Painting the Soul

Self-portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti at eighteen.

Self-portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti at eighteen.

At the age of twenty-one, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote the short story Hand and Soul, which was published in The Germ, a short-lived magazine created by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.    Not only does the story  offer a glimpse into the young Rossetti’s beliefs and aspirations  but it seems to be the only work of fiction to illustrate the essence of what he considered to be the Pre-Raphaelite ideal.  Through the tale, Rossetti’s message to artists is that art should be the expression of your own soul.

Hand and Soul is the story of fictional 13th-century artist, Chiaro dell’Erma.  Chiaro dedicated his life to art and made a name for himself but even after several years of success “the weight was still at his heart” and he still feels the same painful longing and desire that he experienced in his youth. He vows that from that moment on he will only create works of “moral greatness that should influence the beholder”.  But this moral endeavor also fails to satisfy; his work suffers and is described as cold. The weight still plagues his heart. “Fame failed me; faith failed me,” says Chiaro.

'The Damsel of the Sanct Grael', Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

‘The Damsel of the Sanct Grael’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

A vision of a beautiful woman appears to him. “It seemed that the first thoughts he had ever known were given him as at first from her eyes, and he knew her hair to be the golden veil through which he beheld his dreams.” She reveals to him that she is the embodiment of his own soul.

Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal by Rossetti

Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal by Rossetti

“I am an image, Chiaro, of thine own soul within thee.  See me, and know me as I am.”  After speaking with him about his struggles, she advises him to paint her as she appears to him, “so thy soul shall stand before thee always and perplex thee no more.” The message is that creating art for fame alone does not satisfy, neither does painting with a high moral purpose.  Art should be created from the soul, for the soul.  It should be the ultimate honest expression.

 Regina Cordium, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Elizabeth Siddal

Regina Cordium, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Elizabeth Siddal

In the 1850s, Rossetti painted and drew Elizabeth Siddal so much that artist Ford Madox Ford described it as a monomania.  Later Rossetti would move on to other models.  We see Fanny Cornforth again and again; she definitely brought out a sensual aspect in his work.  In the years after Siddal’s death, he repeatedly painted both Alexa Wilding and Jane Morris. (See Rossetti’s Models) The paintings of Jane Morris are a frequent source of interest not only because they are incredibly striking, but because he had an intense relationship with her in spite of the fact that she was married to William Morris, one of his closest friends.

'Proserpine', Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Jane Morris

‘Proserpine’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Jane Morris

'Pandora' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Jane Morris

‘Pandora’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Jane Morris

I think his  female forms symbolize more than human beauty of a physical nature.  When I look at Rossetti’s later works, it’s not just that they are paintings of women that he was sometimes involved with physically. They represent a beauty of a higher form, meant to be something that inspires and elevates our souls.  As I mentioned before, in Rossetti’s short story Hand and Soul the beautiful female form represents the soul of the artist itself.  Perhaps Rossetti sought to express his innermost being through the beauties he created on canvas. Perhaps this pursuit of beauty can be symbolic of our own souls, to be reflected and discovered within our true selves and then expressed as art.

'The Day-Dream', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘The Day-Dream’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Tales of Rossetti’s romantic life often influence the way we look at his work.  If you look at his many paintings of Jane Morris, for example, as only an artist’s paintings of his illicit paramour then you completely miss the larger message that it’s the appreciation and pursuit of beauty that transcends and transforms the human condition.  It would be easy to be dismissive towards his work and describe it as merely a series of languidly beautiful women, eye candy for the male gaze.  Personally, I see it as more than that.  I think it is an extension of the concept laid out in Hand and Soul.   His later works are earthly delights,  very physical and sensuous yet I still feel they carry his early idea of personifying the soul as a beautiful woman.

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was certainly not the only Victorian artist to explore the soul through art.

In The Soul’s Prison House, Evelyn De Morgan also personifies the soul as a beautiful woman. The De Morgan Foundation describes the work as follows:

“When a study for this work was exhibited in 1889, a quotation attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo was attached to it – “illuminate, oh illuminate my blind soul that sitteth in darkness and the Shadow of Death”. The Soul sits in its prison (the body) awaiting its release into the light beyond the prison window – the release of death. This echoes the painter’s Spiritualist belief, that the body is merely an earthly shell, an encumbrance, which the spirit longs to cast off in death, to move into the sun of the spirit-spheres. A similar idea is expressed in De Morgan’s painting “The Prisoner”–via The De Morgan Foundation

The Soul's Prison House, Evelyn De Morgan

The Soul’s Prison House, Evelyn De Morgan

De Morgan’s painting A Soul in Hell is an interesting one.  He’s surrounded by the glories of nature yet he is obviously unhappy.  Look at the supernatural creature beside him.  The De Morgan Foundation shares this description of it , “this man, surrounded by all that is beautiful and desirable, by the force of his own dark spirit dwells in a hell of his own making. Beside him, you see his ugly familiar spirit”. The little devil or imp sitting beside him on the bench seems to be as unhappy as the man himself – truly a hell for them both.”

