Friday, May 29, 2015

Rossetti & His Women ~ Mad, Passionate, Obsessed, Delightful

Artists are weird. I am weird. I've always known this. This past week I have been reading about artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his adherents in the Pre-Raphaelite art Movement. Rossetti is well known to the public today as his women have been extensively reproduced as posters, book covers and so forth. But what a story lies behind those paintings! It would be hard enough to imagine this story much less live it. The above painting is the second version of "Lady Lilith." Rossetti took his first painting of Lady Lilith which showed a former lover as the model, Fanny Cornforth. He now much preferred his new model's face. She was Alexa Wilding. So he painted Alexa's face over Fanny's body. But this story pales next to the ones which follow.
The top model when Rossetti founded the Pre Raphaelite movement was Elizabeth Siddall. She posed for another founder's most famous painting, "Opehlia" by Millais in 1850, above. Rossetti was besotted with her from then until they married in 1860 and even more so when she died in 1862. Siddall had delivered a still born child and shortly afterwards killed herself by taking an overdose of laudanum (morphine and codeine). Rossetti was so distraught that he buried all of his unpublished poetry with her. Years later he had the poetry retrieved from her grave. But the most interesting thing he did about Elizabeth's death was to create his most popular painting, shown below.
This is "Beata Beatrix", painted between 1864–1870, depicting Beatrice Portinari, from Dante Alighieri's poem “La Vita Nuova,” as she dies. Rossetti modeled Beatrice after his late wife Elizabeth. The white poppy represents the laudanum, the means of Elizabeth's death. Rossetti said the painting was not supposed to represent her death but rather her sudden spiritual transfiguration.
From this Rossetti moved forward with other women as models, usually using someone with whom he was having an affair. Fanny Cornforth, above, he said was his housekeeper for several years while he was having an affair with her and painting her. This is one of her more well known poses "Bocca Baciata". Rossetti considered her the ideal of eroticism.
But his other model, he saw as an ethereal goddess, above. This was Jane Burden Morris, the wife of Rossetti's colleague and business partner, William Morris. Morris had left theology studies at Oxford to follow Rossetti's lead in becoming an artist. Morris subsequently became famous in his own right and today is mainly known for his textile designs. He revived the entire English textile industry. Both of these men were entranced by Jane, one as her lover and the other as her husband. This triangle was never broken. Rossetti deluded himself that Jane was kept by her husband against her will. Thus he painted her as Proserpine, Queen Guinevere and Desdemona, all women characters who fueled this same delusion of his, that the women were captives of their husbands, like Jane. The above is "Prosperpine" which he painted in 1874. Notice that Rossetti enlarged the faces so that they dwarfed every other element in the paintings of the women. The below is another painting of Jane, "The Day Dream," painted in 1880, just two years before he died.
The major collector of the paintings of women, Lowry, and also president of the Rossetti Society in England, had this to say about these paintings: "They are not real women. They are dreams. He used them for something in his mind caused by the death of his wife. They all came after the death of his wife." He may have been onto something because in the next painting, although Jane is the model, she has his late wife's auburn hair. This is "Pia de' Tolomei," inspired by a tale of Dante Aligheri about a woman whose husband imprisoned and later poisoned her, Rossetti's favorite delusion about Jane.
Rossetti died in 1882 at age 53 (born 1828). He was forced to stop living with Jane in 1874 after her husband William Morris broke off with him as a business partner. Then he developed a drug addiction to chloral hydrate. He also became an alcoholic. The two made him mentally unstable as well. His overall health declined as well with paralysis of the legs and kidney disease. He did manage to keep working right up until 1881 even though he had become a virtual recluse. These are images of him. They go clockwise from being a young man up to middle age.
One of his very last paintings, thought to be completed the year before he died, seems to encapsulate all of his romantic ideas and obsessions. This is below, "The Blessed Damozel." The entire painting is to the left whereas the blown up center of it is to the right.
I wrote a complete art history presentation on Rossetti for TPT which is located here.


  1. Thank you for enlightening me on the history behind these works. I only admired them for works by Rosetti. It's fascinating. Thanks again!

    1. You are welcome. It was an unexpected delight to read about Rossetti's entire life and the women he painted within that life.

  2. Carol Irvin, this was by far my favorite blog of yours. I was fortunate to be introduced to the Poets and Artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in a college Victorian Lit class in the early-1980s. When I went to London with the Florida Ballet Group in 1984 to see Romeo and Juliet at Convent Gardens, we had a free Saturday. My companion and I visited the awesome Pre-Raphaelite art exhibition at the old Tate museum. We spent most of an afternoon there. It was by far the ULTIMATE exhibition...all of the paintings you mention in your blog.
    Jane Burden Morris has always been my favorite Rosetti model. She is quite beautiful.

    And here's a bit of trivia you may enjoy.
    In the film of John Fowles' THE FRENCH LIEUTENANTS WOMAN, Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons are lovers in two time periods. The scene at the end of the movie, a more contemporary setting, is filmed in a Chelsea house where Rosetti and his Brotherhood friends stayed for many years.

  3. I too have always loved best Rosetti's paintings of Jane Burden Morris. I think Alexa Wilding is my next favorite. It is amazing to me how far outside of traditional society artists always manage to live. This all took place within 50 years or so of the Jane Austen era which was rigid Regency propriety. The Edwardian and Victorian societies were hardly noted for feminism which came even later. But Jane Burden Morris lived just as if she were a present day woman. She did exactly as she pleased. She had her husband, her children, her lover, her modeling and all under the same roof until 1874! I also became convinced that Rossetti would not have painted these women if we were not what would be considered a pretty serious present day psychiatric case. First he becomes obsessed by his wife and then becomes delusional over Jane. Then he vaults into drugs and choral hydrate and he keeps painting! He was so obsessive that he chased Alexa Wilding all over London getting her to agree to model for him. He saw her on the street one day and immediately became obsessed with her becoming his model. I think the term OCD would be applied to Rossetti today. He'd probably be medicated, happy as a clam and not painting a damn thing!

    I had read about this house they were all in but I only saw it from the outside in the online picture not the inside. I do very much remember it from the movie though. Rossetti would have flipped for Streep as well, I'm sure.