Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Beloved Conflation

Happy Birthday Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  For a chap of around 184 years old, you're not doing badly.  In honour of this anniversary (yes, it's not a big one, it's not like they do a special card with a 'Hurrah, You're 184!' badge) today's blog is for you, DGR.

There are so many things I could talk about, in fact there are far too many things to talk about.  I've spent the day flattened by books trying to decide.  In the end I've decided to have a little chat with you about Rossetti and his amazing, morphing desire.  It's one of those things you notice but don't notice, due to the rather fluid nature of Rossetti's depictions of women, but if you take it in context then it becomes rather more significant. What am I talking about?  Dante's Dream.  Both of them.

Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (1856)
Dante's Dream (1871)
Rossetti started planning his largest painting as early as 1848, a watercolour finally coming in 1856 with Elizabeth Siddal as the beloved Beatrice.  In Dante's Vita Nuova, Dante's dreams of Beatrice while ill, fearing for his own life, and the climax of his dream sequence is the vision of Beatrice, dead, being covered by a veil.  Taken in the context of his relationship with Elizabeth, then possibly Rossetti had experienced a moment of fear and romance over the possible death of his beloved, that would sadly be borne out.  The poppies that scatter the floor would become more poignant, especially when dropped from a dove's beak into the hands of the dying Beatrice in the grieving Rossetti's picture of his wife.

As he stole the poems from his dead wife's coffin to repurpose for his new love, then it seems to follow he would steal the persona of Beatrice from her too, to hand to Jane Morris.  As early as 1863, a year after Lizzie's death, Rossetti was talking about his desire to execute a large-scale oil of Dante's Dream, although whether he intend to replace Lizzie so early on is doubtful.  In 1863, Rossetti's lover was Fanny, and Fanny was unlikely to be the fragile, virginal Beatrice (even though, early on, she had played the part, but only briefly).  However many times he suggested it, he had to wait until 1869 for a commission. 

By 1869 he was in love with Jane Morris.

In 1869 Rossetti retrieved the poems from the grave.

By 1871, Rossetti was ill, his grip on his physical and mental health was shaky, despite his romance with Jane Morris.  When he recreated and enlarged his vision of Dante's Dream, he made the figures life size, the whole scene becoming so massive that William Graham, the purchaser, had nowhere suitable to hang it, so returned it and requested a smaller copy.  The painting finally was purchased by the Walker Gallery, and before it was hung Rossetti retouched the hair of Beatrice, turning it from brown to golden red.

It seems such a small touch when you view the image, easy to overlook and it does seem of little consequence, but consider the importance of the image.  Like the retrieval and publication of his poems that had been very literally dedicated to Lizzie, but had become a gift to Jane, the role of Beatrice had been handed over too.  Rossetti's identification of himself with Dante Alighieri was a constant, and it is hard to trivialise the significance of the designation of the role of leading lady.  It was a public declaration of his spiritual attachment to Jane, but it could be argued that this would not have been news to anyone by this point.

La PIa de' Tolomei (1868)
Silence (1870)
Dark-eyed portrait after dark-eyed portrait, Jane inhabits almost every corner of Rossetti's imagination in the latter years of his artistic life and her relationship with the artist notches up as many articles and books as the doomed marriage and death of the woman that came before her.  Fanny Cornforth is credited with giving Rossetti his period of mourning before he launched himself into the other great romance of his life, but arguably the two loves are not separate and clear cut.  Look again at the figure of Beatrice in the later Dante's Dream...

While it was not beyond Rossetti to alter the shade of Alexa Wilding's hair from auburn to brick red, and Fanny's hair spanned a range of blonde, Elizabeth and Jane were fairly standard in their appearance.  Possibly Jane's iconic form is the most static in his artistic repertoire, merely bending like a willow from one pose to another.  Jane as Beatrice has an extraordinary dye-job, going to a glorious shade of Titian-red.  At the height of his passion, why would Rossetti wish to change the appearance of the love of his life?

Proserpine (1882)
Jane Morris (1870)

As you can see by these examples, it wasn't the first or last time he would change his beloved Janey's hair colour, but it was certainly the largest in scale.  The life-size declaration of the transfer of his affection is an odd place to hark back to the late Mrs Rossetti.  There is no overlap in his affection, unless you count the brief dalliance in Oxford during the mural campaign of 1857, but at the time Elizabeth was more concerned with Annie Miller's incursion into her relationship with Rossetti.  Emotionally, within the narrative of Rossetti's life, there is no connection between Jane and Lizzie but here, in his art, there is an echo.

