Friday in the atelier: “Proserpin” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Today I'm showing the painting “Proserpin”, painted by Dante Rossetti at the age of 46; only 8 years before he died of drug and alcohol addiction and depression. The model for this painting is an idealized Jane Morris.

Although many of Rossetti's paintings are too Medieval for my tastes, his later paintings with Jane Morris as a model attract me because of the resemblance (perhaps only to me?) to a young Sean Young. (I was infatuated with Young when she played Rachel in the movie “Blade Runner”.)

I think another example of this can be shown in the second image I display, a cropped detail of the painting “La Bella Mano” (aka “The Beautiful Hand”). However, I think the red-headed lady in the painting “The Bower Meadow” is of a different model. Very attractive, and very well executed. I've cropped that painting to display what I'm talking about.

All of Rossetti's paintings are rich with detail and color, and the way he paints eyes and mouths fascinates me. However, his paintings, at least to my eyes, seem too posed, and a bit too stiff. I want to see these people in fluid motion, interacting with their world and with me.

As always, click on the painting to see it in full.

I was led to investigate Rossetti from a brief mention on Yuqi Wang's website. Rossetti was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement.


The Pre-Raphaelite Movement was founded upon the premise that creativity in Academic Art was stifled by the influence of classical poses and compositions that were favored by the painter Raphael. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood believed that Academic painters who followed Raphael's influence became sloppy, and the paintings followed a sort of formula where details were lost.

At the beginning of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, the art seemed to follow more medieval compositions, with a close attention to detail. The artists of this movement began to split a little, with some concentrating on more natural poses, and others – Rossetti included – becoming more medieval in flavor.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was known as Gabriel to his friends, but signed his works as Dante Gabriel. He is a very tragic figure in the art world – the original “tortured artist” type who was a poet and a painter. The loss of his wife and stillborn child were the start of his slow decline.

Rossetti studied drawing from the age of 13 to 17 at Henry Sass's Drawing Academy in London England. By the age of 18 he had enrolled in the Royal Academy of Arts in London, but did not complete his education there. At the age of 20 he left the Royal Academy and studied under the artist Ford Madox Brown, with whom he developed a life-long friendship. In 1848, London painter William Holman Hunt completed the painting “The Eve of St. Agnes” which drew Rossetti's attention. Due to the subject of the painting, Rossetti realized that Hunt shared his literary and artistic ideals, and so Rossetti sought Hunt's friendship. Together they were the driving force behind the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Rossetti met his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, when he was approximately 25-26 years old. They became lovers, but their relationship was strained. She came from a lower class family, and Rossetti feared to introduce her to his parents. His sisters were also critical of her. But Elizabeth was seen by Rossetti and others in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as the embodiment of their ideals of feminine beauty. She posed not only for Rossetti, but for all in the Brotherhood. She was the model for “Ophelia” painted by John Everett Millais in 1852.

Rossetti drew sketches of Elizabeth almost incessantly. But the barrier of class between them messed with Elizabeth's self-esteem, and her (not unreasonable) belief that Rossetti would replace her with a younger model depressed her and contributed to her illness and drug addiction. After several engagements that were broken off at the last minute, Rossetti finally married Elizabeth. Their first child, a daughter, was stillborn. Shortly after becoming pregnant for a second time Elizabeth overdosed on Laudanum, (a tincture of Opium that was used to treat Elizabeth's illness) to which she'd become addicted.

When Elizabeth died, Rossetti was overcome with grief. During their life together Rossetti had composed a book of poetry of their life. At her burial, Rossetti placed the journal containing the only copy of those poems with his wife in her coffin.

After her death, at the age of 41, Rossetti had become severely addicted to Chloral (a sedative and hypnotic that is more notoriously known as “knockout drops”). He wrote a second volume of poetry about Elizabeth, and at the urging of his friends he had Elizabeth's body exhumed so that the first journal could be retrieved. He published “Poems by D. G. Rossetti”, containing the bulk of his poetry in 1870. Critics viciously attacked his poetry for being too sensual and erotic. Rossetti's second book of poetry, “Ballads and sonnets” was also critically panned.

Rossetti never recovered from Elizabeth's death. There is a possibility that she intentionally committed suicide – if so then Rossetti hid it so that she could have a Christian burial. Perhaps this together with his guilt over her exhumation greatly contributed to his drug and alcohol addiction and depression.

The last twenty years of Rossetti's life were a slow spiral downward. He checked out of society and his addictions became increasingly worse. He continued to paint for a decade and became obsessed with Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris. He used Jane as a model for many idealized paintings of a lone women in luxurious surroundings.

