[L., L.] "The Two Pre-Raphaelitisms: Article Fourth." Crayon 4 (Oct. 1857), 298-302.

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It will be seen from what we have already said that Rossetti has frequently found subjects of the most exquisite description, as respects psychological value, in the works of Dante. Here is one relating to the life of the poet himself, and one so altogether excellent that it is surprising it has never been painted before. It is entitled "Giotto Painting Dante’s Portrait," or sometimes "Dante’s Youth." It is known that the only portrait in existence of the great author of "Il divina Commedia" is one painted in a fresco in a Florentine church, by the artist just named. This was discovered some years ago by an English artist named Kirkup, then in good preservation, but we hear with shame that through the clumsiness of an ignorant restorer that it is now irreparably injured. Upon a scaffold platform sit Dante and Giotto, the former peeling a pomegranate (the existing portrait shows him with one of these fruit in his hand, and most appropriately it has become to be considered as an emblem of him, for it bears an occult and typical inference to Dante in his function as poet, by its mystically religious allusions). Giotto holds a long painting brush, and has just drawn in the head, and we see he now prepares to paint it: looking over his shoulder, with nervous eagerness, is Cimabue; and by the side of Dante his beloved friend Guido Cavalcanti, an Italian poet, who is supposed to have been just reading aloud some passages from the poems of another Guido, Guido Guinicelli, also a poet: there is an allusion in this to a passage of Dante’s writing, wherein he says that the former Guido shall surpass the latter as a poet, and be himself surpassed by a third Guido (by which it is supposed he meant himself). Cimabue has that delicate, over-excitable, worn face which his portraits show; he is looking upon the work of Giotto, his pupil, who has surpassed him, and taken altogether the place in the world which be considered to belong to himself; all the feelings of perceiving this are indicated by his expression and attitude: the nervous, self-wearing mind, one of those who offered only the greatest of things to God as his act of life; not like Giotto, who perceived that little things have of themselves as potent a value as the great and high; the keenly sensitive, irritable face, worn, as we have said, by the ceaseless action of the mind is there, and at the moment the knowledge of the loss of crown, and empire, and fame in Art is visibly rising in his mind. Before him, too, sits the man, though unknown of him, who writes his sentence thus–

"In painting Cimabue fancied he

Possessed the vaunt: now Giotto has the cry,

So that the other’s fame is grown obscured;

And so one Guido from the other ’reft

Glory in language; and he is born, perhaps,

Who one and both from out the nest will chase."

[The latter portion of this refers to what we have already stated of Dante’s productions respecting Guido Cavalcanti and Guido Guinicelli.] [author’s brackets]

Cimabue wears the blue flowered dress, and tasselled hood, just drawn over the head, which we see in his portraits. Giotto sits a man in perfect contrast to his rival: tall, large-shouldered, and full of the repose of power, the passive content of a great will, and a heart at rest from the very strength of its own purpose; a mighty reserve, and great dominant self-control are perceivable in the placing of every limb, and in the great, strong, set features; over his face is an expression of thoughtful mastery as he takes the work in hand, and we think there is a faint light of humor in it at the knowledge of the man’s thoughts who stands behind him. Between Giotto and Dante comes the picture upon the wall. Dante has his knees crossed, knife and fruit in hand, and appears to have been chatting easily with his companions; his face is as the portrait is, scornfully delicate and keen, and with the threat of sorrow upon it; the remarkable half-feminine cast of beauty, which his youth bore, mingles with some of that severe, stern character of haughty purity, which (we know this is a conceit) the Greeks sought to express in the face of the three-fold Queen, Artemis. Guido Cavalcanti leans his elbow upon the back of Dante’s chair, waiting an opportunity to recommence reading.

This picture was one of the first of the works in water-colors which Rossetti executed, and has much of the depth and power of oil; he had obviously hardly mastered the new material, so as to produce the effects proper to it, still less that dominance which our remarks have stated he afterwards attained. We say this not in depreciation of the picture, for it is as perfect a work as the others, but not so much a water-color.

We have now to describe two other subjects relating to the life of Dante, they have a connexion as both referring to the death of Beatrice, and the one being an illustration of what took place on the anniversary day of the other, there being precisely a year between both incidents. It must be premised that Dante has left to us a series of poems referring to the events of his own early life, (such as Shakspeare’s Sonnets are maintained to do), and particularly to his love for Beatrice. This is known as the "Vita Nuova," already referred to herein. One of these poems relates a dream of his, in which he saw Beatrice lying dead; Love conducts him into the chamber where, in a recess, colored to a type of heaven, with purple and gold, and with pale, crossed hands on her pure breast, lies the beloved of Dante, her long, pale-golden hair, by the side of her pure pale face, dead as she lies in a holy death; this face is nobly intellectual and very sculpturesque in the clearness of its forms. This is the poem which furnishes the subject:

"Then Love said, ‘Now all things shall be made clear;

Come and behold our lady where she lies!’

