Tag Archives: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Kiss

23 May

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet The Kiss describes his feeling on his wedding day that actually took place on 23 May 1860 at St Clement’s Church in the seaside town of Hastings – the place of Syd Barrett’s last gig with Pink Floyd by the way. It’s truly a beautiful poem, especially the second stanza.

desperate romantics 13

The Kiss – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“What smouldering senses in death’s sick delay

Or seizure of malign vicissitude 

Can rob this body of honour, or denude

This soul of wedding-raiment worn to-day?

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay. 

 

I was a child beneath her touch,–a man

When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,– 

A spirit when her spirit looked through me,– 

A god when all our life-breath met to fan 

Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran, 

Fire within fire, desire in deity.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix – Love Will Tear Us Apart

14 May

Rossetti’s painting Beata Beatrix, laden with symbolism and imbued with spirituality, can be viewed in two ways: as the ultimate expression of Rossetti’s passionate love for Lizzie, a love that transcends even death, and, as a synthesis of Rossetti’s life-long fascination with Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages – Dante Alighieri.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix, ca 1864-70.Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, Oil on canvas, painted about 1863-70, 86.4 x 66cm, Tate

Rossetti, who loved Lizzie ardently but not always most faithfully, often made connections between her and Beatrice; Dante’s muse and unrequited love, so much so that is seems Lizzie’s death came as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her death and this painting erased the border between Rossetti’s own life, love and loss, and that of his idol Dante. Having lost their muses, the two artists, although separated by centuries, were finally spiritually united. Both Rossetti and Dante sought refuge in art because it transcends the short life of us mortals. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis (Art is long, life is short.) – Lizzie’s life was short, her love for Gabriel lasted even shorter, and yet this painting, along with many other, enables us, century and a half later, to feel the same grief that Rossetti felt upon Lizzie’s death.

Dante’s Vita Nuova, the subject of Beata Beatrix, was one of numerous early Italian works that Rossetti translated. Dante portrays himself in La Vita Nuova as a poet captivated by an unattainable love personified by Beatrice. After Beatrice’s death Dante, who cannot overcome his lingering love for her, resolves to express his love through his art.*

1850s Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Elizabeth Siddal, study for 'Delia' in the 'Return

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’ (1853)

In this painting Lizzie Siddal embodied Dante’s Beatrice. Her head, crowned by exuberant masses of coppery red hair, is tilted back. Her face expression reveals a meditative, contemplative state, perhaps indicating that Beatrice is praying and calmly anticipating her death. She’s wearing a similar, medieval-style dress that can be seen in Rossetti’s painting ‘Beatrice, Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Denies him her Salutation’ from 1855. Also, her face expression bears resemblance to one of Rossetti’s early studies for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’.**

Lizzie’s heavy-lidded eyes now closed could be interpreted as a symbol of her transition into the underworld, like Eurydice in Greek mythology. And just like poor, grief-stricken Orpheus, Rossetti was unable to rescue his sweet Lizzie from the eternal sleep. Knowing Lizzie’s addiction to laudanum, one could get the impression that her state is nothing more than an opium dream. Her lips, the same crimson-coloured lips that Rossetti had kissed many times, are slightly parted which brings to mind Rossetti’s poem The Kiss and these verses:

“For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay.”

Other-worldly mood of the scene is absolutely beautiful, and I think that’s the very thing that makes this painting so special. Rossetti spent seven years of his life painting it (1863-1870) and it stands as a barrier between his early years characterised by medieval subjects and infatuation with Lizzie, and the following period when he focused on female sensuality and produced the ‘femme fatale’ paintings that everyone knows and loves.

