Rossetti, Painter and Poet
London: Frances Lincoln, 2011
Hardback, 270 pp. ISBN 978-0-7112-3225-9. £35.00
Reviewed by Laurent Bury
Université Lumière – Lyon 2
Professor Barrie Bullen, of Reading University, was already known for such excellent books as The Pre-Raphaelite Body (1998) or Byzantium Rediscovered (2003). His interest for Rossetti became manifest in the collection of articles Continental Crosscurrents (2005) and some pages from his then forthcoming book were revealed to the participants of the “British Aestheticisms” conference organised in Montpellier in October 2009. We can now enjoy the result of several years of research and reflection on one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in a book whose specificity is to include the two aspects of Rossetti’s career: J.B. Bullen used to lecture on English literature and art history, meaning that he can pass from poetry to painting with an ease which is not so common in academia. This gift is all the more precious in the case of a man who equally valued the two facets of his creativity, which Bullen believes to be intimately connected: “the spring of both can be found in Rossetti’s struggle and fascination with libidinal forces … Rossetti’s mission was to transcend the Manichean division that separated [the sensual and the spiritual] and, through the visionary power of art, reconcile what he saw as elements fundamental to human experience” . On the pages of the volume, poems sometimes occupy the same position as colour reproductions of paintings and watercolours, displayed in bold characters as so many “illustrations”.
This book is a biography, in so far as it follows the chronological order of Rossetti’s life, his sentimental adventures with the various women who inspired him, but it is more particularly an intellectual or artistic biography, starting with the young rebel whose “verse dealt with love as an art, love as a way of life, and love as a religion” . In Rossetti’s early poems, women are made to be worshipped or degraded by male desire, the two extremes being embodied by The Blessed Damozel and Jenny. In 1850, he met Elizabeth Siddal, the ideal model: “His propensity to fall in love, however, was as much literary as it was visual, and Lizzie’s withdrawn but intelligent personality provided a perfect ‘screen’ for his erotic and aesthetic projections” . Their relation turned more difficult than expected, in particular when she refused his marriage proposal, inducing in Rossetti a painful feeling of rejection. “Throughout his life, female approval was central to his psychological welfare; persistently, he had to see himself reflected in the mirror of feminine interactiveness” .
J.B. Bullen shows how the artist lived “with an audience of spectators” , his friends and acquaintances being witnesses of his relation with Siddal. “For Rossetti, desire was his life’s dominant subject and it was directly linked to the powerful libidinal drive that fuelled his imagination. Material realism, however, the literal expression of desire, together with the social questions that it created, were all mainly alien to him” . In the late 1850s, Rossetti transferred his allegiance from Dante, whom he had long admired, to King Arthur and his knights, which became a new source of inspiration for his art, through his eroticising of the Arthurian legend. A new Round Table being formed by his young admirers in Birmingham, William Morris and Edward Jones (soon to christen himself Burne-Jones). With Morris, Rossetti would initiate a new pattern which seems to have had a special attraction for him: sharing a woman with another man, rather than taking other men’s women .
The end of the decade was also a turning point for British Art, Bocca Bacciata (the cover illustration of this book) marking the beginning of Aestheticism: a sensuous painting without any anecdotic subject matter. “His work had become searching, analytical and conciliatory in a climate that was binary and inflexible” . Like Swinburne, Rossetti had a special interest for strong, almost masculine, coldly destructive women. But apart from his promiscuous relations with some of his models, he was also deeply uncomfortable in society. “Part of that nervousness went back to his childhood, neither entirely Italian nor entirely British, he had inherited from his parents a sense of exile, and had remained an exile in his head” . At that time, Rossetti may be said to have “created” Jane Morris through the “orgasmic” poems of the 1860s and the paintings of the 1870s in which he transfigured her as Pandora or Proserpine: “the female form was the cornerstone of his imaginative world, and as contemporaries remarked, few men lived as exclusively as Rossetti in that world” . Like Lizzie Siddal, Jane was a screen for his fantasies, but with a complex set of roles, being both Andromeda and the Gorgon, for instance. His growing interest for Michelangelo, both as a poet and as an artist, suggested the equation of Jane with Vittoria Colonna: “out of his multiple representations of her there arose an extraordinary icon” .
Encircled by hostile critical opinion because of his “fleshly” poems, Rossetti tried to pacify the atmosphere by painting reassuring aesthetic works, with the most innocuous of his models, Alexa Wilding. Toward the end of his life, his ménage à trois with Morris and Jane was disturbed by his deteriorating mental balance. Rossetti refused to send his works to the newly opened Grosvenor Gallery and his temperamental attitude caused him to lose most of his patrons.
J.B. Bullen concludes by examining his subject’s posthumous influence. “What Rossetti managed to do in The House of Life was to create a developmental syntax for psycho-sexuality” , thus opening the way to so many late-nineteenth-century writers who tried to define sexual identity. “After his death, when his paintings finally went on view, it could be seen that what he had created was not an arbitrary series of portrait studies, or in his writing, an arbitrary collection of poems; what he had constructed both for his contemporaries and for the generations that followed was essentially a carefully plotted map of the structure of the emotional life, an anatomy of desire” .
This superb essay is completed by a Bibliography and an Index. The 189 colour reproductions are of excellent quality, and include some rarely seen works, like the 1881 Mnemosyne (Delaware Art Museum) or the contemporary Salutation of Beatrice from a private collection . The proofs should perhaps have been read more carefully, to eliminate a certain number of misprints (“it did not provided”, 62; “ineveitably”, 110; “Dana’ ” instead of “Danaë”, 131), including in proper names: the “Princep” family  instead of “Prinsep”, Victorine “Meurend”  instead of “Meurent”. Some mistakes could have been corrected: the “brilliant oil painting by Millais” on the subject of Keats’s “Isabella” is not at the Tate, but in Liverpool , the Llandaff altarpiece has absolutely nothing to do with St Paul , “Monna Vanna” does not signify “Vain Woman” in Italian —it ought to be “Vana” to mean that—, and the character in The Bower Meadow, visible beyond the four figures in the foreground, can only be the fifth, and not the “fourth female” .
Cercles © 2012
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