A Soul in Hell, Evelyn De Morgan

A Soul in Hell, Evelyn De Morgan

De Morgan’s painting The Passing of the Soul at Death illustrates the transition of the soul from earthly body to a spiritual afterlife.

'The Passing of the Soul at Death', Evelyn De Morgan

‘The Passing of the Soul at Death’, Evelyn De Morgan

We cannot talk about representations of the soul in art without touching on the allegorical tale of Psyche, goddess of the soul and memory.

Honestly, I love how names from ancient mythology still permeate our language. There is strength in them. They do not shrivel and fall away. They persist.

Today we use the word psyche to sum up everything that we are. It is both our conscious and unconscious. Our subconscious fears and troubles lurk in our psyche. We also have great power and potential there, sometimes left uncovered unless we are brave enough to pursue it. Our psyche is literally everything. It is our soul.

Pan and Psyche, Edward Burne-Jones

Pan and Psyche, Edward Burne-Jones

Psyche, the youngest daughter of a king, had such remarkable beauty that even the goddess Aphrodite had grown jealous. So jealous, in fact, that anger consumed her and led her to instruct her son Eros (god of love) to cause Psyche to fall in love with a repulsive and horrible man. Except Eros was so struck with Psyche that he fell in love with her himself.

Psyche Entering Cupid's Garden, John William Waterhouse

Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden, John William Waterhouse

Psyche Opening the Golden Box

Psyche Opening the Golden Box, John William Waterhouse

Spiriting her away to a secret location, he instructed Psyche to never look upon his face. In darkness he visited her every night, leaving before the dawn of day. Although blissfully happy with her love, Psyche was taunted by her jealous sisters. They convinced her that it was a hideous and grotesque monster who embraced her each night. With the seeds of doubt sown in her mind, Psyche broke her promise to Eros and looked at his face by the light of a lamp while he slept. Far from a monster, Psyche found herself gazing upon the face of a god. What should have been a moment of bliss quickly turned tragic as she inadvertently dropped oil from the lamp, spilling it on Eros’ shoulder. Eros awakens, feeling angry and betrayed. Psyche has broken his trust and he leaves her, seemingly never to return.

Devastated, Psyche throws herself into a river in an unsuccessful attempt to kill herself. She later encounters the god Pan who comforts her and suggests that she might possibly win Eros back through servitude. Psyche begins to wander and search for Eros until she eventually reaches a temple of Aphrodite. Here her suffering reaches new depths as Aphrodite takes Psyche on as a slave, imposing tortuous tasks for her to accomplish. Once Psyche completes her tasks, she becomes immortal and is reunited with Eros.

Cupid Delivering Psyche, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Cupid Delivering Psyche, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Cupid Gazing at Psyche

Cupid Gazing at Psyche

Psyche reaches her goal by working towards it and this aspect of her story reminds me of the Robert Frost quote “the best way out is always through”.  It’s profound in its simplicity.   Perhaps it is Frost’s words we should bear in mind when we look at artistic images of the soul because more often than not I think we turn to such imagery when we seek healing of some sort.  Whether it is Rossetti’s repetitive pattern of beautiful women, Evelyn De Morgan’s allegorical works, or the myth of Psyche painted by Burne-Jones and Waterhouse,  I  choose art and literature as my refuge when my soul is in need of respite.  Art is a mirror but it is also a messenger that uncovers truth and meaning.  It is food for the psyche and as Auntie Mame put it, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”  No need to starve.  Feed your soul with what resonates with you; art is an endless resource

“The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its own thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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2 thoughts on “Painting the Soul

  1. I think it’s interesting that whereas Ruskin loved Rossetti’s earlier work, he criticised his later work (eg The Beloved) for their “sensuality” which he felt made them vulgar. It’s as though (like you) Ruskin was looking for art to connect with his soul/psyche. The “sensuality” of the later works (the sheer beauty of the women, the luscious inviting lips etc) may have distracted him from this. I always thought this said more about Ruskin’s repressed personality, but I think I see what he meant. The earlier works (and all his drawings) really bring out the character, the emotions (the soul?). The later works (especially Jane Morris) – they are technically more accomplished but it’s almost a chocolate box prettiness, and you look for the soul but there’s nothing there. It reminds me of a book by Penelope Fitzgerald where the main character commissions an artist to paint the young girl that he is in love with her older married sister. He paints the sister, no problem. But after weeks of effort he gives up on the girl – she has no soul.

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