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.
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).
Night, Simeon Solomon
Dante Gabriel Rossetti paintedBeata Beatrixas 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, Death the Bride
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.
Night and Sleep. Evelyn De Morgan
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.
Priestess Offering Poppies, Simeon Solomon
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.
‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
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.
Jane Morris’ features seen in Eurydice (l) and Proserpine (r)
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.
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
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.
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)
‘A Sea-Spell’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
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.
‘The Sirens’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones
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.
‘The Depths of the Sea’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones
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.
‘Ophelia’ (1852) John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal
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.
‘Ophelia’, John William Waterhouse
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.
‘Ophelia’, Arthur Hughes
Shakespeare compared Ophelia to a mermaid when she drowned, which brings me back to Waterhouse and Burne-Jones:
‘A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse
‘The Mermaid’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones
I’ve posted about mermaids before here and here. Almost every culture has its mermaid lore and people remain fascinated by them today.
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
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)
‘The Sisters’ by G.F.Watts. On the left is Kate Terry, grandmother to Sir John Gielgud. Ellen Terry is on the right.
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)
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent. Terry is seen in her famous beetle-wing gown.
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:
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Study for Bonifazio’s Mistress’
“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 artist was focused on his work, to the extent of everything else. Now, too late, he discards his palette and tries to save his love.
He captured her beautiful image on canvas, full of life…
…all the while, she was dying.
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.
‘Beata Beatrix’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
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.
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.
Lamia is perhaps my favorite example of a dramatic transformation. Based on the poem by John Keats, Waterhouse depicts Lamia after she has transformed from serpent to woman. I adore the vivid imagery of Keats’ poem (She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue…) but I also recommend that you read A.S. Byatt’s short story, A Lamia in the Cévennes, which can be found in her collection Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice. Lamia also appears in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere as a type of vampire known as a ‘velvet’.
‘Lamia’, John William Waterhouse
Looking at Waterhouse’s Lamia, it is her beautiful human form that captures our attention. But look at the snake skin winding around her body. It is a reminder of her true form, a warning of what she is and what she always will be.
Waterhouse takes on another mythical transformation in Apollo and Daphne where Daphne can be seen transforming into a laurel tree.
‘Apollo and Daphne’, John William Waterhouse
“She rejected every lover, including Apollo. When the god pursued her, Daphne prayed to the Earth or to her father to rescue her, whereupon she was transformed into a laurel. Apollo appropriated the laurel for poets and, in Rome, for triumphs. Daphne was also loved by Leucippus, who was killed because of Apollo’s jealousy.” –Britannica.com
Daphne was not interested in lovers, not even the great god Apollo. Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells us: “Straightaway Apollo loved, and Daphne ran even from the name of “lover”. Companion of Diana, her joy was in the depths of the forests and the spoils of the chase; a headband kept her flowing hair in place. Many suitors courted her, while she cared not for love and marriage; a virgin she roamed the pathless woods…”
She was one with the forest, enjoying the things which she loved (nature and hunting) and was thoroughly content with her life. She was minding her own business when Apollo began to pursue her as if she were prey. But we can not blame Apollo alone, because it was a boyish argument that sealed Daphne’s fate:
“Daphne, the daughter of Peneus, was the first object of Apollo’s love. It was not blind fate who brought this about, but Cupid’s cruel anger. Apollo, flushed with pride at his victory over Python, had seen Cupid drawing his bow and taunted him: “What business of yours are brave men’s arms, young fellow?” The bow suits my shoulder; I can take unerring aim at wild animals, or at my enemies. I it was who laid low ground Python, though he stretched over wide acres of ground, with uncounted arrows. You should be content with kindling the fires of love in some mortal with your torch; do not try to share my glory!” To him Cupid replied: “Although your arrows pierce every target, Apollo, mine will pierce you. Just as all animals yield to you, so your glory is inferior to mine.” And as he spoke he quickly flew to the peak of shady Parnassus and from his quiver drew two arrows. Different were their functions, for the one, whose point was dull and leaden, repelled love; the other, golden, bright, and sharp aroused it. Cupid shot the leaden arrow at Peneus’ daughter (Daphne), while he pierced Apollo’s inmost heart with the golden one”
Ah, that Cupid. Angered by Apollo’s arrogance, he takes his revenge by shooting Apollo with an arrow that will arouse his love for Daphne while Daphne (who wanted no part of love anyway) was pierced by an arrow that will repel love. Daphne had repeatedly rejected love in her life, so perhaps it would have been crueler for Cupid to strike her with the golden bow that would have made her turn her back on the life she had chosen in order to love the god Apollo. It seems a fitting fate that instead of love, she would become part of the forest she adored. Daphne flees. She who usually hunts has become the prey. “Even as he spoke Daphne fled from him and ran on in fear; then too she seemed lovely — the wind laid bare her body and her clothes fluttered as she ran and her hair streamed out behind. In flight she was yet more beautiful. Yet the young god could not bear to have his words of love go for nothing…” (Ovid) Apollo chases and chases her, until Daphne loses her strength and can go on no further. She is scared and Apollo is relentless. “Now Daphne’s strength was gone, drained by the effort of her flight, and Pale she saw Peneus’ waters. “Help me Father,” she cried, “if a river has power; change me and destroy my beauty which has proved too attractive!” Hardly had she finished her prayer when her little limbs grew heavy and sluggish, thin bark enveloped her soft breasts; her hair grew into leaves, her arms into branches. Her feet, which until now had run so swiftly, held fast with clinging roots. Her face was the tree’s top; only her beauty remains.”
Daphne becomes a laurel tree. Thus the laurel tree becomes sacred to Apollo, who wears its leaves as a crown. Now that I think of it, it seems sad that laurel leaves were worn as a symbol of victory. It was not a victory for Daphne. Or was it? Rather than submit to Apollo, she made her own choice and became a tree instead. But her life was forever changed and there was no turning back.
Le Morte d’Arthur captivated Edward Burne-Jones. His passion for all things Arthurian dated back to his days as an undergraduate at Oxford, when he and close friend William Morris would read the tales together. Burne-Jones painted Arthurian subjects several times in his career, including the famous The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon.
Merlin was infatuated with Nimue. Unfortunately for him, he taught her the very magic that she later used to imprison him.
‘Merlin and Nimue’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones
In his 1861 painting Merlin and Nimue, Burne-Jones used Fanny Cornforth as a model. As Nimue, she turns her back on Merlin as he falls prey to her spell. I don’t think he saw Fanny as ‘evil’, even though she wasn’t considered respectable due to her past as a prostitute and the fact that she was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s lover. But it is interesting to note that when he depicted Nimue in this work, he didn’t opt for his usual androgynous beauty. Kirsty Stonell Walker has an interesting post about body types and Burne-Jones paintings of Fanny.
His painting of Nimue in The Beguiling of Merlin is more personal. Here he uses his own personal “Nimue”, Mary Zambaco. Burne-Jones and Zambaco had an affair that ended with an ugly and embarrassing public scene. In happier days, he had painted Zambaco as his ideal beauty in his Pygmalion series. In the bitterness that often accompanies the end of an affair, he now painted her as the scheming, evil Nimue as she ensnares Merlin in the hawthorne tree.
Clytie was a beautiful water nymph who loved the sun god Apollo (Helios). Apollo, however, didn’t return her love. The rejected Clytie could not move on and her love for Apollo grew into obsession. She remained in one spot, staring at the sun as her unrequited love guided it across the sky each day in his chariot. Never eating or drinking, her only nourishment came from her own tears as her face followed the sun.
Eventually her legs formed roots and her face transformed into a sunflower, forever following the sun.
At some point in our lives, have we all been Clytie? Rooted in place, unable to move on? Allowing someone or something to change who we are?
Myths may seem to be archaic tropes, but dust them off and there’s timeless wisdom. Clytie is a cautionary tale and the sunflower should be embraced as a symbol of what can happen when we become rooted in unhealthy ideas we can’t let go of — not growing into ourselves, but into something else completely. Are sunflowers a symbol of Clytie’s sorrow, then? Not necessarily. I say they are symbols of hope. We can look at them and say “Not me. Not today. I am moving forward.”