Two figures emerge from the golden haze in the background: on the left – a figure of angel representing Love, and holding a flame in his hand, symbolising the soul of Beatrice; on the right – a figure of Dante, hopelessly trying to bring Beatrice back to life. Sundial casts its shadow on the number nine; the time of Beatrice’s death on 9th June 1290. For Dante, number nine had a mystical quality because of its connection to Beatrice. Rossetti noted in a letter to Ellen Heaton in 1863:

You probably remember the singular way in which Dante dwells on the number nine in connection with Beatrice in the Vita Nuova. He meets her at nine years of age, she dies at nine o’clock on the 9th of June, 1290. All of this is said, and he declares her to have been herself ‘a nine’, that is the perfect number, or symbol of perfection.’*

Behind Dante and the figure of Love we see a vague contours of Florence; the place where Dante’s story was set. We see a red dove carrying a poppy flower into Beatrice’s open hands. All this symbolism, along with the lavishing usage of gold could be interpreted as the beginning of Symbolism. As we know, many artists after Rossetti loved using gold in abundance, whether as a colour or in the form of real leaves of gold; Gustave Moreau and Gustav Klimt to name a few. Such profusion of gold evokes the glory days of Byzantine Empire and its architectural splendours. The spiritual yet luxurious mood of this painting reminds me of the atmosphere in Eastern Orthodox Churches.

1855. Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Beatrice, Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Denies him her Salutation (1855)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Beatrice, Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Denies him her Salutation’ (1855)

In the final episode of ‘Desperate Romantics’ we see the creation of this painting; Rossetti tries to memorise her face and then starts painting furiously. Everyone is saddened by her death. Effie and John, the happy couple in their cosy home, gaze at his study of Lizzie’s face for Ophelia. Hunt is in solemn solitude, praying to god by the candlelight, Fred – alone, drinking and kissing the lock of her coppery-golden hair. Death is so idealised and glamorised as an idea, but very sad when it actually occurs. It’s ironic that some of Rossetti’s best-known and some of the greatest Pre-Raphaelite artworks were painted after Lizzie’s death.

Sadly, death marks both the beginning and the end of Lizzie Siddal’s career as a model. Ten years before her death, in 1852, she posed as Ophelia for Millais, and almost died during the process, and after she died, Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix. (Note: Ophelia is not the first painting she sat for, but it is certainly the best known.) I see this painting as Rossetti’s way of saying ‘Farewell, My Lizzie’. Also, with this painting Rossetti seems to be exploring the connection between death and eroticism, something that would go on to be very popular a subject in decadent society of fin de siecle. Rossetti – always ahead of his time.

1860. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) - Portraitof Elizabeth Siddal, ca 1860

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) – Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, ca 1860

I think that despite his selfishness and interest in other women, Rossetti deeply loved Lizzie; she was not just a muse and a lover to him, but a true soulmate. He was obsessed with drawing her when she was alive, he buried his book of poems with her when she died, and I believe that the vision of her coppery hair and heavy-lidded greenish eyes stayed etched in his mind till the end of his life. Lizzie left emptiness when she died, and Rossetti described such feelings in his poem from ‘The House of Life’:

What of her glass without her? The blank gray
   There where the pool is blind of the moon’s face.
   Her dress without her? The tossed empty space
Of cloud-rack whence the moon has passed away.
Her paths without her? Day’s appointed sway
   Usurped by desolate night. Her pillowed place
   Without her? Tears, ah me! for love’s good grace,
And cold forgetfulness of night or day...”***
Elizabeth Siddall Plaiting her Hair null by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

Elizabeth Siddal Plaiting her Hair null by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882, c. 1850s

The title is obviously a reference to Joy Division, and I chose it because I think it’s relevant to the love affair of Lizzie and Rossetti. No doubt that she was annoyed by his celebration of female sensuality and friendships with prostitutes, and that he often thought living with her brought nothing but restrictions and dullness. And yet, aside from these everyday troubles, Rossetti expressed nothing but pure beauty and adoration in his portrait of Lizzie, and what woman could possibly want more?

 ***

“When routine bites hard,

And ambitions are low,

And resentment rides high,

But emotions won’t grow,

And we’re changing our ways,

taking different roads.

Then love, love will tear us apart again.
Love, love will tear us apart again.