By the late 1870's, Rossetti drove away Jane as he started losing his sanity. He was reclusive, but he still continued to paint as he health and sanity fell apart. He did finally travel to a seaside resort in Northern England in order to recover his health, but it was not enough. The histories I've read seem to disagree on his place of death, either at the seaside resort Birchington-on-Sea, or at his home in London. In either case, he is buried at Birchington-on-Sea.

Even as his health declined and his mind slipped, his paintings were still incredible. Perhaps their composition suffered, but their detail did not.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. I wish, though, you'd use some of that critical thinking of yours to debunk contemporary art. Last week, the Whitney was reviewed by the New York Times. Not only is the Emperor naked, but he parades around to much approbation in our institutions. Art, today, is a religion. It has faith in blank canvases, nonsensical installations and polka-dots.

Calladus said...

Thanks anon - I do address the nude Emperor in my What is Art? series of blog entries.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I don't know what will change the art world. It seems more irrational than any other profession. Once loved and admired for their ingenuity and skill, many famous artists are hard to distinguish from palm readers, faith healers and mystics...or just plain con artists.

Scientiae said...

Greetings- I'm just now catching up on reading, and the word "Proserpine" leaped out at me from Reader. She's one of my favorite paintings of all time- I love the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and Rossetti is my favorite. His "Proserpine" is a different slant on a myth that embodies one of the most paradoxical relationships in the Greek pantheon- the marriage of Spring to the King of the Underworld, the intimacy of new life and death- and her fathomless gaze and languid, yet reserved, sensuality show in every lush curve of lip and ripple of hair. Looking at the painting (during a traveling Pre-Raphaelite exhibition) took nearly all my time- Rossetti's goddess meets your eyes from more than one angle. The jeweltoned canvas shimmers with the artist's nuanced worship of her.

On the mysticism of modern art- Art has always worshipped (so to speak) at the altar of the irrational- there is certainly art based on strictly rational thought and skill, but the artists we most venerate tend to be those who have married emotion and skill with the most virtuosity (Bach, Michelangelo, Van Gogh)... Art- visual or otherwise- IS the most irrational of all the professions, because to be an artist is to spend huge amounts of time and effort on your art because you believe in the validity and insight of what you produce, in the absence of any objective confirmation of its worth. Affirmation comes later, if at all.

And famous artists weren't just loved and admired for their ingenuity and skill- many of the greatest geniuses in Western art were criticized for irrationality (Dali), contravention of known norms and forms (Klimt, Monet), as well as the omnipresent specter of "immorality" as a general tag for artists everywhere. When you explore the boundaries of the possible- which is an artist's job, as well as a scientist's- some of the things you produce will be worthless, and quite a lot of it will look insane until the rest of the world catches up to the expanding boundaries- Frank Gehry, Rene Magritte, and plenty of string theorists will tell you the same.

Wow- I didn't mean for this exposition to be quite so lengthy. Sorry, Cal. If you don't want to post it in your comments section shoot me an email and let me know, and I'll revise it and post it on my blog. -S.

Calladus said...

Scientiae, of course I'll let this post go though!

I do agree with the importance of emotion, and even with irrationality in art. But I think that there is a class of person who claims to be an artist when in fact they have found a way to scam the art world. Jackson Pollock would be an example of this.

I also think there is a class of person who does have artistic skill, but finds out that dreadful art that is quickly painted sells just as well as excellent, skilled art that requires time to paint perfectly. Picasso is a good example of this - he was in the enviable position of being a known artist who became rich from being a known artist. He was famous for being famous, and no matter how quickly he slapped paint to canvas he could always sell the result. I think of him as the "Paris Hilton" of the art world.

I talk about others in my "What is art?" series of entries - and I point out that sometimes it's hard to tell an idiot or a scam from genius.

Scientiae said...

I can't stand Pollack, but I don't know enough to know whether or not he was an accomplished scam artist or someone with so much conviction in his self-delusion that he managed to delude others. It isn't that his art is "nonrepresentational"- it's that it's a bloody mess, and it's not a mess made to comment on mess or order or color paint as a medium or anything else- it's a mess made for the hell of it. (I do that too- I just don't call it art.)

Picasso is one of the artists whose earlier period I like better than his late- though the concepts of Cubism, particularly its destruction of perspective, are important not just to the art world but to the philosophy of the time (little as I like it). He was indeed genuinely talented, but I think you're right insofar as saying he was more interested in "being an artist" for the last half of his life than he was in producing art. (I do enjoy his pronouncements on art and life, though. Just because he was self-important doesn't mean he didn't have insight.) He's always reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald in that way.

I wouldn't compare him to Paris Hilton, though- she's actively making the world a worse place, as opposed to being lazy about using innate gifts to make it better. There's also the small matter of talent, ability, and brains, whether fully used or not- Picasso literally had more in his left hand than she has in her idle, vapid, petty, vain, useless, trifling, narcissistic, egomaniacal life. And yes, I'm including her friends and associates in that.

