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
“The beautiful Miss Herbert, then acting at the St. James Theatre, used to come sometimes to sit to Watts, and the younger men, if they were there, would gather round her and make studies also. Echoes of their admiration reached us young people, to whom theatres were things unknown, and once we were shewn a small water-colour made by Gabriel of her, radiant in golden hair, – – just the head and throat on an emerald-green background– and deeply did we feel the tribute rendered to her beauty when we read the names which he had written around the four sides of the little picture: “BEATRICE HELEN GUENEVERE HERBERT”. I first saw this lady one evening in the early days of our marriage, at the house of friends and ours, Mr. and Mrs. Street, and then after many years we met again in Rottingdean, when Miss Herbert drove out from Brighton and she and my husband shook hands across the gulf of time. Her grace and dignity of bearing remained very striking, and I do not think there could have been a shock on either side, for both still visibly carried the marks of their distinguishing gifts–of power and of beauty. (The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, volume I by Georgiana Burne-Jones)
Ruth Herbert was a Victorian actress who was drawn frequently by artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Dante Gabriel Rossetti used her features a great deal and once wrote to William Bell Scott while waiting for her arrival:
I am in the stunning position this morning of expecting the actual visit at 1/2 past 11 of a model whom I have been longing to paint for years — Miss Herbert of the Olympic Theatre– who has the most varied and highest expression I ever saw in a woman’s face, besides abundant beauty, golden hair, etc. Did you ever see her? O my eye! she has sat to me now and will sit to me for Mary Magdalene in the picture I am beginning. Such luck!
‘Head of a Woman Called Ruth Herbert’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
This drawing by Rossetti is of Fanny Cornforth and George Boyce, but Ruth Herbert’s portrait can be seen on the wall:
We live in the age of Instagram, where actresses and reality-tv-starlets pepper our news feeds. In a world where you can be famous without actual talent or achievement, it’s nice to glimpse an actress of a bygone time. An actress whose features we might never see or whose name we might not hear of had she not captured the fancy of several Pre-Raphaelite artists and their friends. Here’s to you, Ruth Herbert.
Portrait of Ruth herbert by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, William Holman Hunt
William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil is currently in the news with the recent announcement that the Delaware Art museum will be auctioning the painting tomorrow. The work has been in their collection since 1947 and it is sad news indeed that the Delaware has to sell it and three other works in order to pay a $19.8 million construction debt. I was shocked when I first read the news that they would part with Isabella, which is one of the treasures in their Pre-Raphaelite collection. Kirsty Stonell Walker has just written a particularly brilliant post about the auction that I encourage you to read.
Isabella is an example of absorbing grief and is based on the narrative poem by John Keats. Isabella, the daughter of an affluent family, is in love with one of their servants, Lorenzo. Her brothers, having planned for Isabella to make a financially advantageous marriage, decide that swift action must be taken to stop Lorenzo and Isabella. They murder Lorenzo. His ghost later appears to Isabella and he leads her to his buried body. She digs him up, removes his head and buries it in a pot of basil. She then cares for the pot of basil obsessively, pining away and consumed with grief.
Hunt’s painting is not the only Pre-Raphaelite work featuring Keats’ Isabella. John Everett Millais painted his version, Lorenzo and Isabella, in the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. So early, in fact, that the initials PRB were not yet known to the public. Millais chose not to focus solely on Isabella and the basil, but created a group scene in which she is seen dining with her family prior to the murderous act.
‘Lorenzo and Isabella’, Sir John Everett Millais
If you look closely at Isabella’s chair, you’ll see that Millais included the initials PRB. At that time, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret group. It has been suggested that the meaning of the PRB was later leaked by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Isabella has also been painted by artists who weren’t members of the Brotherhood, but were inspired by them and can be considered Pre-Raphaelite in style.
John Melhuish Strudwick:
John White Alexander:
John William Waterhouse:
George Henry Grenville Manton:
One thing that draws me to Pre-Raphaelite art is this juxtaposition of something ugly with something beautiful. Grief, death, sorrow are shown through gorgeous imagery and vibrant colors. The notion that Isabella has severed her deceased lover’s head in order to keep him close is something that we should find disturbing. Yet when looking at artistic depictions of Isabella, we are not repulsed. It is the haunting beauty and sadness we see and not the gruesome nature of her act. And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun, And she forgot the blue above the trees, And she forgot the dells where waters run, And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze; She had no knowledge when the day was done, And the new morn she saw not: but in peace Hung over her sweet Basil evermore, And moisten’d it with tears unto the core
A small pocket-book of this time contains a note made by Edward from a canal-bridge in a poor quarter of the city, which nearly thirty years afterwards he developed into the background of his “Aurora”. The main outlines of building and canal are preserved in the picture, and Aurora with her cymbals comes lightly stepping along a waterside path from which in the original sketch a woman stoops to bathe her baby, but the canal has changed into an arm of a river and the houses have been welded into the long, low storage-places of a wharf, crowned by a great church lifted up against the sky. He enjoyed making up stories to himself about his backgrounds, as he painted them; and one day as he was working on “Aurora” he did a very unusual thing, for the humour seized him to think aloud, and he spun out a whole history of the place, “You see the city gets poorer as it gets toward the church,” he said,”which makes it more interesting–the rich people have gone to live further off. It has had many epochs: first the Roman–you may see remains of that in the foundations: then was an oligarchic government, following on a time of anarchy and disaster, that put up many fine buildings, and some of them still remain. Then came an epoch of trade, capricious and varying in locality, that produced the strangest results on its architecture, one part of the town cutting out another by setting up nearer the sea further down the river, then being driven back again for reasons that can’t be found out now–traces of prosperity and decay succeeding each other.” (written by Georgiana Burne-Jones in Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, vol. I)
Although the background was taken from a canal in Oxford, you can definitely see the influence from Burne-Jones’ trips to Italy as well. In mythology, Aurora personifies the dawn and is seen here using her cymbals to awaken the city to a new day. For comparison, you can see Evelyn De Morgan’s painting of Aurora’s Greek counterpart: Eos.