Pictures & poems
Pictures and Poems
DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI
THERE seems now little reason to doubt that Rossetti was right in considering himself a painter who wrote, rather than a poet who painted, and in maintaining, as he always did, that he could better embody his conceptions in design and color than in words. Both in painting and in poetry he seems to have known perfectly well what he wished to express, but whereas his poetic faculty, naturally of a high and brilliant order, had been diligently cultivated from early youth, the serious study of design was not entered into until comparatively late in life, and though then pursued with characteristic energy, yielded satisfactory results only at the cost of great effort. This fact but throws into stronger relief his brave and continuous struggles for technical excellence in painting according to his own high ideals, when in poetry, at far less mental and physical cost, success was to be had.
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); Miss Alice Wilding (Sibylla Palmifera, Veronica Veronese, Dis Manibus, La Ghirlandata, The Sea-Spell, Rosa Triplex and others); Mrs. Aldham Heaton (Regina Cordium); Miss Spartali, afterwards Mrs. Stillman, (Fiametta, the lady on the right of the funeral couch in "Dante's Dream," etc.); Miss May Morris (another version of Rosa Triplex); Mrs. Burne Jones, Mrs. Dalrymple, Mrs. Lushington and many others.
Since Rossetti's death in 1882, so much has been written concerning the formation of the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood," that it is only necessary here briefly to touch upon his connection with the Brotherhood in so far as it influenced that side of his artistic life now under consideration. The original members, seven in number, included, besides Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his brother William Michael Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and Frederick George Stephens. Ford Madox Brown, though generous with his sympathy, help and advice, refused to join the Brotherhood, believing that little good was ever brought about by coteries of any kind. F. G. Stephens ("John Seward") in his article "The Purpose and Tendency of Early Italian Art," published in the second number (February 1850) of "The Germ"—the literary organ of the Brotherhood—writes: "It has been said that there is presumption in this movement of the modern school, a want of deference to established authorities, a removing of ancient landmarks. This is best answered by the profession that nothing can be more humble than the pretension to the observation of facts alone, and the truthful rendering of them. If we are not to depart from established principles, how are we to advance at all?" Surely this sounds modest enough, and it is, now, difficult to understand the bitterness of denunciation indulged in by the critics in their willful misrepresentation of the entire matter. This hostility of the press had one good result: it induced the members of the Brotherhood to publish "The Germ," the better to explain their ideas, and to bring before the public poetry that would, otherwise, have remained long unpublished. It is safe to assert that the four numbers issued of this amazing periodical (two as "The Germ" and two as "Art and Poetry") contained more original work of the first rank than was ever before found in the four consecutive numbers of any magazine. In it was first published Rossetti's prose-poem "Hand and Soul," and an early draft of "My Sister's Sleep;" "The Blessed Damozel" (differing considerably from the revised version published in the volume of "Poems" of 1870); "The Carillon;" "From the Cliffs;" "Pax Vobis;" and the six "Sonnets for Pictures." "The Blessed Damozel," written before Rossetti had reached his nineteenth birthday, is universally recognized as one of his consummate productions, marking the high level of his faculty, whether inventive or executive. One writer, paraphrasing Holman Hunt's generous verdict on Millais' painting "Lorenzo at Supper with Isabella and her Brothers," does not hesitate to pronounce "The Blessed Damozel," "the most wonderful poem that any youth still under twenty years of age ever produced in the world." This is a sweeping assertion, but is the praise too high? There had been, up to that time, nothing at all like it in English literature. The interpretation of mystical thoughts by concrete images was startlingly original; original as few poems but those by masters of the craft can be said to be. During the twenty years that elapsed between its appearance in "The Germ" and its publication in the "Poems," the public had seen the production of much poetry indirectly influenced by it, and when it appeared in 1870 in its revised form the critics were loud in their praises. One can only surmize the enthusiasm of the select few who read the first version in 1850!
Rossetti's first picture painted strictly according to the pre-Raphaelite ideals was "The Girlhood of Mary, Virgin." Mr. F. G. Stevens, writing as late as 1894, and therefore, we may conclude, unswayed by any temporary enthusiasm, says: "A picture which, apart from its prodigious merits and simply as the first work of a painter whose training had been both brief and interrupted, I never cease to look upon with indescribable wonder. A little flat and gray, and rather thin in painting, it is most carefully drawn and soundly modelled, rich in good and pure coloring, and in the brooding, dreamy pathos, full of reverence and yet unconscious of 'the time to come,' which the Virgin's still and chaste face expresses, there is a vein of poetry, the freshest and most profound..... His sister Christina sat for the Virgin, his mother for St. Anne. The Child-Angel was painted from a younger sister of Mr. Woolner." This picture and "Ecce Ancilla Domini!", to which by natural sequence it leads, are the only two painted by Rossetti according to the strict pre-Raphaelite standard. With the success of Millais' "A Huguenot" in 1850, the first phase of pre-Raphaelitism ended and the Brotherhood ceased to exist; it had been organized to change public taste; it did change it, and having accomplished its object, disbanded; not to fade away, but to broaden and embrace other things. All dogmas and attempts at an accuracy impossible for the natural eye to perceive were abandoned, and in their place came a greater love of color, beauty, passion and sweet sound. In this second phase the leaders were Rossetti, Swinburne, Morris and Burne-Jones.
Rossetti, in any age, with his subtle and ardent mind, must have been a leader. Animated throughout his life by an ideal of beauty, both in poetry and in painting, most intense in character, his influence over nearly all of those with whom he came in contact was magnetic and almost unbounded. It may be questioned whether, if he had published in 1862, as he had planned to do, the volume of his collected original poems, the public would have appreciated and praised his work as highly as they did when it was issued eight years later; but it is probable that his high rank as a poet, and his influence on the younger writers, would have been sooner and more readily acknowledged. The sad and sudden death of his wife in February 1862, led Rossetti to change the plans he had made for publishing his poems, and caused him, instead, to place in her coffin, on the day of her interment, a volume containing the only complete manuscript of all his original poems. Here they remained for seven years, until Rossetti, yielding to the urgent persuasions of his friends, came to see that such a loss to the world was neither desirable nor necessary. Accordingly, upon the night of October 6th—7th, 1869, the grave was opened and the poems were recovered. "I have often supposed," writes Mr. F. G. Stephens, "that Rossetti might have found an authority, or example, for placing in and afterwards withdrawing his poems from the grave of his wife, in the record that when Francis I. visited Avignon, that monarch caused the tomb of Laura de Sade to be opened, and took from it a small box containing verses which had been written by Petrarch's own hand, and were placed there by him; they were afterwards, by order of the King, returned."
What place future generations will assign to Rossetti amongst the poets cannot positively be asserted. That it will be a high one the passing of each year seems to render more certain; and it is unlikely that the position now held by the "House of Life," as one of the four finest sonnet cycles, or "The Blessed Damozel" as one of the most mystically romantic ballads, in English literature, will be changed. His permanent place as a painter it is less easy to foretell, dependant as it will always be on the comparative valuation placed upon the imaginative and the technical sides of painting; one statement only is unquestionable—no artist of the English-speaking race has ever attained to an equal eminence with Rossetti as poet and as painter combined. A study of the parallel presentation, in the following pages, of poems and pictures (much though the latter have lost through their loss of color) will show far better than words could do his mastery in both arts.
New York, 1899.