty exceptional and rarely
After my recent post on Dante’s Divine Comedy, I’ve been thinking about metaphorical descents into the Underworld. The rather beautiful Greek word for descent is katabasis, usually used to describe a hero’s journey into the underworld on a quest of some sort. It’s a journey seen in not only a variety of myths, but multiple cultures and religions.
In reading The Divine Comedy, it stood out to me that in order to get to Paradise, Dante had to first go through Hell. It has become a part of our collective unconscious, this notion of Hell as a journey. In life, we go to dark places and endure all sorts of torture and heartbreak and, somehow, some of us emerge from that hell stronger and wiser. We are on the Fool’s journey and it is a universal path that everyone has trod. No matter who you are, life is going to throw something hellish thing at you. So we’ve created stories for ourselves to help us navigate. Those stories take us along through the underworld. Katabasis. It’s not always an Underworld, mind you. It’s just some place other. A place like Oz or Wonderland or Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland. It’s a separate place with the learning of new rules and the meeting of unexpected people. And as you make your journey, you seem to discover yourself.
For me, katabasis begins and ends with Persephone. It is my myth, the tale that resonates with me on so many levels that I don’t even think I can fully explore them all. And for me, it began with this painting:
Dante Gabriel Rosssetti’s painting of Persephone captivated me from the first moment I saw it and seeing it repeatedly never dulls my intense love for it. Her pomegranate-colored lips, that mass of gorgeous black hair and the swathes of green drapery. Rossetti certainly knew how to use color. And his choice of model, the striking Jane Morris, was perhaps a personal commentary as well. He was in love with Jane –he idolized her– and in casting her in the role of Persephone, he may have been saying that this is how he wished to see her marriage: Persephone is the wife of Hades against her will. She will spend part of her time each year in the Underworld with him, just as once her relationship with Rossetti began, her time was divided between him and her husband. Rossetti wrote about Proserpine: “She is represented in a gloomy corridor of her palace, with the fatal fruit in her hand. As she passes, a gleam strikes on the wall behind her from some inlet suddenly opened, and admitting for a moment the sight of the upper world; and she glances furtively towards it, immersed in thought. The incense-burner stands beside her as the attribute of a goddess. The ivy branch in the background may be taken as a symbol of clinging memory”
In the ancient myth, young and virginal Persephone was abducted by Hades while she picked flowers so that she may be his bride. Her mother, the goddess Demeter, searches frantically for her. The goddess Hekate guides her into the Underworld and after Persephone is found, Zeus decrees that if Persephone has not partaken of any fruit of the Underworld, she may return. But since Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds, she must now divide her time to six months in the Underworld and six months with her mother on Earth. It is a myth about seasons since Demeter causes nature to enter stasis when her daughter is gone; Spring returns when Persephone does. It is also a myth of motherhood and grief. It is so many things.
What of Persephone herself? Is it possible that Persephone wanted to be taken away? That she purposefully ate the pomegranate seeds? Was her mother too overbearing? Did she long for escape? Persephone’s story can be interpreted in so many ways and I enjoy them all. I want to dive into her tale and explore. It is the story of every woman and it is the story we must spend our lifetime exploring and then pass it on to our daughters for their own interpretation.
Persephone is not the only descent into the Underworld, of course. Orpheus traveled there to save his deceased wife and failed when he didn’t trust that she was behind him. See my post Don’t Look Back
Stories of Hercules, Theseus, Odysseus, even Harry Potter create journeys into the Underworld. It is the classic quest. Is it our greatest fear and our ultimate challenge.
Art depicting the Underworld is often dark and brooding, but I choose to see it as a hopeful message, a reminder that we all encounter challenges but with strength we will make it if we keep going. If you are going through it now, I tell you from personal experience that Art helps. Any Art. Literature, movies, music, paintings. It doesn’t matter. Find something beautiful. Hang on to it.
La Mandolinata is an excellent example of opulence in jewelry in Rossetti’s work. Complementing her brocade gown, we see that familiar spiral hair pin set among strands of pearls. (I love pearls in Pre-Raphaelite art. See The Pursuit of Pearls and More Pre-Raphaelite Pearls)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Victorian poet, painter and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, grew up in the shadow of Dante Alighieri. Although he lived several centuries before, Medieval poet Alighieri was a permanent fixture in the Rossetti household. Rossetti’s father, Professor Gabriele Rossetti, was an Italian expatriate who came to London in 1824. He was a Mason and he believed that in Dante’s works (Vita Nuova and Divina Commedia) there were allusions to Freemasonry. It became his life’s work to find and prove these connections. Unfortunately, his beliefs were unfounded and the connections he tried to make were tenuous at best. After his death,his wife burned much of his work. I strongly recommend that you read Dinah Roe’s book,The Rossettis In Wonderland: A Victorian Family History, which is an in-depth account of the Rossetti family and delves into Professor Rossetti’s Dantean scholarship and the effect it had on his family more deeply than I can here.