Why is the bedroom so cold?
You’ve turned away on your side.
Is my timing that flawed?”****

Desperate Romantics (2009) – A Review

6 May

I’ll start off this post by saying I absolutely loved ‘Desperate Romantics‘ – a period drama set in Victorian London which revolves around the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; their art, lives, loves and scandals.

WARNING This image may only be used for publicity purposes in connection with the broadcast of the programme as licensed by BBC Worldwide Ltd & must carry the shown copyright legend. It may not be used for any commercial purpose without a licence from the BBC. © BBC 2009***

First glimpse of Desperate Romantics, from left to right; Rafe Spall as a somewhat austere perfectionist William Holman Hunt, also known as ‘Maniac’, Aidan Turner as the dashing Byronic Hero, ‘half-Italian, half-mad’ Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Samuel Barnett as a child-prodigy, sweet and bewildered John Everett Millais, and lastly Sam Crane as the gentle, caring and ‘always-in-the-shadow-of-others’ Fred Walters; a composite character mainly based on Fred Stevens and several other historical figures who serves as a journalist and a diarist of the brotherhood.

I found the actors and actresses wonderful and perfectly suitable for their roles. Every character has an individualised personality and that is one of the main reasons this period drama is so brilliant. This emphasis on individual personality traits, be it good or bad ones, helps a great deal to understand the artworks they produced. Their choice of subjects seems so natural after understanding their characters. For example, the strong-willed and religious Hunt would never go on painting sensual women or characters from Roman mythology, and likewise it’s inconceivable that Rossetti would ever paint anything similar to The Light of the World.

***

desperate romantics 2

Brooding Rossetti and his sorrowful muse

***

I very much enjoyed how relatable everyone seemed. Their conversations and jokes in the pub sounded beautifully modern. Pre-Raphaelites smoked hashish, consumed opium, flirted with waitresses and visited brothels. In several scenes you can even see Charles Dickens himself entertaining the ‘ladies’. After watching this, I feel like the Victorian world wasn’t as grim and proper as presented, perhaps in the higher classes but not amongst artists and intellectuals.

In Desperate Romantics Featurette (you can watch it on YouTube) actors and actresses talk about their roles and opinions of the PRB. I found it especially thrilling how Rafe Spall connected the members of the Brotherhood to modern artists and writers. He made a parallel with the Beat Generation and compared Fred Walters to Jack Kerouac, Millais to Neal Cassady, Rossetti to Allen Ginsberg and Hunt to William Burroughs. Also, he compared the radical avant-garde quality of the brotherhood to Punk Rock, and he described the make-up and hairstyle of Annie Miller (Hunt’s girfriend and model) as being Vivienne Westwood-esque.

***

desperate romantics 12

DESPERATE ROMANTICS

Amy Manson as Lizzie Siddal

***

I’m afraid that costumes are a great factor for me, and in Desperate Romantics it was yet another source of enjoyment. As you can see from the pictures I’ve assembled here, dresses worn by Lizzie Siddal are very simple and romantic, made of printed cotton in earthy colours, no corsets or crinolines. Along with her long flowing coppery hair, she looks more like a Medieval maiden than a Victorian lady. Apart from a few bonnets, everything seemed historically accurate. Men’s attire was interesting as well, which is unusual because it tends to be boring and grey. Millais is a true peacock, usually wearing scarlet-coloured velvet jackets and lots of purples and greens. Rossetti is very flamboyant but more sophisticated, he wears loose, half-unbuttoned shirts and vibrant coloured scarves. Fred is all simple and proper, true mama’s boy and Hunt is dressed according to his reserved nature, but after his trip to the East, he starts growing a beard, smoking hashish straight from Syria and dressing with a touch of East just like The Rolling Stones when then discovered Marocco.