‘Clytie’, Frederic Leighton
She wasted away, deranged by her experience of love. Impatient of the nymphs, night and day, under the open sky, she sat dishevelled, bareheaded, on the bare earth. Without food or water, fasting, for nine days, she lived only on dew and tears, and did not stir from the ground. She only gazed at the god’s aspect as he passed, and turned her face towards him. They say that her limbs clung to the soil, and that her ghastly pallor changed part of her appearance to that of a bloodless plant: but part was reddened, and a flower hid her face. She turns, always, towards the sun; though her roots hold her fast, her love remains unaltered. (Ovid,Metamorphoses IV:256-273)
That Summer was tremendous fun to read, especially if you have an interest in the Pre-Raphaelites. Lauren Willig adroitly weaves together two tales that take place in two different time periods: one in 1849, the other in 2009.
In 2009, Julia Conley unexpectedly inherits a house outside of London. Herne Hill is a family home that she hasn’t visited since the death of her mother when Julia was only six years old. Dealing with the house isn’t something she relishes and neither are the perplexing memories that are now rising to the surface. Julia is forced to deal with emotions she long avoided and discuss with her father the one subject they’ve always ignored: her mother. When Julia finds a hidden Pre-Raphaelite painting in an old wardrobe, she realizes the house holds more secrets than she realized.
In 1849, Imogen Grantham and her husband Arthur live in a loveless marriage in his family home, Herne Hill. Arthur is a collector of medieval antiquities and his collection draws interest from a group of young artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Gavin Thorne. Gavin is hired to paint Imogen’s portrait and the bond they form will change the Grantham family forever.
I enjoyed That Summer, both for the Victorian story of Imogen and Gavin and for the modern tale of Julia. Julia’s story is peppered with delightful pop culture references and her efforts to track down information about her Pre-Raphaelite painting rang true since she starts her journey where most of us would: Google and Wikipedia. The juxtaposition of Julia’s modern life with the world of the Granthams makes That Summer a delightful story of the same family home seen in two vastly different eras.
One of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s last paintings shows Jane Morris in a world of green. She’s surrounded by foliage, seemingly lost in a day dream while her book lies ignored on her lap. Her hand loosely holds a honeysuckle.
‘The Day Dream’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1880)
‘Proserpine’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
‘Astarte Syriaca’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Jane is possibly clad in the same dress she wore in Proserpine, where she is again seen both wearing and surrounded by green. A similar garment can also be seen in Astarte Syriaca, although it is more loosely draped and her bare shoulders are exposed.
Rossetti wrote a sonnet to accompany The Day Dream(read here in full). The poem ends She dreams ; till now on her forgotten book/Drops the forgotten blossom from her hand. The poem and picture are obviously about the woman lost in her day dream, but Rossetti’s obsessive use of Jane Morris in his paintings makes me question whether or not the title refers to Jane as the subject of his own daily thoughts and dreams. Perhaps the painting is not of a woman day dreaming, but showing us the fixation of the artist’s own day dream. To paraphrase his sister Christina Rossetti’s poem, perhaps we see Jane here not as she is, but as she fills his dream. (In an Artists’s Studio).
In the study for The Day Dream, we can focus on Jane’s face. This is the face that captivated Rossetti from the moment he spotted her in the theatre audience in Oxford, the face that has become representative of Rossetti’s body of work.
Study for ‘The Day Dream’
“How nice it would be if I could feel sure I had painted you once and for all so as to let the world know what you were, but every new thing I do from you is a disappointment, and it is only at some odd moment when I cannot set about it that I see by a flash the way it ought to be done,” Rossetti wrote to Jane. She was an important part of Rossetti’s later years and each painting can be seen as an attempt to capture some inexplicable quality that is the key to their relationship. Perhaps each work is a different “day dream”, if we look at day dreams as a way to explore our subconscious. This article, What Your Daydreams Reveal About You, discusses day dreams as a way to understand ourselves, set goals and improve our lives. Seen in this psychological context, the title of Rossetti’s painting takes on a deeper meaning. Jane Morris, as Rossetti’s muse, became the catalyst for “day dreams” that inspired some of his greatest masterpieces. Through his work, he may not have been exploring not only Jane’s face, but what she meant to him and why.
‘Rossetti working on “The Day Dream” ‘ by Frederic Shields