In 1828, Professor Gabriele Rossetti named his oldest son Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti. The reasons for ‘Gabriel’ and ‘Dante’ are obvious; ‘Charles’ was chosen in honor of Charles Lyell who was chosen to be the boy’s godfather and shared Professor Rossetti’s passion for Dante. After Lyell’s death, his godson dropped ‘Charles’ and used the name Dante Gabriel Rossetti professionally from then on. Among friends and family,though, he was always known as Gabriel.
The influence of Dante Alighieri was Gabriel’s birthright; he was an inescapable ghost in their home. Although in his younger years he preferred English writers such as Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, Dante seems to have been absorbed into Gabriel’s DNA and became a frequent subject of his work. Gabriel would later translate Dante’s Vita Nuova and his own personal life and relationship with Elizabeth Siddal would seem at times to parallel Dante’s love for Beatrice, the love immortalized in both La Vita Nuova (The New Life) and Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy).
Dante Alighieri first saw and fell in love with Beatrice when he was nine years old. He would later write about his instant love for her in Vita Nuova, saying “Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.” He loved her from afar for the rest of her life. She would die in 1290 at age twenty four.
Rossetti’s drawing of Dante above fascinates me, as it is inspired by a copy of Seymore Kirkup’s painting of a lost image of Dante. Kirkup, an artist, was a friend of Rossetti’s father and shared an intense passion for Dante. In 1840 he began searching for a lost portrait of Dante painted by Giotto. Upon finding it, Kirkup made a tracing and a painting of the lost portrait, which was fortunate since the original was destroyed during restoration.
Rossetti painted a recreation of Giotto painting the lost portrait Kirkup discovered.
While Giotto paints his portrait, Dante looks at his unrequited love Beatrice. Also seen in the painting are the artist Cimabue (looking over Giotto’s shoulder) and Guido Cavalcanti (the Dante’s left).
In Rossetti’s 1855 watercolor of Beatrice meeting Dante at a marriage feast, we can see Elizabeth Siddal’s features as Beatrice. At this point, Siddal was Rossetti’s muse and the primary female face seen in his work. In this watercolor, Rossetti illustrates a passage from Vita Nuova:
I began to feel a faintness and a throbbing at my left side, which soon took possession of my whole body. Whereupon I remember that I covertly leaned back unto a painting that ran round the walls of that house; and being fearful lest my trembling should be discerned of them, I lifted mine eyes to look upon those ladies, and then first perceived among them the excellent Beatrice. And when I perceived her, all my senses were overpowered by the great lordship that Love obtained, finding himself so near unto that most gracious being, until nothing but the spirits of sight remained to me.
Elizabeth Siddal was discovered by artist Walter Deverell while she worked in a millinery shop. After posing for Deverell’s Twelfth Night, she began to model for other Pre-Raphaelite artists, including Rossetti. Upon learning that she also had artistic intentions, Rossetti took her on as a pupil and from then on, she posed only for him. This led to what would be an important yet complex relationship for both and they married ten years later. Rossetti confided to artist Ford Madox Brown that when he first saw Lizzie, he felt ‘his destiny was defined’. This sense of destiny may not have been the literal truth, but it illustrates his efforts to identify Lizzie with the type of love Dante had for Beatrice. It may have been that Rossetti so identified with Dante that he mimicked his relationship with Beatrice, casting Lizzie as the ideal woman and declaring her to be his artistic muse. For more on their relationship, see my previous post Pre-Raphaelite Marriages: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal.
Elizabeth Siddal can also be seen in Rossetti’s painting Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah:
Siddal also appears as Francesca de Rimini, taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Canto V, Dante encounters lovers Francesca and Paolo de Rimini in the second circle of Hell. When Francesca first meets him, she quotes great works to him (including his own). This establishes Francesca’s great love for reading and she later tells him that she fell in love with her brother-in-law while they read the tales of Lancelot together. Francesca and Paolo then brought the King Arthur/Guenevere/Lancelot triangle to life by pursuing their relationship. When Francesca’s husband caught them, he stabbed the pair to death. They remain in the winds of the second circle of hell, along with other famous lovers who have sinned.
In Rossetti’s triptych design, we can see the lovers kissing as the read Lancelot, Dante and Virgil in the middle as they encounter the pair, and the lovers as they brave the winds of Hell.
Rossetti completed the work in a rush in order to sell it to John Ruskin. Elizabeth Siddal was traveling in Paris at the time and was short on funds. Ruskin’s purchase allowed Rossetti to visit Lizzie in Paris and bring her the necessary cash.
As I read Canto V of the Divine Comedy, I was interested to see the imagery of birds. As doves/By fond desire invited, on wide wings/and firm, to their sweet nest returning home/ Rossetti frequently described Elizabeth Siddal as a dove and used bird-like references when discussing her. He called her dear dove divine in a Valentine poem and had been known to use a heiroglyphic of a dove to represent her in letters written to his brother. He once wrote to his sister, poet Christina Rossetti, describing two dresses that Lizzie made as making her look like a “meek unconscious dove” and a “rara avis in terra” (a rare bird in the lands). I wonder if the bird symbolism in relation to Francesca de Rimini inspired Rossetti’s use of it in relation to Siddal. Or perhaps, like Rossetti’s father, I am seeing connections where there are none.
