Beautiful in themselves as are Rossetti's paintings, their inspiration is so often literary, that their full significance can only be properly understood and appreciated when they are studied with the aid of the enlightening text. In nearly every case where this text is original with Rossetti it takes the form of a sonnet. These sonnets were, in all cases, written for the pictures, and after the latter had been more or less completely finished. In one instance only, that of "The Blessed Damozel," is the painting an illustration of an idea expressed previously in verse.
All Rossetti's work bears so strongly the stamp of his personality that, in judging of it, standards which would be quite adequate in the case of an artist of less originality, are valueless. It appeals to us a great deal, a little, or not at all, according to the degree our own temperament may, at the time, be in harmony with the idea expressed in the poem or picture before us. It would be difficult to over-estimate the impressive and brilliant originality of his work, utterly unlike, as it is, that of any previous artist in England. Even his detractors admit his gorgeous wealth of color—without parallel in British art, and worthy to rank at its best with that of the great Venetian masters—though to justify their dislike they lay great stress on the physical peculiarities of Rossetti's ideal women, on their abnormally swan-like necks, and their hands, sometimes too large for beauty. That such technical shortcomings exist is undeniable, but with the passing of years these have ceased to be considered the main characteristics of his work, and the majority of the public now agree with Ruskin, when he writes: "I believe that Rossetti's name should be placed first on the list of men who have raised and changed the spirit of modern art; raised in absolute attainment, changed in the direction of temper."
In studying Rossetti's pictures it must be steadily borne in mind that physical beauty was always, with him, but the outward manifestation of spiritual beauty. He is interested in man, rather than in nature, but it is not the human animal, it is the spirit shining through the outer covering, that appeals to him. Because he has chosen a type of beauty that renders expression most manifest and has made this type peculiarly his own, some people assert that they can see in all his work but one face, always repeated. Such persons are wilfully blind, for, though his personality is visible in all he did, many models, women of high culture and distinction, posed for him gladly. No less than fourteen models are known to have sat various times for his more important pictures, not to mention portraits and numerous studies for which his friends posed. In his earlier work are seen his mother, and his sister Christina; later Miss Sidall, afterwards Mrs. Rossetti, often repeated. After her death Miss Ruth Herbert (Lady Lilith); Mrs. William Morris (Day Dream, Astarte Syriaca, Proserpine);