There was a lot happening in European painting in the middle and late nineteenth century, from about 1840 onwards. General accounts focus on France, but there were just as major changes happening in Germany, Italy, Britain, and the rest of Europe too.
With the simplification enforced by major textbooks of art history, accounts of painting in Britain run something like: Constable, Turner, Pre-Raphaelite, then the twentieth century. From about 1860, nothing interesting seems to have happened, maybe it was all just ‘academic’, or various iterations on a Pre-Raphaelite theme.
This article is part of a series in which I try to get better insight into how non-impressionist painting changed from 1840 to 1900, mainly that in Britain. Here I will take one of the most prominent and radical painters, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), and trace changes across just half a dozen of his more important paintings, to try to get some clearer insight. Subsequent articles will look at his contemporaries.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), the closed group which formed the initial kernel of the whole movement, was established in 1848, and lasted barely five years to 1853. Its founding concept was that art (painting, in particular) since the time of Raphael had become misguided, and had abandoned the ‘simple honesty’ which had prevailed in the fifteenth century (1400s) and before. The aim was therefore to become true to nature again.
Paintings of the Brotherhood (and many of the broader and longer-lasting movement) characteristically used bright colours, had flat surfaces, and included objects and figures which were painted from nature, and not idealised in any way. As Ruskin wrote:
“they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making.”
This was primarily a revolt against the many artificialities which had arisen in composition, reaching a peak, they felt, in the work and teaching of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
This did not make the Pre-Raphaelites strict realists, who could only paint what they saw. Indeed, many of their paintings feature the elaborate use of symbols, which were sometimes explained in accompanying text, and required decoding in order to ‘read’ the painting – and Pre-Raphaelite paintings almost invariably require careful and detailed reading, sometimes at multiple levels.
Two of Rossetti’s early oil paintings are good examples of this strictly Pre-Raphaelite art.
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848–9) contains some archaic devices, such as the gilt and lettered halos, and an oddly-proportioned angel, but shows what Rossetti envisaged might have been the pictorial reality of the Virgin Mary during her youth. She works on embroidery with her mother, Saint Anne, while her father, Saint Joachim, prunes a vine.
Those details are shown quite realistically, as are the abundance of symbolic objects. The latter include palm fronds on the floor (the Passion), a thorny briar rose (Christ’s suffering and death), lilies (purity), books (labelled with faith, hope, charity, fortitude, etc.), a dove (the Holy Spirit, the Annunciation), red cloth (the Passion), crosses in trellis (crucifixion), and more.
Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) (1849–50) is as radical a reinterpretation of the traditional Annunciation painting, as The Girlhood of Mary Virgin was of the life of the Virgin. There are gilt halos again, amid very natural realistic depictions of the figures and objects.
Symbols shown include: white robes (purity), lily (purity, a traditional Annunciation symbol), a dove (the Holy Spirit), red embroidery (Christ’s crucifixion), blue curtain (heaven), and flames at the feet of the Angel Gabriel rather than traditional wings.
Both of these paintings match the profile of the strict Pre-Raphaelite.
Less than a decade later, though, Rossetti painted a work which was completely different in almost every respect from those early works: Bocca Baciata (1859).
Bocca Baciata, which means the mouth that has been kissed, is an unashamedly sensuous portrait of Rossetti’s mistress, Fanny Cornforth. It was accompanied by a line from Boccaccio’s Decameron, Bocca baciate non perda ventura, anzi rinova come fa la luna, which translates as
The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its promise, indeed it renews itself just as the moon does.
By modern standards, it may not appear particularly sensuous or shocking. At the time, her loose hair, unbuttoned garments, and the abundance of flowers and jewellery were seen as marks of the temptress. These are reinforced by the one obvious symbol: the apple, harking back to the Fall of Man. Staid viewers such as Holman Hunt were shocked, writing
It impresses me as very remarkable in power of execution – but still more remarkable for the gross sensuality of a revolting kind, peculiar to foreign prints
by which he referred to imported pornographic prints.
Fanny Cornforth appears again in The Blue Bower (1865), a step even further from the PRB. Her eyes now directed at the viewer, her hair is still loose and her clothing open and inviting. Her hands are idly caressing the strings of an instrument which is exotic and oriental: Rossetti probably did not know, but it is a Korean koto, and refers to another sense (hearing) and mode of art (music).
Cornforth is surrounded by passion flowers, the decorative blue background alluding to their heavy scent, and the sense of smell. The delicate light blue cornflowers in the foreground are probably just a visual pun on Fanny’s surname.
The Beloved (‘The Bride’) (1865–6) had been commissioned in 1863, but was not finished until early 1866. Originally intended to show Dante’s Beatrice, a favourite theme of Rossetti and others at the time, it came to be based on the Old Testament’s greatest love poetry, the Song of Solomon. Rossetti inscribed its frame with the quotations:
My beloved is mine and I am his. (Song of Solomon 2:16.)
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. (Song of Solomon 1:2.)
She shall be brought unto the King in raiment of needlework: the virgins her companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee. (Psalm 45 v 14.)
The bride in the centre, modelled on Marie Ford, wears an intricate leather headdress from Peru and a Japanese kimono, although the latter is wrapped around her in an idiosyncratic manner rather than being worn as the Japanese garment would have been. Her attendants crowd around her, making the composition very shallow, and adding exotic touches in their skin colours and appearance. Its symbols are few and simple: roses (love) being offered up by the boy in the front, and red lilies (passion, physical love).
Rossetti’s later Veronica Veronese (1872) returns to the musical theme of The Blue Bower. Commissioned by Frederick Leyland, a shipping magnate from Liverpool, it was destined for his collection of Rossetti’s images of women in the drawing room of his Kensington, London, residence.
Its title refers to the Venetian Master Veronese, who together with Titian was now a greater influence on Rossetti than those prior to Raphael. Rossetti also felt that the name sounded like some sort of musical genius. His model was the beautiful Alexa Wilding, who became Rossetti’s obsession after they met in 1868.
She sits, daydreaming languidly, her hands playing idly with a violin which hangs on the wall in front of her. She has been writing a musical score, which is under her right forearm. Although her body leans slightly forward, her head is tilted back, and her face turned. Behind her, a yellow canary is perched on the door of its cage and singing, its voice inspiring Veronica’s thoughts. The window behind is covered in thick dark green drapes, and Veronica wears a full dark green dress.
Aestheticism and the Aesthetic
Rossetti had changed his art, to the production of idealised sensual images of women, singly or in groups. These new paintings have elements of (weak) narrative, literary illustration, and portraiture, but do not fit any one of those genres.
The best fit for those works is that of the Aesthetic ‘movement’, or Aestheticism, which was developing during the 1860s. Among its architects was Walter Pater, who claimed that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”, in its abstraction, lack of narrative or ‘meaning’, and capability of generating powerful emotions in the listener.
Although some of his claim is debatable with respect to painting in general, and Rossetti’s later paintings in particular, it does fit well in many respects: allusions to non-visual sensation and other artistic modes/media, shallowness in reading and meaning, and overt sensuality, for instance. Failing to draw a distinction between Rossetti’s early PRB paintings and these later works would surely be a fairly gross error.
Barringer T (1998, 2012) Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, revised ed., Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 17733 6.
Prettejohn E (2007) Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 13549 7.