Rossetti was influenced by Dante’s Beatrice and Poe’s The Raven when he wrote The Blessed Damozel. This idea of love after death would take on a deeper meaning after the untimely passing of Elizabeth Siddal from a Laudanum overdose. His identifying with Dante had reached a frightening new level. With his wife no longer a living muse she becomes an even more Beatrice-like figure, unreachable in the after-life. In his posthumous tribute to her, he painted her as Beatrice on the brink of death.
In the background of Beata Beatrix, we see the figure of Dante and the allegorical figure of Love. Love also appears as the center figure of Dantis Amor, completed in 1860, the year Rossetti and Siddal were wed. Rossetti had been working on this design since 1848.
Dantis Amor (Dante’s Love) includes a quotation from the Vita Nuova: ‘that blessed Beatrice who now gazeth continually on His countenance qui est per omia saecula benedictus’ (Who is blessed throughout all ages).
After the death of Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti fell in love with Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris. As with Siddal, Jane became his muse and is also seen in Dantean works. In La Pia de Tolomei, she appears as Pia from Canto V of Purgatorio in the Divine Comedy.
Pia is found by Dante during his travel through Purgatory, where she remains since she has died without absolution. She says to Dante “remember me, the one who is Pia;
Siena made me, Maremma undid me:
he knows it, the one who first encircled
my finger with his jewel, when he married me”
The one who “first encircled my finger with his jewel” refers to her husband, Nello, who was responsible for her death so that he could marry a Countess. Nello imprisoned her in Pietra Castle, which is the scene we see in Rossetti’s painting. Rooks, omens of death, are flying in the background.
Rossetti also painted Jane as Beatrice in this uncharacteristically simple work. Devoid of his usual props, flowers and symbolism, Rossetti casts Jane as the role once held by his wife. Note the spiral hair pin.
The largest of Rossetti’s Dantean works is Dante’s Dream, a representation of Dante dreaming of Beatrice’s death in Vita Nuova. Notice the poppies scattered on the floor. Jane Morris appears as Beatrice, although Rossetti has given her Elizabeth Siddal’s red hair.
Dante is a thread that seems to weave continually throughout Rossetti’s life. His interest may have been initially inspired by his father’s fanatic scholarship, but through Rossetti’s translations and his striking paintings of Dantean subjects, he has definitely made the world of Dante his own.
“In that book which is my memory,
On the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you,
Appear the words, ‘Here begins a new life’.” –Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova
In The Tempest, Shakespeare tells us the story of Prospero, duke of Milan. Prospero was dethroned by his brother Antonio and abandoned at sea with his three year old daughter Miranda. Eventually they landed on an enchanted island, where the sole inhabitant is the creature Caliban. Prospero works his magic and places Caliban and all other spirits on the island under his control, including the spirit Ariel. Ariel is described as an ‘ayrie spirit’ (Air spirit) and was confined in a cloven pine by the witch Sycorax until Prospero broke the spell. Interestingly, Shakespeare isn’t clear about when Prospero became a sorcerer. Before or after landing on the island?
Years later, Prospero used his magic to create a tempest that caused his brother Antonio as well as Ferdinand, Sebastian, and others to become shipwrecked on the island.
When Millais painted Ferdinand he used fellow Pre-Raphaelite F.G. Stephens as his model. Stephens describes his experience posing for the painting in The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais:
“In the summer and autumn of 1849 he [Millais] executed the whole of that wonderful background, the delightful figures of the elves and Ariel, and he sketched in the Prince himself. The whole was done upon a pure white background, so as to obtain the greatest brilliancy of the pigments. Later on my turn came, and in one lengthy sitting Millais drew my most un-Ferdinand-like features with a pencil upon white paper, making, as it was, a most exquisite drawing of the highest finish and exact fidelity. In these respects nothing could surpass this jewel of its kind. Something like it, but softer and not quite so sculpturesque, exists in the similar study Millais made in pencil for the head of Ophelia, which I saw not long ago, and which Sir W. Bowman lent to the Grosvenor Gallery in 1888.”
My portrait was completely modelled in all respects of form and light and shade, so as to be a perfect study for the head thereafter to be painted. The day after it was executed Millais repeated the study in a less finished manner upon the panel, and on the day following that I went again to the studio in Gower Street, where ‘Isabella’ and similar pictures were painted. From ten o’clock to nearly five the sitting continued without a stop, and with scarcely a word between the painter and his model. The clicking of his brushes when they were shifted in his palette, the sliding of his foot upon the easel, and an occasional sigh marked the hours, while, strained to the utmost, Millais worked this extraordinary fine face. At last he said, “There, old fellow, it is done!” Thus it remains as perfectly pure and as brilliant as then –fifty years ago– and it now remains unchanged. For me, still leaning on a stick and in the required posture, I had become quite unable to move, rise upright, or stir a limb till, much as I were a stiffened lay-figure, Millais lifted me up and carried me bodily to the dining-room, where some dinner and wine put me on my feet again. Later the till then unpainted parts of the figure of Ferdinand were added from the model and a lay-figure.”
