Tag Archives: Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

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.

Elizabeth Siddal – All changes pass me like a dream

23 May

Famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his beautiful melancholic muse, Elizabeth Siddal, who was the walking epitome of Pre-Raphaelite beauty with her lavish masses of coppery golden hair, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes and heavy-lidded gaze, married on the 23th May 1860 in the seaside town of Hastings. Last year on their wedding anniversary, I posted one Rossetti’s poems, and this year here’s one called “Love and Hate” by Lizzie herself.

I remember when I fell in love with Pre-Raphaelites, in August 2014, in one of those afternoons of late summer, rain had lingered for days, sky was coloured in greys, chill air in twilight seemed to whisper that autumn is coming, and every time I picked red rosebuds I treasured them as if they were the season’s last jewels, my soul already soaked in that special combination of melancholy and sweetness which occurs only in autumn when rustling leaves bring me delight and yet I feel overwhelmed by the transience of everything in nature and our lives of humans – it was in those days that I gazed for long hours at Millais’s beautiful Ophelia and idealised the image of a drowned girl, and the red-haired maiden who posed for the painting, reading about her destiny and slowly discovering her poetry, laced with sadness, its verses spoke of love and death. A particular verse has been my favourite since those days, I have it written on my wall, and I almost feel it etched into my soul:

“All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

Lizzie Siddal posed for Ophelia and died an equally tragic death (is there a non-tragic death?); she overdosed on laudanum. Onyx black poppy seeds from that fragile yet passionate red flower, lulled her to eternal sleep. Rossetti dramatically buried his book of poems with her coffin, only to have it exhumed years later. Their tumulus relationship was the main source of inspiration for her poetry. I can understand her sadness, but Rossetti’s infidelities I cannot. With that beautiful gem at home, why on earth would he ever want to spend time with other women? Wasn’t his idol Dante content with just daydreaming about Beatrice?

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52

Love and Hate

Ope not thy lips, thou foolish one,
Nor turn to me thy face;
The blasts of heaven shall strike thee down
Ere I will give thee grace.

Take thou thy shadow from my path,
Nor turn to me and pray;
The wild wild winds thy dirge may sing
Ere I will bid thee stay.

Turn thou away thy false dark eyes,
Nor gaze upon my face;
Great love I bore thee: now great hate
Sits grimly in its place.

All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

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.

a-vale-of-rest-2

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.

a-vale-of-rest-1

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)

a-vale-of-rest-3

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.

a-vale-of-rest-4

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.

John Everett Millais: Mariana and Autumn Yearning

29 Aug

Dusky, velvety colours, intricate detailing and that peculiar mood of yearning and melancholy that pervades paintings from Millais’ early phase, make Mariana a true Pre-Raphaelite gem, comparable by beauty and emotional intensity only to the more famous Ophelia painted around the same time.

1851. John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851 smallerJohn Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851

Painting Mariana is a beautiful and psychologically stimulating example of Millais’ early work and his devotion to the values of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that is, to study nature attentively, to have genuine ideas to express and to produce thoroughly good pictures. Pre-Raphaelites had a tendency to draw inspiration from works of literature such as Dante and Lord Tennyson’s poems, and plays by William Shakespeare. This painting is no exception. Its mood and composition instantly attract the viewer. A tired lady in a gown of shiny midnight blue velvet stands by the window, supporting her aching back with hands, gazing into the distance. That’s Mariana, a character from Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure and Lord Tennyson’s poem Mariana, a young woman doomed to a life of solitude because her fiancé Angelo abandoned her after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck at sea.

In her lonely, virginal chamber time stands still. Modern, Victorian interior in carnelian brownish reds and peridot greens is contrasted with old Medieval stained glass windows that show the scene of Annunciation which perhaps serves to compare Mariana’s waiting to that of Virgin Mary. If you look closely, you’ll notice a needle pinned into a discarded embroidery. Mariana seems occupied by her pursuit while seasons change and winds roar around her lonely claustrophobic abode. The abundance and lushness of late Summer transitions in Autumn as orange and green leaves come dancing softly into her cluttered Victorian chamber. Seasons change but her longing seems infinite and still. Autumnal nature dying in rich shades could symbolise Mariana’s inner dying. The seal in the right corner of stained glass windows reads In coelo quies or In Heaven there is rest, further implying Mariana’s suicidal thoughts as she contemplates on her dreary world. These verses of Velvet Underground’s song Venus in Furs remind me of Mariana’s emotions: I am tired, I am weary/ I could sleep for a thousand years/ A thousand dreams that would awake me/ Different colours made of tears.

At first sight, this painting seems like a simple Victorian genre scene; passive and sad woman in a dark cluttered room, in a Medieval-style dress, exhibiting a typical Victorian nostalgia for the past eras. However, Millais portrays a complex psychological state underneath the aesthetically pleasing exterior, and that’s what makes this painting stand out amongst other similar Victorian artworks. Attentive to details like he was in his early artistic phase, Millais managed to evoke Mariana’s feelings – her yearning, pain, loneliness and seeming resignation, mood of dreariness and ‘changes that all pass her like a dream’, as Lizzie Siddal, another Pre-Raphaelite muse, would late wrote in her poem. This painting is so iconic in my opinion, just like the famous Ophelia. You simply can’t think of the character Mariana without imagining the scene the way Millais portrayed it and he based the painting on this particular verse by Lord Tennyson:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

Looking at her pose and her surroundings you can feel her tiredness and desperation. You can imagine the broken thoughts running through her mind; What am I doing with my life? What awaits me? Will my life be this dreary forever? Perhaps she still feels the softness of her silk wedding dress under her fingers, but, oh, misery, all too soon she has buried it along with her dreams. Millais is quite daring in his choice of subject. In rigid Victorian world, a woman did well if she got married, and if she remained a spinster, well, that must be her fault. And here we have a dashing young artist portraying a sexually frustrated woman; a woman who is not content with being silent and doing her embroidery but wants more, from life and love equally. Almost twenty years later, a fellow Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti revisited the theme and painted his own version of Mariana; portraying her as a sensuous and arrogant femme fatale disdainfully gazing into the distance, using Jane Burden Morris as a model. I prefer Millais’ version because he, in my opinion, managed to portray Mariana’s feelings much better. I feel that in general, Millais is the poetic one, and Rossetti is the passionate one. With this subject, lyrical and poetical approach is better.

I recognise Mariana’s feelings in these lyrics written by Morrissey:

And as I climb into an empty bed

Oh, well, enough said…” (The Smiths, I Know It’s Over)

Dream is gone, but Mariana’s loneliness is real. She could have been a bride and now she’s a fool. Oh, if only that dowry wasn’t lost at sea. If only Angelo had been more faithful. Please, save your life, Mariana, because you only got one.

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.

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.