These idle fantasies

Then carried me to see my lady dead.

And when I entered,

Ladies I saw with a veil covering her;

And with her was such very humbleness,

That she appeared to say, ‘I am at peace.’"

At head and foot of the dead stands a lady sustaining the ends of a sheet, raised for Dante’s view, within the hollow of which lie flowers of the symbolic May. Dante stands gazing, with a submissive face and attitude, in which is the half listlessness of all conquering grief. Love, who has Dante by the hand, stoops over the death couch of Beatrice, kissing her a farewell. This is not the baby Eros, or the elegant youth of Praxiteles, the beautiful Cupid of the Greeks, but something elfish and fantastic, and his bow and arrows are no toy weapons of the son of Venus, but the dire inflictors of Dante’s trouble and bitterness, a heavy bow and long arrows; so that we see that out of love itself came a trial and a foundation of deep suffering; but if fantastic he is not less beautiful, though dreadfully so; his robe is not of sunny light, but of blue, burning with interior fire, and irridescent [sic] to green, and he has long wings flashing scarlet and crimson from shoulder to heel.

Dante's dress is black-purple, over an inner garment of crimson, and falls in severe forms with scarcely a fold, a point of expressiveness which is sustained by his face, where is half-scornful grief, in the fine long-drawn lines of his mouth and eyes eloquent with the inner trouble; and yet, over all, tenderness and pity, and a deep heart, blood-full, so to speak, like the blood-scarlet of his inner robe.

The ladies who sustain the white pall of linen are most lovely, the one dark and the other fair; there is a griefful [sic] repose about them, with an earnestness of sorrow which has no tears; their office is the office of reverence, and they pay it with solemn grace: the light is softened upon them as they stand; one in a dress of green over purple; the other, green also, but cooler; and just at her feet is indicated another dress of tawny color.

There are poppies strewed on the floor to indicate that the subject is a dream, and the alcove being raised a step from the ground, suggests that Beatrice has attained a higher world; behind the couch are three windows, two triangular, and a central one a circle, through which we see a blooming orange tree, loaded with fruit. Above all, the sky, with angels accompanying the soul of Beatrice.

In a former paper of this series we said that it was never our intention to dwell upon the subtleties of expression, design, or color, partly because, however useful such remarks might be with the picture lying before us, they would be almost incomprehensible without reference to it, partly because it is impossible to describe color in words, or even form, and in respect to the design, we have rather endeavored to hint than point out its qualities, preferring to dwell upon those points which indicate the motive of a picture, its soul, so to speak, than to descant upon the body or its lineaments.

The companion picture to that we have just described, illustrates another passage from the "Vita Nuova," occurring, as we have said, precisely one twelvemonth from the preceding: Beatrice is really dead, and Dante, in the vacancy of sorrow, is seen, in the silence of his study, drawing a face to resemble hers; to him enter "certain gentlemen of importance," visitors who distress him with their well meant courtesies, he is kneeling by the window at his task, and has just perceived the intruders, and turns round half in bitterness to receive them. There is not the same quality of mysterious splendor about this work as is in the other, but not less design or less perfect color; the expressions are equally just, and it is an example of different treatment to its companion, which it enhances as showing that extreme spirituality and subtle human character may be both in the scope of the same mind.

One of the most beautiful of Rossetti’s drawings of the romantic or chivalric class, is now lying before us as we write. The subject is as follows : In the old legends relating to King Arthur, it is stated that after the death of the king, Sir Lancelot, who had been upon a journey, comes suddenly upon the tomb of a king, over which lies weeping a lady of great beauty, dressed in a nun’s robe; the good knight dismounts from his horse, and approaches to inquire the cause of the lady’s trouble; he does not recognize her at first to be Ginevra, his mistress and the wife of Arthur, until, ceasing from her weeping, she looks up; the knight, who was burning with love for her, as he had been through his life at Camelot, is overjoyed to meet her again, and entreats for an embrace and renewal of their old intimacy; but Ginevra has seen a vision and repents of her sin under the threats of eternal hell; she therefore refuses him, and upon his urgency asserts her repentance and horror of the crime; he beseeches for a last kiss even in last farewell; this she will not grant, and in the words of the glorious poem, by William Morris, addresses him thus:

"Yea verily,

Across my husband’s head, fair Lancelot,–

Fair serpent marked with V upon the head;

This thing we did, while yet he was alive, why not,

O long lithe twisting knight, now he is dead?