The subject of the painting is Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples. When the King’s ship wrecks upon Prospero’s island, Ferdinand was separated from the rest of his shipmates. He was led by Ariel’s enchanting music to Prospero’s cell where he meets Miranda. Miranda believes him to be a spirit at first, ‘nothing natural I ever saw so noble’. Ferdinand speaks to her as ‘the goddess on whom these airs attend’.
Although not strictly a Pre-Raphaelite, the works of John William Waterhouse are definitely Pre-Raphaelite in style. He painted Miranda from The Tempest twice; both works depict her as she looks upon the storm created by her father.
The first one is beautiful, but his later Miranda is the most captivating. Waterhouse has captured the drama of nature, the waves exhibit the strength of the storm that will soon capsize the ship and its passengers. Miranda’s face is half-turned, so we can not read her expression. We can only use Shakespeare’s lines to learn her feelings:
If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
that the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out. Oh, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer. A brave vessel
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her
Dashed all to pieces. Oh, the cry did knock
Against my very heart!
Mauvais Sujet is not your stereotypical, chocolate-box-pretty Victorian portrait. She’s almost uncomfortable to look at, as she is both very young and very sensual. On her desk you can see her name, Mary, scrawled in a childlike hand. The childish scrawl is a direct contrast to her adult, knowing look. I think it’s safe for us to assume that the apple is symbolic of Eve. Interestingly, Ford Madox Brown doesn’t portray her as dejected or ashamed in any way. She seems self-assured and brazen. Dare I say naughty? I’m not exactly sure what Madox Brown wants us to feel about her. She’s obviously idle, choosing to partake in the fruit while she is meant to be doing her lessons. But without placing blame, I think that Mary has already partaken of Forbidden Fruit.
You can’t get more forbidding than fruit from the underworld. Dante Gabriel Rossetti portrays Proserpine (Persephone) after she has eaten six pomegranate seeds. Proserpine had been abducted by Hades. When her mother, the goddess Demeter, pleaded for her return, Zeus decreed that she could come home as long as she had not eaten any fruit of the underworld. Since she had eaten six seeds she was fated to divide her time, spending six months each year with Hades and six with her mother.
But the pomegranate is not the only forbidden fruit in Proserpine. Rossetti’s model, Jane Morris, was herself Forbidden Fruit. As the wife of Rossetti’s close friend William Morris, Jane should not have been available to Rossetti as a romantic interest. But after the death of his wife in 1862, Rossetti’s friendship with Jane developed into an intense romance. Their secretive communications were aided by the ever slimy Charles Augustus Howell. It did not remain a secret for long, though. Rossetti’s interest was obvious, as poet William Bell Scott recorded after a dinner party, where Rossetti fed Jane and paid attention only to her: ‘I must say he acts like a perfect fool if he wants to conceal his attachment, doing nothing but attend to her, sitting side-ways towards her, that sort of thing.” Rossetti and William Morris shared tenancy of Kelmscott Manor, which allowed privacy for Rossetti and Jane when Morris was away. This should not imply that Morris had no feelings about Jane and Rossetti. I think that his love and admiration for her was so strong that he couldn’t impose an ultimatum on her. It was a bohemian set-up and very ahead of its time.
The finest example of Forbidden Fruit in the Pre-Raphaelite circle lies not in a painting, but in a poem. Written by Christina Rossetti (sister to Dante Gabriel Rossetti), Goblin Market is a narrative poem of two sisters who encounter temptation. It is a complex poem–almost too complex to delve into for a blog post simply because it is hard to narrow it down to just one theme. It both sensual and religious, with elements of the fantastic. As Serena Trowbridge pointed out, it is open to interpretation; there are so many different ways it could be read.
Sisters Lizzie and Laura live a fairy tale existence in a peaceful cottage near an ominous glen. Goblins emerge from the glen every morning and evening to sell their magical fruit. Lizzie resists their temptation but Laura devours the fruit, which she purchased by giving them a lock of her hair. There are consequences to eating the fruit. Laura begins to grow ill and ages prematurely. But when the noon waxed bright/Her hair grew thin and grey;/She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn/To swift decay, and burn/Her fire away. She can no longer hear the cry of the goblin men peddling their fruit. And she is in desperate need of more.
Lizzie sacrifices herself in order to get more fruit to save her sister. Since Lizzie has not partaken of the fruit, she can still hear the cries of the goblin men. Mouth firmly shut in order to prevent the goblins’ fruit from entering, the goblins attack her and the fruit is spread all over her body. When she returns, Laura feasts off of her body in an act that is similar to Christ’s sacrifice but is also written in explicit language. When one sister has made a sacrament of herself, the other is redeemed. Eat me,drink me, love me. It’s actually quite disturbing and uncomfortable to read in parts and I think that was Christina Rossetti’s intention.
