display | more...

The Rossettis were undoubtedly a fascinating, talented family, particularly the pair of painter-poet Dante Gabriel and his sister, the writer Christina. However, family relation doesn’t automatically mean that members will share in the same views, even when using similar subject matter. Both siblings were fascinated by fantasy and the Middle Ages, as is evidenced by their work, and both prominently featured women in their pieces. However, the paintings of Dante Rossetti—-like much of his Victorian brethren—-often show women as the typical Western dichotomy of Madonna-Whore; of these, the whore-—or to use a more appropriate, Victorian term, “fallen woman”—-is either depicted as in need of rescue by a man, or as a seductive temptress. In either case, the woman is the object of the gaze, but not principally an actor in her own right. The virginal role speaks for herself—-she is all that is good, and at that, her appearance in Dante Gabriel’s (or hereafter DGR for simplicity’s sake) work is limited. In contrast, Christina (hereafter CGR) poems often depicted women as both the victims of men and the avengers of those victims. If her poems depict fallen women, the woman is often saved not by men, but either by her own volition, or by the actions of a sympathetic woman—-not by a man, as opposed to the works of her brother. This is where the main argument between the siblings’ work lies—-who has wronged the fallen woman, and who is to be the one to raise her up again: men or women?

DGR was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an organization of artists who sought to make the staid world of the Royal Academy of Art obsolete, and infuse art with a new sense of realism and symbolism in opposition to the idealized images of Raphael. Most of all, though, the PRB sought to infuse their art with a fondness for medieval and British subject matter and a sense of spiritual love—-for William Holman Hunt, it was Christianity; for John Everett Millais it was Romanticism (and later, unfortunately, Sentimentalism); for DGR it was his models and his attraction to them, and his ability to make them into goddesses in his paintings. “{T}he aestheticism of Pre-Raphaeliteism, its concern with art and the idea of art, is generally subsumed in the image of the beloved. Lovely girls and their lovers are omnipresent, and this is agreeable. But there is one feeling—-seldom the province of painting anyway—-that is not expressed by any of these pictures, and that is joy. There is love, and sometimes delight, but never untempered happiness; and Pre-Raphaelite painting… {tells us} that beautiful things are fine, and we must be grateful for them, but life is still hard” (Hilton 209-210). In DGR’s paintings, the “hardness” of life lies in the “lovely girls” who exist as damsels in distress or object of desire which put men at risk.

CGR’s art-—writing, specifically poetry-—was also invested with a sense of love uninfused with happiness. While her poetry certainly is about love—-love of sisters, love of friends, love of a woman and man—-these are often painful relationships which are challenged in some way. Often it is an unfulfilled love, as well as love at odds with heaven or some kind of supernatural force, be it God or goblins. However, while the unhappiness of love in DGR’s paintings seem to relate to the attitude of the subjects who are fallen objects of devotion—-though in fallen, she is not without her glamour—-but not as principle players, in CGR’s poetry the unhappiness of love is instead caused by the actions of men, and not by the actions of women. The men are often predatory, lazy, or lost in their own sensuality, while the women often bear the consequences of this sensuality.

DGR is often said to have had two main periods in his painting: the first centered on active scenes and heavily symbolic; the second centered on portraits of women, often of mythological figures. Of the first category are his early paintings, such as The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, The Annunciation, Found, and his series dealing with Dante and Beatrice. The first two paintings give us the penultimate of virginal symbolism, the Virgin Mary herself, first at home with her family, and secondly in the presence of the angel Gabriel. Even here, though, she is not a Renaissance Madonna, but instead bears the early hallmarks of DGR’s "stunners"--the red hair, pale skin, thin body, and a rather annoyed or blasé expression on her face.

In the first painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Mary is at work on embroidering the image of a lily with her mother-—“{and} appears to have adopted Pre-Raphaelite principles in practicing the rare art of embroidery from life” (Rodgers 34). She sits surrounded by red cloth—-a typical Pre-Raphaelite symbol of passion, though here a religious passion-—and is marginalized to the edge of the canvas, staring not at her work but at a small, red-winged angel only she sees, who is attending to the lily in front of Mary. The Virgin is trapped in a crowded domestic scene, doing the same task that many of her Victorian sisters would be expected to do, though not necessarily the task that a first century Jewish girl might be expected to do; Mary Virgin here represents what a good Victorian daughter should be—-quiet, at home with the family, bent over her needlework, but still with a mind for religion, and her body pure.