"Yea, shake, shake now, and shiver if you can

Remember anything for your great agony.

Pray you remember how when the wind arose,

One cool spring evening through fair aspen trees.

"And elm and oak about the palace there,

The king came back from battle, and I stood,

To meet him with my ladies on the stair,

My face made beautiful with my young blood.

* * * * *

"Lancelot, Lancelot, why did he take your hand,

When he had kissed me in his kingly way,

Saying this is the knight whom all the land

Called Arthur’s banner, sword, and shield."

Ginevra persists in her declaration of repentance, and exhorts him to do likewise; the story goes on to say that Lancelot was so moved by the earnestness and, moreover, by his love for her, that he became a priest, and served at the tomb of the king he had so injured for the rest of his life. He then became as good a monk as he had been loyal and valiant knight.

It is needless to remark upon the exquisite simplicity of this poem, or the vein of human feeling and deep poetry it contains.

Rossetti’s drawing shows Lancelot just after his fruitless solicitations, begging for the final embrace. The tomb of the old earth-worn and war-worn king, lies in the broad sunlight, the effigy with pointed feet, and hands upon his breast. Over this the richly laden branches of an apple tree, whose shadows fall upon the heads of Lancelot and Ginevra. The queen kneels upon the step of the tomb, with one hand repulsing the knight, who stoops over the head of the effigy, with his lips approaching to hers. Sir Lancelot has his great war shield upon his back, the apex of which stands out behind him as he stoops; he is in mail, brilliant and strong in the sunlight, with one hand he clutches the edge of the tomb, and while he approaches his face to hers, with its crine of heaped hair, we cannot fail to recognize the chief of all the champions of the Saint Graal, and he for whose love died the Lady of Shalot [sic].

The dress of the queen is black, with a golden girdle, upon her head a golden crown, from under which a long white over robe falls downward and out beyond her kneeling feet. Her face is severely beautiful and pure. By the side of the tomb which we see is painted the ceremony of making a knight, and the appearance of the Saint Graal to the Knights of the Round Table. We have said that the effect is sunlight, and we wish we could describe how beautifully this is suggested, how almost opalescent the shadows are lying over the face of the queen and over the effigy. The mail of Lancelot contains hundreds of little lights and shadows of rich colors, and pure green reflections from the trees; it fairly sparkles in the picture. The Destrier in the background is a sorry animal, but we believe the tale warrants this. There is a most fascinating quality of color about the whole picture; the great blue shadows which fill the boughs of the apple trees, and the flickering sunlight about the heads of Ginevra and the knight, and the king’s tomb, are most absolutely beautiful; it is a picture one would never tire of looking at. This drawing is the property of Mr. Ruskin.

We shall conclude these remarks upon Rossetti’s works by describing one of his numerous pen-and-ink designs, executed some years ago. The subject is from Taylor’s admirable drama of "Phillip Van Artevelde," from the song which Elena sings:

"Quoth tongue of neither maid nor wife,

To heart of neither wife nor maid–

Lead we not here a jolly life,

Betwixt the shine and shade?

Quoth heart of [neither] maid nor wife,

To tongue of neither wife nor maid–

Thou wag’st, but I am worn with strife,

And feel like flowers that fade."