I’ve always loved the poem while being perplexed and haunted by it. Upon first reading, I wanted answers. Just what did Christina Rossetti mean? Is it sexual? Homoerotic? Is it an allegory for Christ and redemption? Or protofeminist? But now I’ve decided that the ambiguity is the reason I am repeatedly drawn to it. We can study, ponder and try to pin down Christina’s exact meaning but then that would kill the magic. Poets can’t go running around after their readers and explaining what their work meant. Sometimes a work takes on its own meaning, to be discerned by each individual reader. Whatever you choose to glean from Goblin Market is real and true because you’ve brought your own experiences to the table. In the poet’s work you found yourself. This is true for all art, be it poems, books, paintings, movies. Whatever the medium, we often discover ourselves in the works of others. Art is the only genuine Tree of Knowledge. Some people choose not to seek it. But you and I know better.
I highly recommend the poetry journal Goblin Fruit. Their fantasy poetry is top-notch. Every time.
What else is forbidden? How about skeletons in the closet?
The Tower of London is marking the centenary of World War I with a breathtaking art installation called ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ by artist Paul Cummins. The installation will include total of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each flower representing a British military fatality from WWI.
The tradition of using poppies for remembrance of those slain in war began with John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Field. See Valerie Meachum’s post The Persistence of Poppies and Why the Poppy? on BBC.co.uk.
Since ancient times, the scarlet poppy has been associated with sleep and death. In Greek mythology, the gods gave Demeter a poppy to help her sleep after her daughter Persephone was abducted. Afterwards, poppies sprang from Demeter’s footsteps. She also transformed her mortal lover, Mecon, into the sacred flower. Poppies and other hypnotic plants were found at the cave of Hypnos, god of sleep. Morpheus, god of dreams, is also frequently represented with poppies, as are Nyx (night) and Thanatos (death).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix as a tribute to his late wife, Elizabeth Siddal. The dove delivering a poppy into her open hands is of personal significance — a symbol of Lizzie’s death from an overdose of Laudanum, an Opium derivative (Opium is made from poppy seeds). Ill health plagued Lizzie throughout their courtship and marriage and her dependence on Laudanum may have caused the death of her stillborn daughter a couple of years after their marriage. Rossetti included death in many of his works even before Lizzie’s untimely demise. Death was a Victorian preoccupation, especially after the death of Prince Albert sent Queen Victoria into a state of perpetual mourning.
Lizzie Siddal also posed for John Millais’ painting Ophelia, which shows a poppy floating close to her hand. For more, read my post Ophelia’s Flowers.
Thomas Cooper Gotch shows poppies as symbols of death in his painting Death the Bride, where death is personified as a beautiful yet morbid bride ready to embrace you for eternity.
Not all paintings of poppies embody death, though. Evelyn De Morgan’s Night and Sleep shows the personification of Sleep sprinkling poppies to ensure a good night’s sleep for everyone below.
In the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the Witch of the West casts a spell over a poppy field to make the main characters fall asleep. In the book, the poppy field has its own enchanting and dangerous power and the witch is not involved: “They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep.” –L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz
Poppies have long permeated our culture in a deep and meaningful way, they are more than mere symbols of death. They also embody respect and remembrance.
Through the dancing poppies stole a breeze most softly lulling to my soul. — John Keats
Orpheus was given his lyre by the god Apollo and it was the Muses that taught him how to play. His gift for music enchanted all living things: wild beasts, trees and even stones. After his journeys with the Argonauts, Orpheus married his love Eurydice. When Eurydice died from a snake bite, grief-stricken Orpheus felt compelled to follow her into the underworld. Using his lyre to charm Pluto and Proserpina, Pluto granted Orpheus his wish to return Eurydice to the land of the living. Orpheus was allowed to lead Eurydice back on the condition that he must not look back at his bride until they have left the underworld. Sadly, Orpheus could not help but give in and once he turned back to make certain she was there, Eurydice was pulled back into the underworld forever.
Rossetti’s sketch of Orpheus and Eurydice shows Orpheus after he has played his lyre for Pluto and Proserpina. Pluto is seen drawing back the curtain for their exit. The face of Eurydice is obviously inspired by Jane Morris, who Rossetti also famously painted as Proserpine.
G.F. Watts depicted Orpheus and Eurydice at the moment of their separation. Just as they are on the verge of being free from the underworld, Orpheus gives in to doubt. He turns and their fate is sealed. Eurydice is instantly sucked back in.
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope shows the couple as they continue their journey through the underworld in Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx.
For me, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a message of trust. How often do we give in to our doubts and second guess ourselves? Orpheus didn’t trust that his bride was behind him and when he made that fateful turn he not only let himself down, but Eurydice as well. As hard as it is, sometimes we have to challenge ourselves to let go of the outcome and just trust.
