Rossetti and the art of death

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Study for Bonifazio's Mistress'
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.
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...
He captured her beautiful image on canvas, full of life…
...all the while, she was dying.
…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 ideas of love, death, and reincarnation seem to repeat themselves during his years spent with Elizabeth Siddal.

'Beata Beatrix', Dante Gabriel Rossetti
‘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. 



3 thoughts on “Rossetti and the art of death”

  1. Thank you for all of this. I was swept away by the whirlwind heart songs, of art & poetry, Poe and Rossetti, love & longing, romance & writing & painting it all. I have a coffee cup which was advertised as “Redheads” and I was mesmerized by the paintings on it. It is Rosetti’s women. I had no idea until I saw the image reproduced on the internet somewhere. That began my love affair with Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites. I love your page and presentations. Again, Thank You!

  2. We must be on the same wavelength! The Lizzie in my writerly head has been whirling around similar ideas about death in the section of Unvarnished I’m currently on, and “How They Met Themselves” will be following hard on its heels.

    I’m forever fascinated by the marked difference in expression between the study and any finished version of Beata Beatrix. That’s going to have to come out in words at some point too. So much easier when I can just live someone else’s! 🙂

  3. I found reading this macabre tale and the way that life mimicked art to a degree very interesting. Thankyou for bringing this to light, as it wasn’t a story I knew about, nor the rumours about Beata Beatrix


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