Friday, 20 July 2012

Fifty Shades of Rossetti

I've been thoroughly delighted by a new book this week - no, not Fifty Shades of Grey (although I have read that, Heavens to Betsy!) but a rather lovely little book called The Charm of Rossetti.

Now, no reflection on the gentleman himself, I'm sure, but it is a very short book, but truly charming and gave me much to think about.  I especially liked the mention of Rossetti's hierarchy of colour.  This fascinating concept follows the notion that Rossetti found certain colours preferable to others and consciously used them in certain ways.  Armed with this idea, I have spent the week seeing if I can read his thoughts in his art and if there is anything he missed about his own artistic choices....

Rossetti ran his colours as follows: (1) Pure, light, warm green, (2) Deep gold, (3) Certain tints of grey, (4) Shadowy or steel blue, (5) Brown with a crimson tinge, and (6) Scarlet.  Simple enough but just start trying to imaging the first colour and you will run into difficulties, let alone 'certain tints of grey' (which we all now know comes in at least 50 shades).  Maybe some hint can be found in his paintings....

(1) Pure, light, warm green
So we're looking for a green that is pure, light and warm then.  Not asking for much.  He did love green, and the later you get, more there is.  You could argue that an awful lot of his early work shows women in blue, signifying the Virgin Mary, holiness, purity, but then he moves the shade to green, a sea-green filled with light and depth as the folds envelop the figures.  For Rossetti, green represented 'hope', which I think is both telling and sad, as that was obviously what he clothed his women in.

Starting early on, the shade of green tended to be quite vibrant, like in the early Dante's Dream...

Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (1856)
His green at this time is pure, forest-y and deep, but I suspect when talking about his favourite colours, he might have meant the green he moved to in later life, as seen in The Daydream and Astarte Syriaca.

Daydream green
Giant green goddess

Especially with Astarte Syriaca, the move to a water-green is linked to Jane.  Maybe this green was toned to compliment his vision of Jane, to highlight the pale marble of her skin, the chestnut hair, the grey of her eyes.  Obviously his other model of that time, Alexa, looked good in green, being a redhead, which echoed his original use of it with Lizzie (as seen in Beata Beatrix).  The interplay of red and green is key to Rossetti existing where it shouldn't, quietly whispering in the background when it wasn't shouting in the foreground.  His love of green, for me, is a natural by-product of his love of red hair.  Maybe the love of red hair came from his love of green?

(2) Deep Gold
Trickier, although it depends what you think deep gold means.  For example, the instrument in The Blue Bower is a rich golden hue...

Lizzie's hair is often a golden colour, and Jane presents a burnished figure in this chalk of Pandora from 1878...

Mind you, the gold in this picture is more pale than deep.  Rossetti had a tendency to give gold a rosy tone, so maybe he meant 'warm' when he said 'deep'?  Although Monna Vanna is pretty golden, I think nothing beats Helen of Troy if you're after a golden girl...

This is the purest expression of gold I can imagine in Rossetti and possibly explains why he didn't use it so unreservedly on a regular basis.  If you take the standpoint that he felt colour had meaning, then it's easy to imagine that gold for him meant 'dangerous beauty' or 'irresistible destruction'.  When he spoke of his love of gold early in his career, Rossetti allied it to holiness and beneficence.   Halos were gold, the Holy Virgin had highlights of gold about her.  Then came Pandora's box and Helen of Troy and the colour changed in meaning.  It's not 'the bad colour' (to quote The Village) because Rossetti is not a blaming type of man, but it does act as a warning that you are messing with forces that will consume you.

(3) Certain Tints of Grey
My favourite of his categories has to be 'certain tints of grey'.  Well, thanks a lot, nothing vague there then.  First thing that comes to mind has to be the charcoal greys of his chalk drawings, the smoky beauty of his pictures like La Donna della Finestra from 1870.

The eyes of so many of his models were grey-blue, as were his own, and maybe this is why he loved the shades of grey so much.