***

desperate romantics 9

First love couple: Rafe Spall as William Holman Hunt and Jennie Jacques as Annie Miller

***

I’ve read some complaints about the lack of art in the series and I highly disagree. Exhibition of Millais’ Ophelia, an important moment for the PRB, was well presented and so was the moment when Rossetti found his new direction in portraying pure womanly sensuality after an encounter with Fanny Cornforth. Millais, Rossetti, Hunt and Fred are often seen visiting the Royal Gallery, even objecting the mainstream Victorian art, Rossetti said: The Academy’s utter disgust is what gets us all out of bed in the morning‘, continuing Where is the naturalism, where is the life, the flesh, the blood, the nature?’ When Hunt comes back from his trip, he also showcases his paintings, and after Lizzie dies we see grief stricken Rossetti painting Beata Beatrix. We see Rossetti painting Jane Morris and the murals in a nearby church, and Lizzie painting as well. Is this not enough art?

In Desperate Romantics we are presented by something even more important than ‘art’, we see the background of their artworks and everything that went on in their personal lives and the way it reflected on their works. The series captured the mood of the Brotherhood and I think that’s not only more interesting, but more important. Anyone can simply google their paintings, but it takes a lot more to understand them.

***

desperate romantics 13

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal as Victorian era Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull

INTERESTING QUOTES:

“We are artists, we thrive on strong emotions.” (Elizabeth Siddal, ep 5)

“We cannot confuse our feeling about the artist with the art, that would leave us only able to admire works of those we like.” (John Ruskin, ep 3)

“I insists it’s the most noble profession there is. An artist only records beauty, but a model radiates it. If I were Millais, oh, I would paint you in a pure white silk dress.” (Rossetti’s opinion on modelling and words directed to Jane Burden)

“I find the modern world the most random and confusing place.” (Millais, ep 3)

***

desperate romantics 7

Love couple number 3: Millais and Effie as Victorian version of Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg

A only have a few objections. Firstly, I’d love to have seen Rossetti’s family because his sister Christina was a poet and his brother William Michael also belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Secondly, no mention of Lizzie’s stillborn child and that was something that deeply saddened her and ultimately led to her death. Thirdly, too many sex scenes which was tasteless and unnecessary in my opinion. It’s obvious that Rossetti wasn’t celibate. Perhaps a hint of intimacy would be more interesting than seeing Rossetti jump on every redhead in London.

All in all, I loved Desperate Romantics – escapism into the bohemian circles of Victorian era London. It’s beyond inspiring, the story itself is enigmatic and interesting, actors were brilliant, thoroughly recommend it! There are six episodes, each is one hour long. If you can spare six hours of your life, I sincerely recommend you to do that.

‘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

Hylas and the Nymphs – John William Waterhouse

3 Apr

John William Waterhouse was a painter of mystery, beauty and dreams. Continuing the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, and adding a few Impressionistic touches, Waterhouse created an original and mystic world of melancholic, wistful and often fatal beauties.

1896. Hylas and the Nymphs - John William Waterhouse 11896. Hylas and the Nymphs – John William Waterhouse, Manchester Art Gallery

Little is known about John William Waterhouse; he was a private man and therefor left no diaries or letters, no famous quotes, private dramas or thrilling love stories. Up until recently, the names of his beautiful models were wrapped in mystery as well, some still are. Waterhouse was born in Rome to English parents who were both painters. Even the precise date of his birth is unsure, but he was baptised in early April 1849; the same year that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, led by the dashing young painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, first created a stir in the London art scene. His early life in Italy, and many trips to Italy later in life, inspired him to paint scenes of ancient Rome and scenes from Roman mythology. Over and above, Italy was a great source of inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelites as well.

Lack of information regarding his private life may compel some of the viewers to find his paintings cold, lacking in the ‘intensity and emotion’ of the other Pre-Raphaelite artists. In addition, some (recent) critics have classified his work as being pure imitation of Rossetti and Millais’ works, lacking the personal touch thus making his paintings vague in comparison with Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces such as Millais’ Ophelia. I highly disagree with these claims! Waterhouse, although adopting the Pre-Raphaelite painting style, created paintings that burst with originality, beauty and mysticism.