Interestingly enough, CGR posed as a model for her brother in “The Annunciation,” in which a young Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, whose model is their brother and biographer William Rossetti. We see a rather stern young woman crouching on her bed, looking distrustfully at the angel who is invading her space, pointing a lily directly at her abdomen. This sense of space (or the lack thereof) is typical of Pre-Raphaelite art, reflecting the confined life of Victorian women; moreover, in Dante's later paintings, the painting confines the subject until she is practically the only thing that exists.

Similarly, the Beatrice paintings often feature a woman confined in some manner. Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies him her Salutation portrays the woman surrounded by other girls, and those girls surrounded by an even larger crowd of feasters. Like other DGR women, Beatrice is auburn haired, and looks disdainfully at Dante, who tries to approach her, but is instead only able to look on her.

The later Beata Beatrix—-which combines DGR’s twin obsessions of the time, the death of his wife and model Lizzie Siddal, and the medieval poet Dante Aligheri—-seems to mark the beginning of the change from DGR’s action-oriented paintings to the portraits of “stunners” he would later focus on. This change comes in the way that Beatrice takes up almost the entire picture, her face drawn into a type of ecstasy. However, it is worth noting that with this painting, DGR attempts to break out of his typical dichotomy of body-spirit found in the majority of his work. The white poppy is not only a symbol of death, but of the kind of death that Siddal suffered, an opiate overdose. She is dressed in green and red, the colors of passion and eternal life. The sundial represents fleeting time, much like the hourglass in the first painting did. The Angel of Love is dressed in red, though lacks the red wings, so typical of Pre-Raphaelite symbolism (and seen earlier in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin), and Dante is half hidden in the background of the right side. Siddal's face is an expression of ecstasy, both spiritual and sexual; finally, Rossetti was able to join the spiritual and physical loves in this painting. It wouldn’t last. The painting Found, while also featuring a woman confined in space-—here, between a man and a brick wall—-is also about the "fallen woman, {which} was becoming {an} increasingly popular {subject to paint} at this time” (Hilton 140). In it, we see a young woman who has fainted in the arms of a young man. The story behind the painting is that she is a young woman who has left her village for the city, only to become a prostitute. The man is her former “sweetheart,” who, seeing her, is trying to rescue her. She is red haired, pale skinned, typical of all Rossetti’s subjects—-though here she is turned away, which is at odds with his later sexualized subjects, who stare directly at the viewer.

Of these later subjects, I’ll mention but a few. Typically, the painting features a woman who takes up almost the entire canvas, the rest often being filled with fruits and flowers. She is either red haired or dark haired, with blue eyes that stare directly at the viewer, challenging him or her with the sense of self-possession. However, this self-possession comes at a price-—the titles of the paintings are often along the lines of Lady Lilith, Astarte Syriaca, and Helen of Troy. These women are no virgins, certainly—-they are the fallen woman in all her glory, an idealized portrait of the sexualize female, who exists only for her beauty and the ways to use her beauty.

A direct response to her brother’s art can be found in Christina Rossetti’s poem “In an Artist’s Studio,” which another brother, William Michael Rossetti, assures readers refers “apparently to our brother’s studio, and to his constantly repeated heads of the lady whom he afterwards married, Miss Siddal” (William Rossetti 1586). In this poem, we are given the description of the activity of painting, and of what she experienced as the typical masculine attitudes towards their subjects:

“One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans; {l.1-2}
* * *
He feeds upon her face day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him {l.9-10}
* * *
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream” {l.13-14}

If, as brother William says, the poem is about DGR and Lizzie Siddal, then the situation is complicated by the fact that the model is not only a model and thus an object, but also the lover and later wife of the artist. As such, she is still an object, even though she is now also an object of love, and not only an object, but made unreal in the artist’s mind-—“not as she is, but as she fills his dreams.” It is an argument against the idealization of the woman, not only in art, but in the relationship between the artist and model as lovers; this poem then doubles as an argument against the idealization of women by men, who see them not as they are, but as idealized angels of the house, who are too perfect to be considered real. Instead, the poem says, women ought to be seen as they truly are, not as they are idealized.

Typical of CGR’s better-known works are those which feature women who are beset with foolish or even dangerous men, who are victimized by men, as opposed to DGR’s representation of women as the tempters, seducing men and acting as victimizers. Again, like her brother, she dealt with medieval or fantastic subjects, particularly in poems like “A Royal Princess,” which details a young woman’s growing realization that a patriarchal system of monarchy is one which is unfair, and that her own father is to be held accountable. In response to the angry crowd, the princess takes action:

“With a ransom in my lap, a king’s ransom in my hand,
I will go down to this people, will stand face to face, will stand
Where they curse king, queen, and princess of this cursed land.