Orpheus left the underworld without his Eurydice. Later in his life he shunned all gods except Apollo, which angered the Thracian Maenads and led to his murder. John William Waterhouse depicts Orpheus’ floating, decapitated head that still had the supernatural ability to sing after death.
I’ve posted about Waterhouse’s painting before. Here’s a snippet:
Pre-Raphaelite art has its critics. I feel like many of them don’t actually look at the paintings or consider an artist’s individual work. They give it a cursory glance, assume that it’s all sentimentality and languorous women and then promptly dismiss it. A similar reaction takes place when people think of mythic fiction and fantasy, they mistakenly assume it’s all unicorns and fairies or hobbits and elves.
Yes, Pre-Raphaelite art has a bevy of languorous women. I happen to like them. But even with the damsels and flowing hair, Pre-Raphaelite art does not shy away from deeper meanings. Allegory abounds. Rich in symbolism, the Pre-Raphaelites tackle what to them were heavy and important subjects, often using myth and literature as metaphors. They could incorporate the ugly and the horrific. They just did it beautifully.
In Rossetti’s 1853 drawing Boatmen and Siren, one of the boatmen is captivated by the siren, but is saved from certain death by his companion. The accompanying inscription was written by Jacopo da Lentino, a Italian poet of the Rennaissance era whose work was translated by Rossetti in The Early Italian Poets:
I am broken, as a ship
Perishing of the song
Sweet, sweet and long, the songs the sirens know.
The mariner forgets,
Voyaging in those straits,
And dies assuredly.
Rossetti would revisit the idea of the Siren in 1877 with his work A Sea-Spell.
“The idea is that of a Siren, or Sea-Fairy, whose lute summons a sea-bird to listen, and whose song will soon prove fatal to some fascinated mariner”–Dante Gabriel Rossetti (The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1911)
Oh, how I love A Sea-Spell. That magnificent bird. The color palette. And Alexa Wilding with her pale skin and all that fabric draped so beautifully. Rossetti wrote a sonnet to accompany the painting:
Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,
While flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell
Between its chords; and as the wild notes swell,
The sea-bird for those branches leaves the sea.
But to what sound her listening ear stoops she?
What netherworld gulf-whispers doth she hear,
In answering echoes from what planisphere,
Along the wind, along the estuary?
She sinks into her spell: and when full soon
Her lips move and she soars into her song,
What creatures of the midmost main shall throng
In furrowed surf-clouds to the summoning rune:
Till he, the fated mariner, hears her cry,
And up her rock, bare-breasted, comes to die?
Siren, siren. She sinks into her spell. Who can resist her? Sir Edward Burne-Jones also captured sirens on canvas.
It is a sort of Siren-land–I don’t know when or where–not Greek Sirens, but any Sirens, anywhere, that lure on men to destruction. There will be a shore full of them, looking out from rocks and crannies in the rocks at a boat full of armed men, and the time will be sunset. The men shall look at the women and the women at the men, but what happens afterwards is more than I care to tell” — (Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones)
And, of course, if we are discussing Burne-Jones and the lure of the siren, we can not ignore The Depths of the Sea.
In the memorials of her husband, Georgiana Burne-Jones wrote: “We always associated ‘The Depths of the Sea’ with our dear “Siren”, for the face of the mermaid had some likeness to her strange charm of expression. It was this that Edward meant when, soon after beginning the picture, he said “I am painting a scene in Laura’s previous existence.” On Easter Eve this much-loved creature died.
It is the sorrowfullest ending,” he wrote, “poor, bright, sweet little thing. I dread knowing any more people, or watching them in a stupid unhelpful way the calamities that rain upon them.” And, a few weeks later, “I have no clear idea of a memorial to that little darling, but I should like it. I like praise of the dead, and keeping Saints’ days and holy days for them.” (Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones)
So the woman behind the face of the Siren met an untimely end. It is nice to know that her memory was treasured by both Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones
John William Waterhouse created a dramatic representation of Sirens in Ulysses and the Sirens.
Waterhouse described his painting as “The Sirens, who with their melodious voices lured all navigators to destruction…were, according to classical tradition, creatures having the body of a bird with the head of a beautiful woman…They were informed by the oracle that as soon as any passed by without heeding their songs they should perish. Ulysses, warned by Circe, stopped the ears of his companions and ordered himself to be bound to the mast, and so successfully passed…After this the Sirens…threw themselves into the sea and perished”
Sirens are not the only women related to water. Shakespeare created the ultimate ‘water woman’ when he wrote of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet.
I have a necklace with Millais’ Ophelia on it that I wear frequently. Recently, someone noticed it and made a comment that it’s strange to wear because it is, in their words, “an amulet of a suicidal girl”. My answer? Ophelia is so much more than that.
