Dante Gabriel Rossetti is famous for his impressive body of paintings depicting beautiful women. These pictures, though appreciated as very attractive, are often dismissed as pure studies of sensual beauty, devoid of any meaning or purpose beyond an aesthetic interest in producing viewing pleasure. William Holman Hunt, the great painter of religious Pre-Raphaelite scenes, once complained, "I see Rossetti as advocating as a principle the mere gratification of the eye if any passion at all — the animal passion to be the aim of art" (Barringer 149). It may be true that Rossetti's main interest was the replication of female beauty. One certainly senses in these careful, lovingly painted portraits and genre scenes that the artist took great pleasure in looking at pretty girls. However, a subset of Rossetti's painted beauties represents a slightly more complicated project. These works illustrate an effort at depicting the invisible and elusive world of the soul. In particular, I will argue that three Rossetti paintings contain pictures of dreams or visions. In these works, Rossetti experiments with ways of expressing these invisible or imaginary mental projections as part of a realistic Pre-Raphaelite scene.
Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
Consider Rossetti's painting Beata Beatrix. Begun in 1864 and completed in 1870, this image was deeply significant for the artist. It depicts Beatrice, Dante's fictional heroine, but the model in preliminary phases (pre-1864) was in fact Rossetti's wife Elizabeth (Wood 96). Lizzy, as she was known, died in 1862 from a laudanum overdose that may well have been a suicide (Barringer 145). In Beata Beatrix, the Beatrice figure sits before a low stone wall, her hands in her lap. Her face is turned upwards and her luminous hair forms a soft cloud around her head. The woman's eyes are closed and her lips have fallen slightly apart, exposing some of her teeth. In the foreground, a haloed bird swoops in to drop a poppy - symbol of death - into Beatrice's waiting hands. Beside her a sundial is illuminated. This picture might at first seem to be no more than a catalogue of symbols representing death and time and the shortness of life. However, the background adds more depth to the image and makes it a picture of a mental interior.
Behind Beatrice, separated from her by the stone barrier, a hazy dream-world exists, in which Dante and an allegory of Love look at each other across an indistinct cityscape of Florentine buildings (Wood 96). There is no question that this half of the picture represents a vision. Firstly, Beatrice's closed eyes and slack body indicate that she is in a state of trance. Secondly, a surreal glow and fuzziness pervades the entire scene and calls to mind the world of dreams and visions. This dreaminess is in sharp contrast with the crisp depictions of reality usually found in Pre-Raphaelite works. Thirdly, Rossetti himself writes of the intended meaning of the scene. He writes:
The picture must of course be viewed not as a representation of the incident of the death of Beatrice, but as an ideal of the subject, symbolized by a trance. . . Beatrice is rapt visibly into Heaven, seeing it as it were through her shut lids (Barringer 146).
Rossetti clearly states his intent: to depict the inner workings of Beatrice's mind (her trance-vision) on the canvas behind her. In this image, closed eyes signify the painting's focus on interiority and vision. In other pictures, a slightly different approach is taken.
Helen of Troy by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
Rossetti's 1863 work Helen of Troy can be read similarly to Beata Beatrix, though the artist does not make his intentions explicit in this slightly earlier work. The picture, which is a companion to the artist's poem, "Troy Town," depicts a stunning woman shown in three-quarter length. Her sumptuous robes and long flowing hair are painted in rich and fiery tones; they seem almost to glow. A typical Rossettian type, Helen has pale skin, full red lips, and big, expressive eyes. These eyes are perhaps the most important element of the woman's face, at least in the context of this essay. They gaze into the distance but seem almost blind, signifying that the woman's focus is directed inward. Thus, Helen of Troy can be read as a portrait of self-contemplation and an exploration of interiority.
