Today begins the forty-second year of ME! ‘Tis my birthday!
In Ulysses, Tennyson said ‘I am a part of all that I have met’ and I believe that to be true. Our experiences add to our depth and the people and things I’ve met in life are part of my story, including the art and literature that moves me. People ask me about Pre-Raphaelite paintings all the time and it seems fitting that for my birthday I get a little personal and share a few I love the most here.
Some Pre-Raphaelite images, like the drawing of Elizabeth Siddal above, are less narrative, more mood. They evoke an almost claustrophobic feeling, placing the viewer in close proximity to a woman whose gaze will never meet theirs. We feel a part of the intimate setting as if we are intruders on her reverie, watching her as she contemplates thoughts and emotions that are impossible to read on her face. We have caught her in a period sustained by intellect and introversion. The Pre-Raphaelite woman is beautiful, often sensual, and we can certainly objectify her. Yet neither should we dismiss her as vapid. She is depicted in private moments of thinking and feeling and it is this sense of deep inner reflection that appeals to me. These are the women whose experiences remind me of my own private hours, moments that belong to me where I explore inner workings that are sacred because they are mine and mine alone.
The Beguiling of Merlin deserves a mention because it is the first image that grabbed me, really grabbed me, and made itself felt.
I was seventeen years old in 1992 and happened upon A.S. Byatt’s Possession in a bookstore, which featured The Beguiling of Merlin on the cover. I had an actual gut reaction. I wanted that book without even flipping through it or reading the back cover (rare for me). I remember being nervous asking my mother if I could buy it, because the price was a bit high.
The book turned out to be one of the most important books of my life. I am a gluttonous and greedy reader. My interests are broad and I literally read anything I can get my hands on without tying myself down to a favorite genre. There are quite a few books that I consider important parts of my life. — books that I return to repeatedly like comfort food, rereading them because even though they are familiar and unchanging, they always seem to show me something new. I discover myself through them.
Possession seemed to make me feel several things at once, things that I did not know how to name. It was a confusing time in my life. In fact the next few years were what I would call a muddle of bad decisions and upheaval in which I did not realize or meet up to my full potential. I was young — much younger than I realized and, really, do many of us come through those years unscathed? At any rate, A.S. Byatt’s work marked a transition for me. It was a change from reading purely for escapism to approaching my reading life as a serious endeavor. It did not happen overnight with just that one book, but looking back I realize that reading Possession created a subtle shift that changed how I viewed my reading habits and choices.
Possession stayed with me and I returned to it often. It was there at the beginning of marriage and parenthood. It was there during cold winter days or in the summer time heat while my children splashed in their wading pool. Sometimes I would read it all the way through again, happy to be immersed in the tale. Other times, I would just take a dip into certain passages, allowing them to roll around my head a bit as I savored Byatt’s writing. And one day, I became curious about the cover art and decided to research its origin. Which led to an interest in the Pre-Raphaelites. Which led to a very specific interest in Rossetti. Who led me to Elizabeth Siddal, a woman I devoted years to studying. Which then led me to the lives of other Pre-Raphaelite women and, eventually, the birth of this website. Perhaps all of this is because the root of my interest in the Pre-Raphaelites may in reality be an interest in people’s stories.
I had seen this portrait of Elizabeth Siddal many times in books but the first time I saw it in person it stunned me. Smaller than expected, it somehow dominated the room. It’s tender and the color is more vibrant than I can put into words. Rossetti, especially in his later works, had a tendency to glamorize women. Not here though. I feel like Lizzie, his Lizzie, shines through with love. This was painted in 1854, before she was swimming in the Laudanum addiction that would eventually take her life. Did Rossetti often change features to suit his purpose? Certainly. In this particular painting, though, I feel he’s showing us the Lizzie he loved. I wonder how she felt about it. Seeing yourself through another’s eyes can be an awakening of sorts.
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. “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)
In my home, A Sea-Spell hangs adjacent to Ophelia, another of my deepest loves.
Sometimes, early in the morning, something magical occurs.
When the sun starts to rise and the house is silent, I’m alone with my coffee and my thoughts and this is the magic that happens. The sun’s rays peek through my blinds and illuminate my print of Rossetti’s painting ‘A Sea-Spell’ in such a way that it looks like she’s glowing from within. I can’t even really capture it with my camera. It’s beautiful. It only lasts a minute. I think there is some sort of message in that.
Evelyn De Morgan’s works are often allegorical and I’m drawn to the beauty and symbolism of her pieces. Hope in the Prison of Despair reminds me to keep moving, keep pursuing, to never become stagnant. It tells us that we can move on from the past and break the chains of thought that bind us. Hope lives in the prison of despair. Despair and hope, we all have both in abundance. The key is, and I’m sorry if all of this sounds cliche, we have to work through that despair to set that hope free and embrace it. The only way out is through.
When I think of despair, I remember this quote from Agatha Christie. I love this, it describes how I feel about my life:
“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”
Blogging about Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Proserpine just once will never been enough; it resurfaces in my posts again and again.
The myth of Proserpine/Persephone is a story that resonates with me on multiple levels, so I think that in writing about it I am attempting to explore that theme in different ways. But story aside, Rossetti’s creation is so compelling that it catches the attention of many people who have never even heard of Pre-Raphaelite art. The deep green hues, the inviting pomegranate, Jane Morris’ beautiful yet inscrutable face. I see it on book covers, greeting cards, or other products that are often quite far removed from both the Proserpine myth and the story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti/Jane Morris.
Since I am officially another year older today, The Hour Glass is a perfect painting to meditate on. Jane Morris was swept into the Pre-Raphaelite world at age eighteen. She was La Belle Iseult to William Morris, who declared “I cannot paint you; but I love you”. Then she was the beautiful Proserpine I shared above…and Pandora, Mnemosyne, Astarte Syriaca and a multitude of assorted goddesses to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Years later, after the Pre-Raphaelite bloom had faded from her cheeks, we see Jane on canvas again in Evelyn De Morgan’s The Hour Glass.
Her hand rests on the hour glass. Does she reflect on the time that has passed or how much she has left? De Morgan’s work is filled with symbolism and I enjoy the fact that some if it is on the floor, reminiscent of Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience — a dying rose and a book entitled ‘Mors Janua Vitae’ or Death is the Portal of Life. Tapestries adorn the background, an allusion to Jane Morris’ work with embroidery.
I find Jane beautiful in old age. It’s a shame we as a society fear aging so much. We have this need to pretend, to botox wrinkles into submission. It’s fun for me to look at photos or videos of myself when young, to visit the proverbial memory lane and see my children as babies. Those days are golden. At the same time, it’s like looking at a stranger. I remember the days perfectly, but now I see my younger self from the outside. Somehow, I wasn’t fully me yet. I’m forty-two and proud of it. I am the heroine of my story. I can’t wait to be fifty-two and seventy-two and eighty-two… Please, let me have a day when I can sit resplendent on a throne, gowned à la
Jane Morris and look back on my time with my own hour glass.
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”—Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
That’s what I take from The Hour Glass. Constantly bombarded with modern images telling us what beauty should be, what aging should be, we can look to Jane in The Hour Glass and know that’s what it really should be. It’s about the attitude, the ease that comes from being comfortable with one’s self, making peace with your decisions and deciding that when you look back on your life, warts and all, it was a life well lived.