Tag Archives: 1859

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Bocca Baciata

4 Aug

Dante Gabriel Rossetti spent 1850s in a mood of indolence and love; he was infatuated with Elizabeth Siddal, the beautiful red-haired Pre-Raphaelite model who famously posed for Millais’ Ophelia, and he mainly painted pencil drawings of Siddal and watercolours of idealised Medieval scenes. He wasn’t as productive in the early years of Pre-Raphaelite as he was in his later years when he filled his canvases with seductive, dreamy women with luscious full lips and voluminous hair; “Bocca Baciata” is the painting that started it all.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859

The half-length portrait shows a woman dressed in an unbuttoned black garment with gold details, while the white undergarments coyly peek through. Her neck is long and strong, her head slightly tilted, lips full and closed, eyes heavy-lidded and gazing in the distance. On her left is an apple, and she’s holding a small pot marigold in her hand. She is full, voluptuous, strong, possessing none of Siddal’s delicate, melancholic, laudanum-chic beauty, but one thing they have in common: beautiful hair. Model for the painting was Fanny Cornforth who was described as having “harvest yellow” hair colour, but here Rossetti painted it as a warm, rich coppery colour which goes beautifully with the orange marigolds and gold jewellery around her neck and in her hair. Rossetti must have borrowed the brush of Veronese himself when he painted those masses of lascivious wild hair that flows and flows, seemingly endless, ready to wrap itself around the neck of its victims. Gazing at Pre-Raphaelite paintings has taught me that the famous Victorian saying which goes: “hair is the crown of woman’s beauty” is wrong. Hair is not the crown, but the weapon, ready to seduce a man, ready to suffocate him in a matter of seconds.

What lures me about this painting are the beautiful autumnal colours and pot marigolds that grace the background; they are the flowers which fascinate me the most at the moment. They are the birth flowers for October, appropriate because their orange colour matched that of the falling leaves, and in the Victorian language of flowers they are seen as the symbols of love and jealousy, pain and grief, but this symbolism saddens me. Why bestow such a negative meaning to such an innocent, bright, whimsical flower? Marigolds are known as “summer brides” because they love the sun and I love them; they are so modest and unassuming, you’d fail to notice them in the company of extroverted roses and overwhelming sunflowers, but they hide so much beauty in their small orange petals.

The white rose in her hair symbolises innocence, and this portrait, although sensual, is indeed innocent compared to those which followed. As if the long, flowing fiery hair wasn’t enough, the title, Bocca Baciata, meaning “the mouth that has been kissed”, gives off a sensual mood. The beautiful expression comes from an Italian proverb from Boccaccio’s Decameron which Rossetti wrote on the back of the painting: “The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its savour, indeed it renews itself just as the moon does.” The line is a reference to a story from Decameron told on the second day, about a Saracen princess who, despite having numerous lovers, managed to persuade the King of Algarve that she was a virgin bride.

“Bocca Baciata” is both stylistically and technically a transitional work. It is Rossetti’s first oil painting in years, the previous one being “Ecce Ancilla Domini” from 1850. The luxurious, sensuous mood is a reference to High Italian Renaissance, more specifically, the art of Titian and Veronese and their long-haired women. The main characteristic of Venetian art is the beautiful colour; space, volume is built with colour, not with line, and Rossetti used this principle hear, using soft shadings on the skin of her neck and in building the hair, stroke by stroke. Also, inspired by Titian, he used red colour as a base of his canvas, not the usual white. “Bocca Baciata” is not just a beautiful harmony of warm colours, but it also set a pattern of a style of painting typical for the art of late Pre-Raphaelite Movement and Symbolism, where a beautiful woman occupies a canvas, exuding sensuality, vanity and indolence, dressed in luxurious fabrics and surrounded by other objects of beauty such as flowers, mirrors, fans and jewellery. These types of paintings are not portraits with individual characteristics of a person, but a never ending series of visual representations of female sexual allure.

John Everett Millais – The Vale of Rest

3 Dec

Painting ‘The Vale of Rest’ isn’t as famous as Ophelia, nor as vibrant and richly coloured as Mariana or The Blind Girl, but it is certainly one of Millais’ most atmospheric paintings, and also the one whose mystery can’t be solved despite all the details, symbols and hints, typical for early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Roman Catholic nuns on a graveyard in the dusk of an autumn day. Mood of mystery, anxiety and secrecy.

The Vale of Rest 1858-9 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01507John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-59

Dusk of a late Autumn day. Poplar trees are looming on the horizon. Tombstones coated in moss; names of the dead nearly erased with time, their lives now mere legends. Sky dazzles with purple, vanilla yellow and pink-lavender shades as chillness descends in this walled enclosure. A contour of a low chapel with a bell. Two Roman Catholic nuns. One digging a grave, the other – observing with a worried look on her face, and clutching a rosary in her hand. Art critic Tom Lubbock said of the painting: ‘Corpses, secrets, conspiracy, fear. It’s a picture that pulls out all the stops.’ The whole scene evokes mystery. Why is the nun digging a grave? Is it a burial, or an exhumation? What secrets are they hiding, and whose body lies in the cold, dark soil. Then the subject of Catholic nuns – still an object of scepticism in Victorian Britain.