Here is an admirable "modern instance," a subject of the subjects, one applicable to all time, and full of the deepest interest and most sorrowful value. We shall describe it at length. In a tent, full of the black shadows of artificial light, are five figures–two gamblers ("riotours" of Chaucer); their mistresses, two lost women; and a girl, a musician. Between the openings of the valves of the tent, drawn aside for air, we see the margin of a forest, with darkness of night among the bases of the trees, while over their tops is the first faint glimmer of morning;–we said that the tent was open for air, for by the eyes of the men we see that the fierce game has been going on since the setting of the sun, and that they are excited by the passion of the chances and the heat of the light; they cast the dice upon a stool for [a] gambling-table, and each has a dice-box in his hand; one has thrown himself upon his knees, waiting the casting of the other, which appears to be the great climax of the game; he has crossed one foot over the heel of the other as he kneels with nervous force, and placing his right arm, rigidly clutching the dice-box, upon the stool, rests the other upon the lap of the woman, having one of her hands in his disengaged one, passes her finger between his dry and gratish lips; there is a feverish gloat about the man which is sickeningly grotesque; his heavy eyes, with their great upper lids, are bleared and sunk; his face is angular; the forehead retreating till verged in the skull’s flat top, with its broad occiput, gives a look of satiric vileness very remarkable; his dress is a short tunic of dark cloth, buskins buttoned to the midleg over leggings of a lighter color; this tunic, or rather surcoat, ceases at the shoulder, from under which issues the sleeves of another garment, which is stiff with embroidery, reaching barely to the wrist; upon this sleeve the embroidery is several geese pecking at a rose-branch. His antagonist is a younger man, taller, darker, with a long face and straight forehead, not without a certain beauty, a far superior man to the other, which his apparel as well as his face shows; he also wears a surcoat, open at the shoulder; has long hose, with shoes fastened at the instep; his rich full sleeves, which are of velvet, are secured at the wrist, falling freely over the arms; the device thereupon is of peacocks displayed; he has a heavy chain about his neck, and by his side a long stiletto, the point of which crosses most significantly over the mouth of a closed purse which hangs from his girdle; he sits upon the end of a couch which is drawn behind his companions, stoops forward, with his dice-box in the right hand, while with the other he holds back the fullness of his sleeve to have freedom for the hand; he sits cross-legged, with his knees close by the side of the stool. Leaning over the back of this couch, so that we see only the upper part of her figure, is his mistress, singing the words of the motto; her hair loosened down over her shoulders, and a heavy bracelet upon her bare arms, which are round his neck; her face is bold and audacious, though with some beauty–she has twined vine-branches about his head. But the gem and centre of all the design is the mistress of the first gambler, who sits upon the couch close behind him, as we have said, having his arm upon her knee, while he holds one of her hands; her dress is dishevelled and thrown back from her shoulders, while her other hand she has against her face, which is turned away from the light, it is in the shadow, but its expression without the hand’s action explains to us that the words of the song have found an application in her heart, here are the "flowers that fade;" her hair is gathered round her head in heavy masses, and she has crowned herself with the flowers of the rose, the thorn of which has now entered her soul; her face is very beautiful and very sorrowful; its lovely and perfect form is merged into the shadow, and is only lightened by the reflections from the hollow of her hand. Leaning against the cushion at the end of the couch is the musician, holding the lute against her ear, while, with her hand she essays to get it into tune; we see her face, with its listening eyes and youthful mouth, with the braided and wavy lines of her hair, which goes like a coronet round her head; her arms are bare, and her robe loose, with a girdle at the hips, through which it falls through the light and shadow to her feet; behind her is a table with drinking vessels, and posters on the walls of the tent, over which, as it stands between the openings, flicker the shadows of the figures in the place. Behind the younger gambler, and on the very end of the couch (that is on the right hand side of the picture), is a large ape, scratching himself as he squats, one hand in the hair of his neck, and the other amongst his long toes; he has thrust the cushions from the couch-end, and ensconsed [sic] himself therein, his bushy tail going up, over his shoulder; beneath the feet of the man is a feather fan and a pair of gloves. This drawing is wrought to the highest pitch of finish, and its textures are so various as perfectly to suggest the idea of color upon every garment and article in the place; it is as powerful in this respect as it is in vigor of light and shade; where the artist has obtained the truth of a flare of hot light to perfection.

It will suffice to point out the incidents by which the motive of this picture is wrought out, to show the effect it is calculated to produce upon one’s mind: the approaching dawn over the tree-tops, and the darkness beneath; the shadows over the tent walls, which seem to move almost threateningly the eager groping of the kneeling man; the impressive action of his elder companion; the brazen hardness of the singer; or the sorrow-stricken aspect of the woman seated; the grace of the musician contrasted with the obscenity of the ape, are all so telling to the subject that they need no comment. This drawing is the property of a friend of the artist’s, who feels he can never appreciate too highly the value of such a gift.

We shall here close what we have to say of Dante G. Rossetti with the remark, that the drawings we have referred to are by no means the whole of his works: for their peculiar qualities they are of transcendent merit, the highest of high Art, the most subtle in feeling, the most splendid and delicate in color, the most learned in composition, and their execution frequently of that marvellous order to which painting has never yet attained; the fascinations they exercise on every one capable of appreciation, is universal and never to be forgotten. Some of them are like a mystical dream, some like the progress of a gorgeous romance, and some like the singing of a song of highest glory to God.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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