They shall take all to buy them bread, take all I have to give;
I, if I perish, perish; they today shall eat and live; {l.100-104}
* * *
The lesson I have learned, which is death, is life, to know.
I, if I perish, perish; in the name of God I go.” {l.107-8}

The poem ends with the implication that the princess will be murdered by an angry mob of peasants, but CGR makes it clear that this would have been avoided if the king had attended to his people’s needs. Like the later “Goblin Market,” we have an active protagonist who, seeing that evil has been done by men, takes it upon herself to right the wrongs—-here, the exploitation of the peasantry, who are in an armed revolt. Like other women protagonists—-particularly seen later in “Goblin Market,” there is a Christlike element, both in use of bread as symbol, and in the willing sacrifice of the self in the name that others might live.

Along the same lines—-though with less deadly consequences—is her poem “The Convent Threshold.” CGR wrote a number of poems on nuns-—“The Novice,” “Three Nuns,” “An ‘Immurata’ Sister,” and so on. The eldest Rossetti sister became an Anglican nun, and according William Rossetti, CGR was more than sympathetic in an age when the idea of a Protestant convent was met not only with disapproval but disgust (D’Amico 44). “However… one finds that it is not so much Roman Catholicism that is feared but the vow of celibacy,” as the Victorians held that the only “natural” choice for women is marriage, and that “{a} woman should only consider becoming a nun if she had not found a husband” (46). In contrast, CGR “is setting herself in opposition to those who would claim marriage to be the only noble choice for a woman… Rather becoming a nun represented a genuine choice a woman might make… At times, Rossetti’s depictions of the convent world suggests that women are actually safer inside such walls” (48-49).

The Convent Threshold” is a dramatic monologue, with one lover leaving the other for the life of a nun. Marsh notes that it is based on the life of medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise (442), yet even without this knowledge, we are given a portrait of a woman who sees her soul as more important than physical love and sensuality:

“You linger, yet the time is short:
Flee for your life, gird up your strength
To flee; the shadows stretched at length
Show that day wanes; that night draws nigh; {l.37-41}
* * *
If now you saw me you would say:
Where is the face I used to love?
And I would answer: Gone before;
It tarries veiled in paradise.” {l.136-140}

The unnamed novice understands that though love on earth is certainly strong, it is not the end-all and be-all of existence, and that love of God is more important, particularly when the earthly love in question is somehow tainted. Instead of writing a weak, passive protagonist, CGR gives us a powerful woman who is able to turn away from the notion that a woman is her body, and her role is wife and mother, and instead look towards spiritual fulfillment and salvation from the body.

Another example is the poem “The Prince’s Progress,” a combination of “Sleeping Beauty” and The Pilgrim’s Progress, without, however, a happy ending. “Indeed, in the 1875 edition, by positioning ‘The Prince’s Progress’ immediately after ‘Goblin Market,’ Rossetti underscores the prince’s spiritual failure. Reading ‘Prince’s Progress’ as a sequel to ‘Goblin Market,’ we see the prince as Lizzie’s opposite” (D’Amico 83). In CGR’s poem, the princess waits in sleep for the prince to arrive. However, the prince is too busy dallying with milkmaids, alchemists promising eternal life, and other distractions, to hurry on his way to his intended. When he arrives, she is dead, wasted away in waiting for him:

“To late for love, too late for joy,
Too late, too late!
You loitered on the road too long,
You trifled at the gate” {l.481-484}

As Jan Marsh says in her notes on the poem, the poem is about how “by delays and diversions the Prince neglects his immortal soul until it is too late, but {one can also read} the ‘subtext’ of Romantic love and procrastination which in the ostensible story also resonates in terms of the Victorian practice of delayed marriage” (444). For a society where marriage is all-important for women, to be left waiting until death is a fearful prospect. On the one hand, it writes against the libertine lifestyle of men, while women must wait at home; on the other, it argues that women should not simply wait for her prince to come, but instead to live her life, or else perish in an unhappy fairy tale.