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Millais intended this painting to be a pendant to Spring or The Apple Blossoms (1856-59) where the subject of death is only hinted, but here it is fully exposed. There’s a skull on the nun’s rosary, and in the sky there’s a purple cloud vaguely shaped like a coffin – a harbinger of death, according to a Scots legend. As if the sight of a graveyard in the dusk isn’t unsettling enough, Millais incorporated these little morbid details. As you can see, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings are like books, you can read them by observing the details and symbols, which can always be interpreted in a different way.

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Although he had carried the idea of painting nuns in his mind for some time, Millais ventured into painting this scene one night in late October in 1858, when the appearance of the sky, shining in gold and purple shades, was especially pleasing to him. He had to work with his brush quickly because, as it goes in autumn, sky is beautiful and vibrant for one moment, and a second later all is dark and cold once again. Still, the idea occurred to him earlier, while on his honeymoon in Scotland in 1855. His wife Effie recalled: ‘On descending the hill by Loch Awe, from Inverary, he was extremely struck with its beauty, and the coachman told us that on one of the islands were the ruins of a monastery. We imagined to ourselves the beauty of the picturesque features of the Roman Catholic religion, and transported ourselves, in idea, back to the times before the Reformation had torn down, with bigoted zeal, all that was beautiful from antiquity, or sacred from the piety or remorse of the founders of old ecclesiastical building in this country. The abbots fished and boated in the loch, the vesper bell pealed forth the ‘Ave Maria’ at sundown, and the organ notes of the Virgin’s hymn were carried by the water and transformed into a sweeter melody, caught up on the hillside and dying away in the blue air. We pictured, too, white-robed nuns in boats, singing on the water in the quiet summer evenings, and chanting holy songs, inspired by the loveliness of the world around them…‘ (source)

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Millais painted the sky, trees and shrubs sitting just outside the front door, in the garden of Effie’s family at Bowerswell, Perth. Effie said: ‘It was about the end of October, and he got on very rapidly with the trees and worked every afternoon, patiently and faithfully, at the poplar and oak trees of the background until November, when the leaves had nearly all fallen.‘ The grave and the tombstones were painted a few months later at Kinnoull old churchyard in Perth. There’s a funny story connected to it. So, as Millais was painting at the graveyard daily, two strange or ‘queer’ bachelors, known by the names ‘Sin’ and ‘Misery’, noticed him and assumed that he made a living by painting the graves of deceased persons. So, they brought him wine and cakes every day, to reward his everyday hardships.

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To end this post, I have to say that Millais is, in my opinion, the master of painting dusks and capturing moods and psychological states in a lyrical way; in Mariana, he portrayed her longing and loneliness, and even here you can sense a certain tension, or a deeper emotional connection between two nuns, even perhaps a game of power; while one is digging, tired, with rolled up sleeves, the other sits calmly, though her direct gaze at the viewer reveals anxiety and worry. Millais perfectly captured the colours of an autumn dusk; even softening the gold and purple, according to Effie. In ‘The Vale of Rest’, he perfectly captured the mood, just like he did in his painting ‘Autumn Leaves’, 1856.

Still, after analysing this painting, and observing its every detail, every symbol and every brushstroke, I can’t solve the mystery behind it. Perhaps it was never meant to be solved, but enjoyed. And I certainly did; drowned in its dusky mood and morbid, doomy beauty.

‘Found Drowned’ by George Frederick Watts

19 Dec

One more Unfortunate
Weary of breath
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!‘ (The Bridge of Sighs, by Thomas Hood, 1844)

1850. Found Drowned is an oil painting - George Frederic WattsFound Drowned, George Frederic Watts, 1850

Painting Found Drowned was painted in c. 1850 by the famous Victorian painter George Frederic Watts, who is usually associated with the Symbolist movement. In this case however, he employed his talents in social realism genre. The painting depicts the dead body of a woman washed up beneath the arch of Waterloo Bridge, her body still immersed in the cold, dirty water of the River Thames. She is presumed to have drowned after throwing herself in the river in despair, trying to get away from the stigma of ‘fallen woman’: a term used in Victorian era to describe women who had lost their innocence. The painting was inspired by Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Bridge of Sighs‘, published in 1844. The poem tells a story of an anonymous young woman, desperate and abandoned by her lover, pregnant and thrown out of her home, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

In the foreground we see her dead body, her torso and arms in the shape of a cross. The simplicity of her orange-coloured gown suggests that she belonged to the lower class, perhaps she was a servant. Some parts of the poem directly describe her appearance: ‘Look at her garments/Clingling like cerements; /Whilsts the wave constantly/drips from her clothing…‘ and ‘Loop up her tresses/Escaped from the comb,/Her fair auburn tresses…‘ and ‘And her eyes, close them,/Staring so blindly.‘ As a contrast, the background is painted in dark shades of blue and grey, portraying the gloomy London night sky and industrial cityscape. City sleeps, and so do the people, in their quiet and cozy homes, sitting by the fireplace; chatting or reading. Questions arise: Will she be missed? Will anyone even notice that she’s gone? What will they say when they find her body in the morning? Will anyone’s heart be filled with regret? And yet there’s a star in the sky, could there be hope? Hardly, I’d say.