Ophelia has become a beacon for troubled teens or, perhaps, for women who mourn the mistakes they made in their adolescence. Girls are often branded for their actions in those precarious years and often carry the scars of judgement for a very long time. She is defined by the men in her life, which leads to her tragic end. Ophelia can be seen as an avatar, a symbol of innocence lost in the midst of all the power struggles and chaos around her.
Living in a patriarchal world, Ophelia must always be the good girl. Until madness becomes her escape. At this point in the play, Hamlet is noticeably absent. While he has been the one who seems mad in previous scenes, Ophelia picks up where he left off. Her character is almost his unwitting proxy and with method to her madness she sings songs and picks flowers, all the while making pointed comments designed to let the others know that she sees them exactly for what they are: her brother who now, like Hamlet, has a father to avenge, an adulterous queen who needs to repent, and a king who stole his throne by murdering his own brother. Ophelia is on the brink of losing her sanity, but she’s not going quietly. It is the adults around her that have failed her and her madness is partly of their creation.
Shakespeare does not explicitly say that her death was suicide. I don’t believe she entered the water with the intent of ending her life. Rather, I think it was written as a tragic accident, indicative of Ophelia’s mental state. She sings as she floats, not understanding that the water and her garments were a lethal combination. I was reminded of this when reading the sad story of a bride who died while having a “trash the dress” photo session, a relatively new trend where brides purposefully ruin their gowns while a photographer captures the somewhat gleeful destruction on film. Misjudging how heavy the gown would become in the water, the unfortunate bride drowned. I do not share this to make light of the tragedy. I think it is important to note that with our modern mode of dress, it is easy to misunderstand the garments women wore in the past and the real danger such a long gown presents when worn in water. As Queen Gertrude describes, the gown bore Ophelia up when she first entered the water, due to its initial buoyancy. Then as they became “heavy with their drink”, her garments were a trap from which she could not escape.
Shakespeare compared Ophelia to a mermaid when she drowned, which brings me back to Waterhouse and Burne-Jones:
There a many more examples of water-women in art, but I fear this post may already be too long. Water is a powerful metaphor, whether depicted on canvas by Victorian artists or used as a literary device by modern authors such as Neil Gaiman in his recent book The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Water cleanses. Water destroys.
“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.” –William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Yesterday I received a surprise from my lovely friend Kirsty Stonell Walker. Kirsty and her family recently visited the Watts Gallery and its current exhibition ‘Ellen Terry: The Painter’s Actress’ and was kind enough to send me a copy of Watts Magazine.
It was a timely parcel to receive. Just two days before, I had happened upon Sir John Gielgud’s autobiography at a flea market. Gielgud, in addition to being an amazing actor himself, was Ellen Terry’s great-nephew. (I’ve blogged about Terry before: Pursuing Ellen Terry, Dame Ellen Terry and even a Wombat Friday post about Ellen Terry’s description of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s menagerie.)
At this point, I am only a few chapters in to Gielgud’s memoirs but I’d like to share a couple of passages where he talks about Ellen Terry. Gielgud has a long history of the theatre on both sides of his family and was lucky enough to have seen Ellen Terry perform several times in his childhood.
Among the Terrys Ellen was, of course, the ‘Great Star’. She led a somewhat irregular private life. She did occasionally come to our house, but my mother thought her restless and fidgety, and preferred the acting of her sister Marion. I fell madly in love with Ellen the first time I ever saw her on the stage. I decided that the restlessness was part of her glory, because what I remember most about her is her movement, although she was then in her seventies, deaf, rather blind and very vague. But when she came on you really believed that she was walking on the flagstones of Venice or in the fields of Windsor. She moved with an extraordinary spontaneity and grace, holding her skirts gathered in two hands or bunched up over one arm, and crossed the stage with an unforgettable impression of swiftness. in her great days it was always said that the lines in Much Ado –‘For look where Beatrice like a lapwing runs/Close by the ground to hear our conference’–were exactly applicable to her. Shaw said that she had a genius for standing still, when she was not making the most beautiful movements. (Gielgud, John, An Actor and His Time, London: Sidgewick & Jackson, 1979)
I’ve taken the title of this blog post from Gielgud’s description of Ellen Terry:
She was a very Pre-Raphaelite actress. She had sat for painters like Rossetti, and she had known and talked with all the great men of her time–Tennyson, Browning, Ruskin, Wilde–and had learned a great deal from them. Yet she had a real humility. When you met her, you felt that she was ready to learn from children, or from anybody else with whom she came into contact. (Gielgud, John, An Actor and His Time, London: Sidgewick & Jackson, 1979)
As I mentioned in Rossetti and the art of death, Edgar Allan Poe was a great influence on DGR’s work. The Raven is a prime example of Poe’s poetry influencing Rossetti’s. It was a catalyst for The Blessed Damozel, where Rossetti reversed the conditions of The Raven in order to tell the story from the deceased lover’s point of view. (See my post Who is the Blessed Damozel?)