Bower Meadow (1872)
I do struggle with finding grey as a dominant presence in his work outside chalk, but it is there, in Jane's eyes and back lighting the green drapery.  The strength of his pencil work shows the shades of grey to their maximum power and I found it a revelation that possibly Rossetti valued his preparatory sketches as much as I do, that he realised just how amazing his line drawings were, sometimes much better than the finished painting.  For me, the pinnacle of his 'grey work' was possibly the delicate drawing for Washing Hands.

(4) Shadowy or Steel Blue
Steel blue is awfully close to grey, Rossetti, thanks for that.  The above sketch for Bower Meadow could equally be steel blue rather than grey.  Possibly the blue of Jane's dress in her portrait and Mariana is 'shadowy'..?

Also present in Bruna Brunelleschi (1878) and in the robes of Dante in the 1871 version of Dante's Dream shades of deep blue occur less regularly that green or red.  There is something that draws you into that deep blue silk, something you can lose yourself in, it's magical, only serving to highlight the hard pale pink of Jane's skin.  She's a goddess in a dress as deep as eternity.  No wonder he worshipped her.

(5) Brown with a Crimson Tinge
We're on simpler ground with the browns of Rossetti's work.  For starters, Jane's hair has glimmers of fire shot through it, and the wood that furnishes his luxurious interiors has a mahogany glint in the candle light.  It could be that Rossetti was referencing Titian, and his method of painting over a red (rather than the PRB white) base in his back-lit browns.

Look at her hair, then the echo in the wood in front of her, it's as if he can't give a straight brown without the warmth behind it.  Possibly it's a subconscious thing, a feeling of safety and pleasure relating to the colour, and unlike gold, there is something solid and dependable about brown in his pictures.  You can rely on brown.  My goodness, that sounds less sexy than you'd think when you say it out loud. Moving on...

(6) Scarlet
Red, red, red.  His name references it and his women were so often crowned with a mane of it.  Rossetti and red go together so naturally that his love of green probably stems from it.  Or was it the other way round?  Anyhow, his red pictures are possibly his most astonishing and explosive.  Take for example La Bella Mano (1875)...

The swathe of cloth is picked up again in the beautiful folded wings of the right-hand angel, and the green of the lemon tree in the foreground is almost entirely drowned out.  Even when it isn't the leading colour, red still pops from his canvases, seizing your attention.  His red birds are exciting and threatening with their immediacy as they swoop in Beata Beatrix or hover in A Vision of Fiammetta.  Red lips, red hair, like burning hearts, declaring Rossetti's passion for his subjects.  In his flaming touch we see Rossetti's heart and it is scarlet...

Regina Cordium (1860)
I was surprised to find missing from the list 'pink', but possibly that's far too girly to say to your painting mates.  In his treatment of flesh and the blush of petals, Rossetti excels, giving us the innermost heat of Fair Rosamund's cheek, the apple blossom of The Vision of Fiammetta and the riot of roses behind Venus Verticordia.  Similarly, the gentle creams of skin, silk and linen lends peace to otherwise fevered passions, contrasting the reds and greens, breaking the intensity to lend balance.

As a colourist, Rossetti excels, but his ability to see emotion, sound, and feeling in different colours lends a depth to his work that could be easily overlooked.  Although his images of beautiful women seem to lack narrative, their aesthetic souls without subject, woven into their being is all that Rossetti felt, that he heard in the rustle of their gowns, the brush of their long hair, and all of this is lovingly recorded in a picture-poem to the women that he loved.


  1. I did enjoy seeing all these points written out with appropriate illustrations - how interesting. And illuminating!

  2. Thank you. It's hard to see exactly what he meant, but you can see he definitely favoured certain colours and shades, especially later, with Jane.

  3. Nice article, thanks for the information.

    Anna @ sewa mobil jakarta

  4. I love Rossetti's sketches of Lizzy Siddal> Somehow warmer and more personal than many of his paintings, although I like them too. Lovely article. thank you


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