1859. found - Dante Gabriel RossettiFound, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859

Subject of ‘fallen women’ was particularly popular in Victorian art and literature, and, I’d have to say it’s a rather compelling subject to write about. As you will see later, many artists such as John Everett Millais, Augustus Egg, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Richard Redgrave decided to portray the sad and hopeless circumstances that tormented those fallen women after their innocence was lost. As expected, moral authority was almost always limited to women, nobody questioned the chastity of men. This is just one of many hypocrisies of Victorian society.

Fallen” was therefore an umbrella term that was applied to a variety of women in a variety of settings: she may have been a woman who had had sex once or habitually outside the confines of marriage; a woman of a lower socio-economic class; a woman who had been raped or seduced by a male aggressor; a woman with a shady reputation; or a prostitute. Furthermore, prostitution was defined in a range of ways and the “reality was that hard economic times meant that for many women, prostitution was the only way to make ends meet. Many … were only transient fallen women, moving in and out of the profession [of prostitution] as family finances dictated.’(*)

Rossetti’s painting ‘Found’ (unfinished) was inspired by fallen women, and he also wrote a poem on that subject:

There is a budding morrow in midnight:’ –
So sang our Keats, our English nightingale.
And here, as lamps across the bridge turn pale
In London’s smokeless resurrection-light,
Dark breaks to dawn. But o’er the deadly blight
Of love deflowered and sorrow of none avail,
Which makes this man gasp and this woman quail,
Can day from darkness ever again take flight?

Ah! gave not these two hearts their mutual pledge,
Under one mantle sheltered ‘neath the hedge
In gloaming courtship? And, O God! today
He only knows he holds her; – but what part
Can life now take? She cries in her locked heart,-
‘Leave me – I do not know you – go away!’

Picture 920The Bridge of Sighs, Sir John Everett Millais, 1858

Millais’ etching truly captured the alienation of the individual in the big city, a sense of hopelessness, while the question of ‘what shall I do next?’ lingers in her mind. Even though its colourless, it holds a certain warmth and vividness; city lights and the bridge seem so lively, the river glitters. Woman’s weary body is tightly wrapped in a shawl, her eyes tired, her face gloomy. A feeling of destitute pervades the atmosphere. She reminds me of Lou Reed’s Femme Fatale: ‘Where shall she go, what shall she do…’ There is no turning back, and yet the future brings nothing but uncertainty. A chance of finding a decent job was unlikely. Fantine, a character from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, is a good example of the poor treatment of fallen women. She was left with a small child, Cosette, after her lover abandoned her. Initially she worked in the factory, but lost her job after everyone found out she is an unwed mother.

For me, Millais’ visual interpretation of Hood’s poem really captured these verses:

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery
Swift to be hurl’d–
Any where, any where
Out of the world!

1879. George Elgar Hicks, On the Seashore,1879George Elgar Hicks, On the Seashore, 1879

The lady above is undoubtedly facing completely different problems and dilemmas than the unfortunate woman in Millais’ etching or Hood’s poem. Her gown is black, but opulent, her hair lush and restless, her gaze wistful. All together she seems groomed and proper, on her face life has not yet left any traces of sadness and disappointment, everything awaits her, unlike Millais’ heroine who was forced to encounter the ‘real world’.

Augustus Egg’s triptych ‘Past and Present’, 1858, shows the downfall of a bourgeois family, the effects of adultery not only for the ‘guilty’ woman but for the children as well, and the whole reputation of the family. Third painting, Past and Present, No. 3, Despair’, is the most interesting one because it shows the same motifs as Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts. Woman, who had played he cards wrongly, now sits under the bridge, and, helpless and alone, oh, completely alone, gazes at the moon, as if expecting salvation from the stars. One wrong step gambled away her future. Was it worth it?, she asks herself, but the night doesn’t respond. All is silent, and Thames is asleep. The scene again leads me to Hood’s poem:

Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
Oh! it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

1858. Augustus Leopold Egg, 'Past and Present, No. 1, Misfortune'Augustus Leopold Egg, ‘Past and Present, No. 1, Misfortune’, 1858

Past and Present, No. 2 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg, ‘Past and Present, No. 2, Prayer’, 1858

Past and Present, No. 3 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg, ‘Past and Present, No. 3, Despair’, 1858

1851. Richard Redgrave - The Outcast Richard Redgrave – The Outcast, 1851