“Poe is a key figure in the development of DGR’s literary style as well. The second-order romanticism developed in Poe’s imaginative writings, and explicated in essays like “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition”, is recapitulated in DGR’s work, where the key is primarily Dantean rather than (as in Poe) Shelleyan/Byronic.”–RossettiArchive.com
Here is Rossetti’s illustration for Poe’s poem Ulalume, drawn circa 1848:
Rossetti and Poe were masters at blending melancholy with beauty, each with their own particular flair. Rossetti’s illustration of Ulalume shows a poet walking through a ‘ghost-haunted woodland’. The winged figure represents his Psyche. He walks and talks with his Psyche on a seemingly aimless journey. Eventually he happens upon the tomb of his dead love Ulalume, leading us to believe that their stroll was not so happenstance after all. He has unconsciously visited her grave, not realizing that it was the first year anniversary of her death. It seems uncanny that Rossetti and Poe both famously explored the subject of deceased love. Poe lost his wife Virginia prior to the writing of Ulalume, while Rossetti would lose his wife in 1862. several years after writing The Blessed Damozel.
Other Rossetti illustrations of Poe works include The Raven and The Sleeper:
“It is a subject from an old story of mine — a woman dying while her lover is painting her portrait” (Dante Gabriel Rossetti)
This is a story of beauty, art, and death.
The study for Bonifazio’s mistress captures a scene from Rossetti’s story St. Agnes of Intercession. It was intended to be published in the fifth edition of the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, but the publication folded after four issues.
Rossetti was greatly influenced by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s story The Oval Portrait seems to have been a catalyst for St. Agnes of Intercession. In The Oval Portrait, the narrator is captivated by an old painting; he is especially drawn to how lifelike the image is. Later he learns that while the painting seems unnaturally lifelike, the model died while her image was painted. Her husband was so obsessed with capturing her likeness that he failed to notice that she was dying. Rossetti’s story builds upon Poe’s and added the elements of doubling and reincarnation. Rossetti might have been writing about himself, as his protagonist was also a nineteenth century artist who developed his talent at a young age. He falls in love with the character Mary Arden and after painting her portrait, someone points out how much her portrait looks like a certain fifteenth century painting by an artist named Bucciuolo Angiolieri.
After finding the self portrait of Bucciuolo Angiolieri, the artist is shocked to find that they are practically doubles. Identical artists living centuries apart. He and his love Mary Arden are the same artist and model that have lived four hundred years before.
The story of the artist and his model/love may seem to have similarities with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his model/love Elizabeth Siddal. But he wrote the story almost two years before meeting Lizzie. However, even though the story is not about them there is an uncanny similarity. The artist was so intent on his work that he ignored his lover’s plight. In 1862, when Elizabeth Siddal (now Rossetti’s wife) died of a laudanum overdose, Rossetti was similarly plagued with guilt. He placed his manuscript of poems in her coffin, saying that he had spent time on the poems when he should have spent that time with her.
His interest in doubles did not end with St. Agnes of Intercession. On his honeymoon with Lizzie in 1860, he began his painting How They Met Themselves. In it, two lovers happen upon their doppelgangers in a forest. (Read my previous posts about his picture here and here.)
And years before, after he met Lizzie, he penned ‘Sudden Light':
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell;
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
You have been mine before—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall, — I knew it all of yore.
The idea of love, death, and reincarnation seems to weave in and out during his years spent with Elizabeth Siddal.
After she died, he began his posthumous tribute to her, Beata Beatrix. Now life began to somewhat mirror art because while St Agnes of Intercession was about a model who died having her portrait painted, the rumor began to spread that an entirely opposite experience was taking place during the painting of Beata Beatrix. Macabre whispers spread what has now become urban legend: that Rossetti’s initial sketches for Beata Beatrix were taken before her burial, while the deceased Lizzie lay in state in their home.
While it makes a scintillating tale, it probably is not true. This study, made well before Lizzie’s death, suggests that Beata Beatrix was in the planning stages before the fateful event.
As I said, this is a story of beauty, art, and death. But whose story? Bonifazio’s mistress, Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti, Poe’s Oval Portrait? The tales have become so entwined that we see them all as one. Can I split them apart further, deconstructing them all? I don’t know. I think, for now, I will leave them alone. I think Rossetti is happy, weaving in and out of the type of story he loved. As for Lizzie, well, I have tried very hard to separate and lay her ghost to rest.
New sighting added to the Unexpected Pre-Raphaelite Sightings page!
Monarch of the Glen: Archie MacDonald, a young restaurateur is called back to his childhood home of Glenbogle where he is told he is the new Laird of Glenbogle. –via IMDB. Visit the Monarch of the Glen homepage at BBC.co.uk
Thank you to Lisa Gill for sharing her screencaps of Monarch of the Glen. Lisa’s keen eye spotted what appears to be the William Morris Honeysuckle pattern on the walls and the Blackthorn pattern in the stack of fabric:
Morris & Co. was founded by William Morris in 1861 and greatly influenced the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris’ wallpaper designs are innovative, beautiful and timeless.