Their dreamy quality simply draws the viewers in, allowing them to escape from reality into the mythical world where nymphs, antic heroes, beautiful heroines and satyrs reside; the magic world that combines romantic Arthurian legends and mythological creatures with the painter’s own sensibility, poetic brush strokes and Victorian symbolism. The lack of known personal involvement with the subject in my opinion only adds to the element of mystery, thus making his paintings more intriguing and even harder to understand.

1896. Hylas and the Nymphs - John William Waterhouse Detail

Waterhouse painted this painting ‘Hylas and the Nymphs‘ in 1896, at the age of 47, when much of his most famous works had already been painted. The painting shows Hylas, the young and handsome companion of Hercules, surrounded by enchanting nymphs peaking from the tranquil greenish water. Hercules and Hylas had arrived at the island of Cios, and as soon Nymphs noticed young Hylas, they became enchanted by his beauty.

As usual, Waterhouse is never direct, he instead presents us the occasion just the moment before the inevitable happened. Hylas is being pulled by the Nymphs into their sinister watery abode, but we don’t see that tragic moment, we only see one Nymph taking Hylas’ hand and focusing her cold, wistful gaze at him. Only a moment later, lurid cries reverberated through the island; Hercules was calling for Hylas, but in vain. Waterhouse proficiently portrays dark and tragic moments, giving them beauty and serenity.

Nymphs are female creatures in Greek and Latin mythology. They are usually depicted as beautiful and fatal maidens who love to sing and dance, and behaving naughty as one can see in the story with Hylas. They represent power of nature. Name ‘nymph’ comes from Greek word ‘nymphē‘ which means ‘bride’ and ‘veiled’, referring to a marriageable young woman. One of the meaning is a ‘rose-bud’, perhaps indicating the beauty all the nymphs possess. By choosing nymphs as subjects and portraying this tragic story of love and doom, Waterhouse fully expressed his romantic sensibility, and revealed his fascination with strong and beautiful female figures. Nymphs are presented as alluring, and Hylas is powerless against their charms.

1896. Hylas and the Nymphs - John William Waterhouse Detail 2

Nymphs obviously stole the poor Hylas’ spotlight with their luminous skin and sensual bodies, capturing the viewer with their beauty in the same way they captured Hylas. Nymphs have been painted in art before, but never quite as magically, or as sinisterly. In previous versions they appeared plump and cheerful, whereas Waterhouse portrayed them as having more girlish bodies, with fair skin that exceeds into mystical green shades underwater. They appear otherworldly in every sense of the word. Their hair is sleek and wet, decorated with modest flowers, and they have different face expressions, ranging from cold to wistful and idle gazes.

Then there are those splendid lilac brush strokes which emphasise the magic and captivating strength that these beauties possess. The water is green, strangely calm, sprinkled with tiny white flowers. In India, water-lilies are considered symbolic of the grief of separation. Knowing the story, we could connect water lilies as symbols of separation for Hylas; separation from this world. Two nymphs on the far right are shown dreamily playing with large water lily leaves. These are the nymphs that Faun from Mallarme’s poem ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’ was obsessed with.

These nymphs I would perpetuate.

So clear

Their light carnation, that it floats in the air

Heavy with tufted slumbers.

Was it a dream I loved?

Listening to Claude Debussy’s ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’ you can almost feel them dancing and laughing in the background, the green water splashing around, their long hair floating on the water, their skin shining in the sunlight.

1975. Ondine Bath Dew1975. Advert for ‘Ondine Bath Dew’, Cosmopolitan, July, Photo found HERE.

The advert above was particularly interesting to me because it was obviously inspired by Waterhouse’s masterpiece, mixed with ’70s aesthetics. I think the photo captured the atmosphere very well; magical, dreamy and sinister.

The photo below shows a dress called ‘Nymphe’; an example of Parisian fashion for May 1921. I can imagine Nymphs wearing something similar, fluttery and decorated with flowers.

1921. Les Modes (Paris) May 1921 'Nymphe' robe du soir de la Maison Agnes1921. Les Modes (Paris) May, ‘Nymphe’

Subjects from Greek and Latin Mythology or Arthurian legends were especially popular in the nineteenth century, for they seemed to touch a nerve with Victorians whose everyday reality was far from ‘magical and romantic’; Industrial revolution was in full bloom and poverty and social injustices were on every corner.

