Atelier · February 29, 2008

Friday in the atelier: “Proserpin” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Today I’m showing the painting “Proserpin”, painted by Dante Rossetti at the age of 46; only 8 years before he died of drug and alcohol addiction and depression. The model for this painting is an idealized Jane Morris.

Although many of Rossetti’s paintings are too Medieval for my tastes, his later paintings with Jane Morris as a model attract me because of the resemblance (perhaps only to me?) to a young Sean Young. (I was infatuated with Young when she played Rachel in the movie “Blade Runner”.)

I think another example of this can be shown in the second image I display, a cropped detail of the painting “La Bella Mano” (aka “The Beautiful Hand”). However, I think the red-headed lady in the painting “The Bower Meadow” is of a different model. Very attractive, and very well executed. I’ve cropped that painting to display what I’m talking about.

All of Rossetti’s paintings are rich with detail and color, and the way he paints eyes and mouths fascinates me. However, his paintings, at least to my eyes, seem too posed, and a bit too stiff. I want to see these people in fluid motion, interacting with their world and with me.

As always, click on the painting to see it in full.

I was led to investigate Rossetti from a brief mention on Yuqi Wang‘s website. Rossetti was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement.

The Pre-Raphaelite Movement was founded upon the premise that creativity in Academic Art was stifled by the influence of classical poses and compositions that were favored by the painter Raphael. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood believed that Academic painters who followed Raphael’s influence became sloppy, and the paintings followed a sort of formula where details were lost.

At the beginning of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, the art seemed to follow more medieval compositions, with a close attention to detail. The artists of this movement began to split a little, with some concentrating on more natural poses, and others – Rossetti included – becoming more medieval in flavor.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was known as Gabriel to his friends, but signed his works as Dante Gabriel. He is a very tragic figure in the art world – the original “tortured artist” type who was a poet and a painter. The loss of his wife and stillborn child were the start of his slow decline.

Rossetti studied drawing from the age of 13 to 17 at Henry Sass’s Drawing Academy in London England. By the age of 18 he had enrolled in the Royal Academy of Arts in London, but did not complete his education there. At the age of 20 he left the Royal Academy and studied under the artist Ford Madox Brown, with whom he developed a life-long friendship. In 1848, London painter William Holman Hunt completed the painting “The Eve of St. Agnes” which drew Rossetti’s attention. Due to the subject of the painting, Rossetti realized that Hunt shared his literary and artistic ideals, and so Rossetti sought Hunt’s friendship. Together they were the driving force behind the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Rossetti met his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, when he was approximately 25-26 years old. They became lovers, but their relationship was strained. She came from a lower class family, and Rossetti feared to introduce her to his parents. His sisters were also critical of her. But Elizabeth was seen by Rossetti and others in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as the embodiment of their ideals of feminine beauty. She posed not only for Rossetti, but for all in the Brotherhood. She was the model for “Ophelia” painted by John Everett Millais in 1852.

Rossetti drew sketches of Elizabeth almost incessantly. But the barrier of class between them messed with Elizabeth’s self-esteem, and her (not unreasonable) belief that Rossetti would replace her with a younger model depressed her and contributed to her illness and drug addiction. After several engagements that were broken off at the last minute, Rossetti finally married Elizabeth. Their first child, a daughter, was stillborn. Shortly after becoming pregnant for a second time Elizabeth overdosed on Laudanum, (a tincture of Opium that was used to treat Elizabeth’s illness) to which she’d become addicted.

When Elizabeth died, Rossetti was overcome with grief. During their life together Rossetti had composed a book of poetry of their life. At her burial, Rossetti placed the journal containing the only copy of those poems with his wife in her coffin.

After her death, at the age of 41, Rossetti had become severely addicted to Chloral (a sedative and hypnotic that is more notoriously known as “knockout drops”). He wrote a second volume of poetry about Elizabeth, and at the urging of his friends he had Elizabeth’s body exhumed so that the first journal could be retrieved. He published “Poems by D. G. Rossetti”, containing the bulk of his poetry in 1870. Critics viciously attacked his poetry for being too sensual and erotic. Rossetti’s second book of poetry, “Ballads and sonnets” was also critically panned.

Rossetti never recovered from Elizabeth’s death. There is a possibility that she intentionally committed suicide – if so then Rossetti hid it so that she could have a Christian burial. Perhaps this together with his guilt over her exhumation greatly contributed to his drug and alcohol addiction and depression.

The last twenty years of Rossetti’s life were a slow spiral downward. He checked out of society and his addictions became increasingly worse. He continued to paint for a decade and became obsessed with Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris. He used Jane as a model for many idealized paintings of a lone women in luxurious surroundings.

By the late 1870’s, Rossetti drove away Jane as he started losing his sanity. He was reclusive, but he still continued to paint as he health and sanity fell apart. He did finally travel to a seaside resort in Northern England in order to recover his health, but it was not enough. The histories I’ve read seem to disagree on his place of death, either at the seaside resort Birchington-on-Sea, or at his home in London. In either case, he is buried at Birchington-on-Sea.

Even as his health declined and his mind slipped, his paintings were still incredible. Perhaps their composition suffered, but their detail did not.