The greatest example perhaps in the different treatments of women’s predicaments in Victorian society is in the contrast between CGR’s poem “Goblin Market” and DGR’s illustrations for the text. It has often been said that the goblins in question are men, and that the temptations and torments that the sisters undergo are sexual—-this can be inferred from the text:

“Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan…
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone. l.81-2, 85-6
* * *
She clipped a precious lock,
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red {l.126-129}
* * *
Sweeter than honey from the rock…
She never tasted such before…
She sucked until her lips were sore. {l.132-6}

From the imagery, which is accompanied by her descriptions of the fruit, we can see Laura as a type of fallen woman, for as the poem progresses, she is seen as physically and spiritually ill. Lizzie sacrifices herself to the goblins’ torments-—a metaphor which can work for both rape and for the Victorian concept of the contamination of “good” women by being in contact with “fallen” women-—and saves her sister. “{I}n the Lizzie and Laura relationship, Rossetti offers her audience two lessons pertaining to women and the life of the soul… First, through Lizzie, Rossetti indicates that the self-sacrificing love Victorian women were to embody should not be seen as angelic but Christlike; in other words, she indicates that women were capable of a higher level of spiritual existence and action than that of ministering angel in the house… {and} that a woman need not be a wife to fulfill that spiritual potential” (D’Amico 82-83). These were certainly subversive views for the era, and sadly, the sense of independence and power found in the character of Laura is lost in the illustrations provided by DGR.

DGR produced two works for the text: a front piece and an illustration, both in black and white. However, the effect of these pictures seems to work against the text, as is pointed out by Norton Topics Online: “Dante Gabriel Rossetti's illustrations to his sister Christina Rossetti's poem Goblin Market (1862) are particularly interesting in the way in which they interpret the poem's sensuality. The sisters in Rossetti's illustrations look more like his Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunners’ than girlish maidens” (para 1); the first is a fleshy woman devouring the deadly fruit while looked upon by the goblin men who have the faces of cats. The second has a homoerotic element, with two fleshy, barely-dressed women entwined in each other’s arms as they sleep. There is certainly an unfortunate conflict which arises from these illustrations—-while CGR wrote a poem which stands in defiance of sensuality (though paradoxically revels in sensuality through the precise description of Laura’s experiences in eating of the goblins’ fruit), the “girls” depicted by DGR are entirely sensual.

In 1853, Christina Rossetti wrote a poem about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood entitled exactly that—-“The P.R.B.”—-tracing the original movement’s rise and decline:

“The two Rossetties (brothers they)
And Holman Hunt and John Millais,
With Stephens chivalrous and bland,
And Woolner in a distant land,
In these six men I awestruck see
Embodied the great P.R.B.
* * *
The P.R.B. in its decadence…
So luscious fruit must fall when over ripe
And so the consummated P.R.B. {l.1-6, 13, 23-24}

The poem speaks that even as early as five years into the movement, these artists—-artists who were brothers and friends, and who she greatly admired--had grown weary and had sunk into complacency, allowing themselves to become part of the society they had at one time challenged. It is important to note that Christina, never marrying, never turning away from her craft, constantly strove to redefine herself against the demands of Victorian society that she become the silent wife and mother, and give up her quest to write strong women.

The art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti speaks to a sense of sensuality and beauty, but it also embodies the worst of Victorian misogyny, depicting women as either temptresses or virgins, but overall not as individuals, as people who are more than their bodies. In contrast, Christina Rossetti’s poetry is overflowing with strong, decisive women who are not afraid of taking an active role in their fate; when the refuse to do so, we are shown that she who waits for Prince Charming will wait forever. It’s strange yet fascinating to see how two siblings can come to such differing views on such a fundamental part of society—the role of women as either subject or object.

Works Sited

D’Amico, Diane. Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender, and Time. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

Hilton, Timothy. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1970.

Marsh, Jan. Endnote. Christina Rossetti: Poems and Prose. by Christina Rossetti. Rutland, VT: Everyman, 1994.

Norton Topics Online. W. W. Norton & Company. Last Modified: Monday, November 27, 2000. .

Rodgers, David. Rossetti. London: Phaidon, 1996.

Rossetti, Christina. Poems and Prose. ed. Jan Marsh. Rutland VT: Everyman, 1994.

Rossetti, Dante. The Annunciation. Tate Gallery, London.
---. Beata Beatrix. Tate Gallery, London.
---. Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies him her Salutation. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
---. Found. Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, Delaware Art Museum, Willington, DE.
---. The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Tate Gallery, London.

Rossetti, William. Footnote. “In an Artist’s Studio.” by Christina Rossetti. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume Two. ed. Stephen Greenblat. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. 1586.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.