Marie Spartali Stillman – A Grecian Muse

14 Feb

Marie Spartali Stillman was a British Pre-Raphaelite painter of Grecian descent, but she was also a muse and a model to other Pre-Raphaelite painters, enchanting them with her elegant stature and classical features, resembling a Grecian or a Roman goddess.

1868. Marie Spartali Stillman, Photo by Julia Cameron1868. Marie Spartali Stillman, Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

Marie studied painting for several years from 1864, as a pupil of Ford Madox Brown, an English painter whose painting style resembles the Pre-Raphaelite version of Hogarth’s work. She studied alongside other pupils Georgiana Burne-Jones and Brown’s daughter Lucy Madox Brown, both of whom would grow up to be a painters in their own right.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti soon found out that Marie had become Brown’s pupil and he wasted no time writing to him, on the 29th April: ‘I just hear Miss Spartali is to be your pupil. I hear too that she is one and the same with a marvellous beauty of whom I have heard much talk. So box her up and don’t let fellows see her, as I mean to have first shy at her in the way of sitting.‘ Marie indeed sat for Rossetti very soon, in 1867. Her head proved to be a hard one for portraying, as Dante had wrote to Jane Morris.

Marie possessed the kind of beauty which was perfect for modelling, and in Dante’s eyes she resembled a goddess with her tall figure, elegant gestures, long hair and a gaze that was straightforward and dreamy at the same time. She embodied the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty, as did Jane Morris before.

1871. Self-Portrait - Marie Spartali Stillman1871. Self-Portrait – Marie Spartali Stillman

That Marie became a painter, a muse and a model to artists, choosing a bohemian life in a way, is not a coincidence for she came from a cultural and refined background; art was valued in Spartali’s household. Her father, Michael, was a wealthy merchant, principal of the firm Spartali & Co, who moved to London in 1828. Her mother, Euphrosyne, known as Effie, was a daughter of a Greek merchant from Genoa. Her heritage, along with later life abroad, is woven in her works, all of which burst with sensuality and richness in colour.

Spartali family lived in a Georgian country house, known as ‘The Shrubbery‘ with a huge garden and views over the Thames and Chelsea. Marie’s father was fond of lavish garden parties so he invited young artists and writers of the day at the gatherings in his blossomed garden. Growing up in artistic environment meant that Marie and her younger sister Christine had many opportunities to meet famous artists of the day. One time, in the house of a Greek business man A.C. Iodines in south London, they met Whistler, an American-born but British-based artist, and Swinburne, an English poet and playwright. Swinburne was overwhelmed with emotions upon meeting Marie, that he said of her ‘She is so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry.

1884. Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni by Marie Spartali Stillman1884. Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni by Marie Spartali Stillman

Upon marrying American journalist and painter William J. Stillman, against the wishes of her parents, she divided a lot of time between London and Florence from 1878 to 1883, and then Rome from 1889 to 1896, as William was a foreign correspondent for The Times. Her time spent in Italy proved to be fruitful for her painting style in a way that she entirely absorbed the aesthetics of Italian Renaissance. Her fascination with Italian landscapes and females figures with their unhidden sensuality, vividness and liveliness, along with studious depiction of nature, place Marie’s paintings side by side with works of great Pre-Raphalite painters such as Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais.

Perhaps my favourite painting by Marie is ‘Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni‘ shown above. It dazzled me with its charming and detailed depiction of nature, and the visual equalization of nature with the woman who is actually a character from Dante’s poetry. She is described as a lady in green, very heartless, but very pretty, her moss green robe merged with the nature in the background. She’s holding a crystal ball reflecting the figures of Love and Dante. The depth of the landscape is magnificent, one could feel that is goes on and on, never ending, through the trees, bushes, all the way up to the hills.