It would be easy to dismiss the change as mere artistic whimsy, Rossetti love of red hair is obvious.  However, it could be argued that by altering Jane's iconic dark mane Rossetti explores a conflation of his dead wife and his new love.  Maybe in the unnatural glow of her red hair, Rossetti is signalling the presence of Lizzie in his new soul-union with Jane.  The creature with the glowing red hair was a blend, Lizzie/Jane, both women simultaneously, a dual muse, a double goddess.

The execution and changes to the subject of Dante's dream of his dead beloved brings this collision to a whole new scale.  Where his pictures had been of three-quarter or half length single figures, suddenly an entire cast populated the canvas, including male figures, all full length.  Despite the obvious differences to the 1850s watercolour, the pictures are identical in composition.  Just as Rossetti applied his new aesthetic to Lizzie for Regina Cordium, in Dante's Dream he applies his long abandoned group scene to honour his new love.

While this could be seen as romantic, it can also be seen as an act of disturbance.  Neither Fanny or Annie replicate poses for Rossetti, so why reach for the quality of another woman in the love of your life?  The answer might lie in the breakdown Rossetti was suffering, the disturbance of Lizzie's grave and the publication of the poems that had been buried with her, dedicated to her in every sense of the word.  When those poems were dedicated in spirit to Jane Morris, then the link between the women came into existence and the disintegration of Rossetti found its main ingredient.  If Jane were to be Lizzie, then possibly the grave robbing could be excused, as he was merely rededicating his love.  Instead of Beatrice's death, the scene represents her rebirth, the kiss of love bringing her back from the grave.  Beatrice/Lizzie died in 1862, but in 1869 Beatrice/Jane awoke.  Possibly Rossetti preferred to think it was the kiss of Love that woke her, rather than the sound of a shovel on her coffin lid.

Standing before this canvas, like many of his life-size images, is eerie, so real yet so stylised and beautiful.  It's hard not to feel a little sad for poor Dante, so ill, so scared, his love as fragile as her mortality, yet as strong as eternity.  When Rossetti began work on the large scale version of this image, the conflation of his loves was underway, and this time it would prove to be his, not Beatrice's, death.


  1. I'm intrigued by the notion that he gave Janey the red hair as an echo of poor dead Lizzie as they shift places to fit into his Beatrice Muse. I have a question that you might be able to answer, or at least point me in the right direction. I'd read somewhere that Bram Stoker (who had the centenary of his death last April, with no fanfare at all) was present at the exhumation and that the vision of Lizzie lying amongst all the red hair was part of the inspiration for Dracula. Do you know if any of that is true?(Oh, and Happy Birthday, Dante!)

  2. Hi Rhissanna and thanks for the comments! Bram was still at university in 1869 in Ireland, so wasn't around for the exhumation. It is rumoured that he liked a stroll around Highgate when he moved to London in the 1870s, but I'm not sure there is any proof of this. Poor Old Bram, I really should know more...

  3. Fine article! What a complex character he was!

  4. Wow, what a great post! Congrats! This is one of my favourite paintings ever, so the post was most enjoyable. I'm still confused at how many versions of this painting there are. I've never seen the earlier version (it may be part of a private collection or not on display, I suppose) but then, the 1871 version has been reproduced twice, as you said, one bigger than the other. Just seen the one in the Walker Art Gallery, obviously. However, there's another one in Scotland too! With two small sections at the bottom and a quotation from La Vita Nuova. That one is particularly interesting as it's dated 1880. Any thoughts on this? I'd love to read your opinion!

  5. Thanks for the comments. Lizzie, there are definitely a few! The original watercolour is in the Tate and can be seen on their website. I love the one you mention, it's in Dundee, and the bottom panels are precious. I assume (possibly correctly) that it must be the smaller version William Graham requested when he couldn't get the giant version in his house. The Rossetti Archive ( is a good place to see all the 'Dante's Dream'images together, including all the gorgeous sketches.

  6. Kirsty, you pulled together the vague, nagging thoughts about Lizzie/Jane that have rolled around in my head for the last 40 years! Your carefully constructed analysis makes me believe there can be no other explanation. The hair color changes always threw me. They've been hard to ignore, and have led me to think, "Whaaaa?" when I saw Jane as a redhead. The poor man. Speaking of hair, I've always assumed that the exhumation report was jazzed up to be more interesting - especially the part about a hair-filled coffin. Is there a realistic chances of such a thing? I've always assumed that what would have been found inside a wooden coffin buried right in the dirt for years was not quite as nice as what was reported.

  7. Glad to be of service :) Lucinda Hawksley touched on the subject of exactly what remained of poor Lizzie in 1869 and although her hair would have grown for a while longer, it is fanciful and odd to imagine her lying there, all uncorrupt and masses of hair. I think Rossetti was fine with believing that until he saw his poems, and more to the point, the great big worm hole through the middle of 'Jenny'.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx