Friday 25 October 2013

The Darkening Focus of a Consuming Muse

When considering an artist’s life, sometimes the volume of their creative output can be overwhelming.  Even for a painter like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who notoriously had difficulty in finishing works and died at a relatively early age, seeing everything spread out before you can be dazzling.  I adore the Rossetti Archive site because it enables you to flick around his works:  one moment you by his side as he sketches in 1850, the next moment viewing a work from the last months of his life.  It also offers hints of interpretation as to a development of ‘muse’, a possible hidden trail to the secrets of the painter/poet’s mind. That is what this post is about.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin
Astarte Syriaca
No-one would argue that the vision of a young man and one of an older man are necessarily different.  The young man may be filled with bravado, optimism, untried confidence, the older man may have experienced loss, had dreams shattered, had time wear him down.  Conversely, the older self may have had confidence built on experience, wisdom built on years of success, and the younger one may be a scatter-shot idiot.  Placing a piece like The Girlhood of Mary Virgin from 1848 next to Astarte Syriaica of almost 30 years later I think you can tell it’s by the same painter but the difference in feeling is marked, painfully so.  Rossetti is just beginning in one image and drawing to a close in the other and I would like to propose that you can read the most about his state of mind not in the figures, but in the backgrounds.

The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice

Taking something like Mary Virgin or The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice, it is possible to see both inside and outside the room.  The moments exist within a framework of a world, a greater context.  The reality of them will be part of the whole picture of life.  Their actions may impact on people in the street outside, in the world in which our protagonists dwell. 

The young Rossetti’s muse is a scatter-shot affair.  All seems colourful, even where the muse of the piece is the shade of white.  All is instilled with sunshine and light that naturally speak of a world outside that contains his vision.  Elizabeth Siddal, his muse, is firmly within that vision, sometimes dominates it, but she exists for him within the world, she is part of his everything.

Elizabeth Siddal

Algernon Swinburne

The only time during this early period where the focus is very exact is in portraits.  His green-backgrounded, single figure works of the 1850s are about that person and need no other decoration.  I would even suggest this suited his rather ‘lazy’, for want of a better word, work ethic of these years.  Rossetti was to busy hurling himself into the world (and the beds of other people’s girlfriends) to spend a lot of time living in separation of it, focusing on one muse, one detail.

Fair Rosamund

A change came with Bocca Baciata.  The boxed-in female portraits of the second phase of his life don’t tend to reference an outside world exactly but do have a rich interior.  It’s as if his focus has drawn in a little, to the beauty of woman, of place, of home. Fair Rosamund is a good example of the boxed-in woman.  She is leaning on the outer side of her box, separating her from the viewer and the interior of her room is rich and decorative.  It would be easy to argue that the women are just another object d’art in the room.  Possibly all that hurling around and blissful uncertainty of youth had shown Rossetti that things when not held tightly can be lost.  He had relieved at least one of his friends of a potential wife and had almost lost Elizabeth.  It could be argued that the second phase of muses were kept safely in a beautiful cage where they could not be released, could not be stolen and could come to no harm.  While there are windows for us to view them, there are no doors for them to leave.  What Rossetti missed was that he was still out in the world and his actions, his neglect, would rob him of his pretty caged pets.

Sibylla Palmifera

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the focus changed again after Elizabeth’s death in 1862.  For all intents and purposes he continued to paint pretty meaningless women, but the wall had dropped away.  We draw back and see more of them in such pieces as Sibylla Palmifera  and Lady Lilith.  Alexa Wilding personifies this shift, portraying a richly decorated woman in a richly decorated room, viewing us passively.  Her passive, unfocused gaze is typical and negates any threat we may feel from inhabiting the same space as her.  Is she vacuous?  Does Rossetti intend us to suspect that she has no more brains than the vases or the furniture?  Is she merely a decorative piece, or is the silence companionable, comforting?  He may be entering a prison but look at the decoration, the security of the walls.  We are no longer outside looking at the bird in the cage, we are safely inside with her.

The Blue Dress

It would be tempting to say that is all the shifts he made, but I feel there is a final one.  Jane Morris dominates the role of muse from around 1868, and it could be said that in the first works, such as The Blue Dress, she is just a beautiful woman in a beautiful room.  Subtly however, I feel there is a shift towards a focus solely on her. 
Looking at Reverie in 1868, the background begins not to matter.  It could be argued that it is a portrait so the person is the whole matter, but very few, if any of Rossetti’s major works involving Jane are straight portraits, so in theory there should be a ‘setting’.  His focus however narrows in, the rooms becoming devoid of interest, the only thing that matters is her.


A Vision of Fiammetta

Is it his overwhelming passion that makes him blind to all but her?  Was it his eyesight that stripped his vision down to the essentials?  Looking at the work he did around Alexa in these later years there is still the old staging, but in many if not most images of Jane she dominates to the point of entirety.  Comparing something like A Vision of Fiammetta to Pandora or Mnemosyne you can see how the woman is just part of the scenery in one but the whole of his universe in the other.  I often feel with his images involving Jane that there is no compromise which may be why people either love or hate them.  It is perhaps a more honest representation of his artistic spark at the moment to have the woman as his whole, his reason to paint, his all-encompassing reason to be.  If you don’t feel the same, the images can alienate, but if you can glimpse, even in a small way how this woman can captivate, the images make sense.

The Bower Meadow
Obviously my arguments aren’t foolproof.  Rossetti pulled his muses to and fro artistically speaking.  Elizabeth was locked in the box in Regina Cordium and Fanny was the focus in Woman with a Fan but it is during the transition phases where he tries to bring the old love through to his next vision and often the images jar a little or at least are obvious in their shift.  The Bower Meadow of 1872 gives you all the open air that his contemporary works lacked, but a pandering to commercial tastes could explain that, or even moments of reflection on what used to excite, what used to inspire.  Who doesn’t like to indulge in pleasures from times past: a book you liked as a child, a food that reminds you of a past love, a past place?  There is a comfort in the old safe places and increasingly as that dark, silent focus fixed on Jane, Alexa appears in images of decorative damsels.  Are they a grasp at a less confined scope or simply a commercial play?  We see Rossetti’s fixation on Jane after the initial flurry of passion as unhealthy, morbid and consuming (in all senses of the word), was he aware of that too?

So many questions, and no answers that explain him.  Maybe that is why Rossetti continues to fascinate as an artist and as a man.


  1. Great post Kirsty good to his career in summary like this

  2. FABULOUS READ...... scrumptious for my mind !!!!! Love the way you push your pen - your book Stunner was one of my best reads in ages


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