Influence of Rossetti’s later period is evident in Marie’s paintings, ‘Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni‘ being no exception. In later phase of his work Rossetti was influenced by the Italian High Renaissance, especially the painters such as Titian and Veronese, representatives of Venetian school. Marie continued Rossetti’s tradition with this painting for she painted the lady half-length in a Renaissance manner, but still, it remains a completely personal painting reflecting the beauty of the Italian landscapes Marie had observed, admired and cherished.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Lady Lilith

24 Dec

Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.

1866. Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti1872-73. Lady Lilith, with Alice Wilding as model.

Alexa Wilding (born Alice), a beautiful young girl with auburn hair captivated Dante Gabriel Rossetti with her elegance and charms ever since he first sat eyes on her in 1865. At the time they met, Alice, approximately twenty years old at the time, was working as a dressmaker but dreamed of becoming an actress. Dante spotted her one evening in the Strand in 1865. and he was immediately struck by her beauty. Naturally, he proposed her to sit for him, which she accepted but failed to arrive at his studio the following day. The reason for her absence may have been the moral dilemma of being a model in the Victorian era.

Rossetti was devastated for he had been looking for a model with distinct looks for so long; the beauty he found in the face of young Alice. Weeks later, he spotted her again and jumped from the cab he was in and convinced her to follow him to his studio the very instant. She finally accepted and Dante began paying her a weekly fee to sit for him as he was so afraid that some other painter might want to hire her as a model. Alice eventually modeled for more of his finished paintings than any other of his models, but still she is less known due to the lack of romantic connection with Rossetti. Nevertheless, the two shared a deep bond and Alice is said to have visited Rossetti’s grave and placed a wreath on it.

Rossetti first painted ‘Lady Lilith‘ in 1866-68. using Fanny Cornforth as a model, but in 1872-73. he altered it to show the beautiful face of Alice Wilding. Alice’s features were considered more refined compared to Fanny’s which were considered too earthy. In addition, Rossetti saw in Alice’s features the ability to express both virtue and vice. Who could be a better model for Lilith, beautiful yet evil woman, than Alice with her lovely face and massive golden auburn hair? Alice was described as having ”a lovely face, beautifully moulded in every feature, full of quiescent, soft, mystical repose that suited some of his conceptions admirably…” Her features are easily recognised in Rossetti’s art; red hair, long neck, Cupid-bow lips and soft, dreamy eyes.

1867. Lady Lilith, watercolour replica, showing the face of Fanny Cornforth.

Lilith was the first wife of Adam, according to Judaic myth, and is a symbol of power, temptation and seduction. Rossetti’s version of Lilith was however a modern interpretation rather than a mythical figure. It represented ‘body’s beauty‘ according to Rossetti’s sonnet. This ‘Modern Lilith‘ contemplates her own beauty in a hand-mirror. Although Rossetti painted many ‘mirror scenes’; a trend which other artists accepted, ‘Lady Lilith‘ stays the epitome of the type.

Even though the focus is the beautiful Lilith, the painting is filled with overt flower symbolism and the cluttered, depth less space. The mirror in the background shows just how unreal and bizarre the space is; it shows the reflection of both the candles in the room and the exterior nature scene. The white roses tending to Lilith, admiring her beauty perhaps, symbolise cold, sensuous love and may reflect tradition that roses first ‘blushed‘ upon meeting Eve. Flowery background was the final part of the painting. White roses were, according to Rossetti’s assistant Dunn, gathered in large baskets from John Ruskin’s garden in Denmark Hill (area of Camberwell, London) from where they were brought to Rossetti’s studio in Chelsea. Red poppy in the lower right corner symbolises sleep and forgetfulness, and may indicate Lilith’s languid nature.

Rossetti also added a feminist dimension to the painting by emphasizing Lilith’s characteristics; her powerful, threatening and seductive attitude and resistance to male domination. She’s beautiful and she’s aware of it. Her massive luxurious red hair, undisguised sensuality and ‘clothes that look as if they’re soon to be removed‘ all make her irresistible to man. The painting represents ‘beauty gazing at itself‘. Lilith is an unobtainable beauty filled with power.