Anonymous said...

Here is a prime example of the dim-witted art critic.

Jerry Saltz.

"I saw a lot of good performances, among others, the legendary "loser" Michael Smith in which he dressed in a baby diaper and interacted with audience members, Gang Gang Dance playing a twenty-minute set of tribalistic trance music from behind a huge mirror, Steven Prina singing earnest love songs while wearing red plaid pants, and best of all, Marina Rosenfeld’s Teenage Lontano, in which she had 40 teenagers from New York public schools stand in a long line as they sang the vocal section of György Ligeti’s 1967 >Lontano, a piece of modernist music from the 2001: A Space Odyssey era. Watching this piece, I felt the opening of a portal between a failed utopian past and the possibility that the more real present is already something to love. I was transported."

The whole technique vs. inspiration debate represents a false dichotomy. Moreover, whether or not Picasso was trained makes little difference. Its how he painted. Trained or not, anyone can make a mess, deliberate or not. One can easily distinguish sophistated invention from destruction.

What becomes irrational is when someone looks at a painting and ignores what the painting is about, what it actually represents. In the case of Pollock, dribbles of paint. Instead, they overly divine meaning. Its much like those who suffer from apophenia. Its much worse when this neurosis is celebrated in academia. I see no difference between those who see an image of Jesus in a burnt piece of toast and those who see the art god in a Donald Judd.

Scientiae said...

That sort of art 'criticism' (?) is a bit more, erm, esoteric than I can relate to. On the other hand, I looked Saltz up and he's been nominated for several Pulitzers for criticism. Whether or not I like his personal style, apparently he practices to a high standard of his profession.

I'm not certain if the "technique vs. inspiration" comment was meant to address something I said, but I never in fact brought up that debate. I find it irrelevant. "Art" is one of the most- if not the most- subjective term(s) in the English language. Therefore technique and inspiration are things which are defined differently in different eras- just like 'art'. What Munch, Rossetti, and Toulouse-Lautrec called "technique" varied widely.

Nor did I bring up Picasso's training- merely stated that I enjoyed his earlier periods better than his late, and that I thought he was genuinely talented. Formal training may be the norm amongst prominent artists- for many reasons- but it is by no means the only path to mastery of one's art (Henri Rousseau, Frida Kahlo, and Georg Telemann being examples).

"One" may easily distinguish what one likes- if what one likes is "sophisticated invention", then one will gravitate towards pieces which fit those personal criteria. If you subscribe to the formal schools of mastery and admire specific form and content, then you will appreciate art in those traditions. If you do not- well, then your tastes are probably considered "fringe" and you will see art where others see only a mess. This includes people who like Jackson Pollack.

Sneering at those people's taste may be satisfying, but declaring emphatically that you and you alone have the truth of the identity of art as opposed to messmaking is an assertion which will not bear close scrutiny.

As to the irrationality of ignoring the form of a painting- well, that may be true. A person's response to art is, however, so personal and subjective- and many times emotional and inherently irrational- that it is nearly impossible to define what someone "should" see when they look at a painting, representational or not. "Proserpine" could represent any emotional response from academic fascination with the bride of the King of Hell to heartbreak because her eyes are the precise shade of one's lost love. Once again, making oneself the arbiter of what is the "appropriate" response to art is not a position which will weather close examination or criticism.

Your opinions are entertaining, Anon (and if you are indeed the same person all through, why not pay attention to Cal's posting guidelines and give yourself a name?), and even seem to be somewhat close to my own tastes in art. Presenting your opinions as universal truths of what art should be, however, is an attitude that ignores others' tastes, ideas, and individuality- and their right to those things, even if they conflict with your own or irritate you.

Anonymous said...

I feel everyone has a right to their taste, as long as its harmless. But saying that all taste is equal, is like saying that all religions of merit. Some of the tenets of fringe religions are unacceptable. Some art undermines culture and reason.

Religion and contemporary both prostletize. The art museum wishes to enthrall the unwashed masses with installations and other obtuse and puerile creations. In its mind, its a matter of education that Cy Twombly is seen as a great masterwork rather than a series of doodles. Or, that Damien Hirst's polka-dots are really not a tablecloth.

I don't see this as a taste issue. One can have a broad range of likes and still require a reasonable amount of skill, wish that art be extraordinary, outside the ken, instead of indistinguishable from offal.

If the same skeptical thinking were applied to the art world that is applied to religion, the art world would be very different. Museums would be accountable for what they show, which they are not today. We wouldn't see blank canvases, dead animals, polka-dots and feces. Instead, we would see vibrant, informed and mature creations.