Rossetti does not simply paint a contemplative face; he attempts something much more elaborate, and more in line with the themes of Beata Beatrix. Several subtle and less subtle clues in the painting attempt to explain just what Helen is thinking about. Firstly, her hands are clasped around a pendant decorated with a fire emblem. One finger seems to both caress this ornament and to point to it, emphasizing its importance. Secondly, the space behind the figure of Helen is filled with a hazy representation of burning rooftops and spires. One might propose that this is meant literally, indicating that Helen stands with her back to the burning city. oHHowever, the indistinctness of the background seems to indicate that it is not meant as a literal landscape but rather as a type of dreamscape. The chaos of the flames and the edges of Helen's hair and body are not well defined; the entire canvas is united by similar tones. The fiery vision and the woman are inexorable connected, as though the vision is not behind her but rather an extension of her.
Several aspects of the composition support a reading that the fires exist only in Helen's mind. Evidence has been provided, in the form of the pendant, with which Helen toys. She is holding an image of fire to signal her thoughts of fire and, presumably, of the burning of Troy. If she is aware enough of the conflagration to think of it, than she likely has not turned her back on real flames. She would hardly appear so calm and detached. The calm atmosphere of reverie that pervades this image lends credence to the idea that the flames behind Helen are meant to show a vision or dream. Rossetti has painted a woman who is lost in thought, and has attempted to depict the content of those thoughts behind her. The apocalyptic hallucination could be read either as a premonition of what is to come or a regretful memory of the horrors of the past.
The Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
Yet another Rossettian painting of a woman depicts the process of envisioning and imagining: The Blessed Damozel. This painting illustrates Rossetti's poem of the same name, which is a rather nuanced dramatic monologue in which a narrator imagines his dead lover pining for him from heaven. The painting represents a less complicated situation. Rossetti focuses on depicting the act of imagining. His Damozel leans against a golden barrier that represents the edge of heaven. She displays the usual Rossettian characteristics of flowing hair, strong chin, and bowed red lips. The woman toys idly with her a flower while staring off into space, head tilted to one side. She seems unaware of her surroundings; her unfocused gaze indicates that her mind is concentrated on something internal. A separate bottom panel accompanies the painting. It contains a picture of the Damozel's earthly lover, a young man shown with hands clasped over his head in a position of prayer or supplication.
In this image, the idea of envisaging is quite explicit. The text of Rossetti's accompanying poem explains where the Damozel's thoughts lie. The poem directly describes the process of imagining her lover. She speaks often of her former partner, exclaiming, for example, "'I wish that he were come to me" (Rossetti). The panel containing the man on earth, interpreted through the lens of the poem, becomes a visual manifestation of these thoughts and longings. This "vision" section of the painting is separated not only by a brick wall or misty area but by a physical break in the canvas. It is clear that this part of the image is in another dimension than the main scene in Heaven - the dimension of feminine interiority.
These three images could be categorized as pictures of women having visions and pictures of women lost in dreams. While they appear static and decorative, they do attempt a goal. Rossetti is in each case experimenting with modes of depicting the inner worlds of women. He realistically depicts their dream-images around them, finding different ways to pictorially signify the difference between the visionary sections and the portraits. These scenes contain tension caused by the creation (or blurring) of boundaries and distinctions between subjective dreams and objective realities. In Beata Beatrix, a stone wall serves as the barrier between the real world and of Beatrice and the imaginary or dream-like view of Dante's Heaven. The spiritual realm is painted more hazily than the rest of the canvas, further emphasizing difference. In Helen of Troy, a similar technique is used, in which the vision-portion of the painting is indistinct and hardly defined. However, in this earlier work, no concrete division exists between the figure and the fantastic realm behind her. The Blessed Damozel contains the most firm and clear division of woman and vision. In this scene, the subject of the Damozel's daydream is presented on a predella panel that is physically separate from the main canvas. Each technique is effective in its own way, and the finished pictures are all compelling portraits of female beauty and of female visions.
Picturing the life of the mind: Pre-Raphaelite Preoccupation with Interiority
- Woman as metaphor for the artistic spirit in Tennyson
- Domestic interiors as extensions of the feminine soul
Barringer, Tim. Reading the Pre-Raphaelites. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Seven Dials, 2000.
Last modified 27 June 2020