[L., L.] "The Two Pre-Raphaelitisms: Article Fourth." Crayon 4 (Sep. 1857), 261-265.

full text

At the conclusion of our last article* it was said that we hoped on a future occasion to be able to descant upon the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (in addition to those already mentioned), and the sculptures of Thomas Woolner. This is now afforded, and we shall proceed to complete the series of descriptions of those works which have, up to this time, been produced by the active members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, properly so called.

It was said that the majority of the works of the first-named artists consisted of water-color paintings of the most exquisite description, which, from the nature of their subjects, and the manner of their execution, were peculiarly difficult to treat upon. This is certainly the case; but we shall, however, proceed to render the best account of them which is in our power, begging the reader’s indulgence whenever verbal disquisition may fail, which, from the nature of the task, is almost inherent to it. At no time, however, let it be thought but that these drawings are of the most transcendent interest, from their subject as well the way in which that has been, without exception, carried out. The fault will be ours, and not that of the artist, if this paper be not of equal interest, whatever that might have been, with those which preceded it.

Before entering upon our matter in reference to the water-color pictures of Dante Rossetti, let us proceed to describe an oil-color picture of small size, which escaped our notice while treating of the "Girlhood of the Virgin," and the "Annunciation." This is entitled "Kate the Queen." Katherine Cornaro, by birth a noble Venetian lady, became Queen of Cyprus. She renounced the crown and resided at Asolo, in Venetian Lombardy, where is placed the scene of Browning’s drama of "Pippa Passes," which supplies the subject of the picture. At Asolo,

"--------where still the peasants keep

Her memory; and songs tell how many a page

Pined for the grace of one so far above

His power of doing good to, as a queen–

‘She never could be wronged, or poor, he sighed,

For him to help her!’"

The picture shows a large chamber, screened from the glare of the Italian summer sun by an arcade and curtains, within which sits the queen with her maidens, a row of whom are seated at embroidery; slightly withdrawn into the picture, at the back is seen a chapel, with attendants preparing for the ministration within; parallel with this, the opening of an arcade shows a sort of corridor, wherein many ladies are engaged in a joyful game of "jeu de paume;" a corner of the foreground is occupied by a fountain, by the side of which kneels the fool of the household, busily driving with his breath a paper boat into the spray which falls from the jet in the centre: to the left of this, sits "Kate the Queen," whose hair two maidens are dressing in front, an attendant reading aloud, whose occupation has been interrupted by the incident which supplies the action of the picture. Behind the queen, and separated from the room by a curtain, we see another portion of an arcade opening upon a balcony, which gives access to a flight of stairs, through this the broad, bright sky and country without is seen; and, leaning over the parapet, and trifling with a hawk, is the page whose song attracts the attention of the queen.

"Give her but the least excuse to love me!

When–where–

How–can this arm establish her above me,

If fortune fixed her for my lady thus,

Thus already, to eternally reprove me?

(‘Hist,’ said Kate the Queen;

But ‘Oh,’ said the maiden binding her tresses,

‘’Tis only a page that carols unseen,

Crumbling your hounds their messes!’)

"Is she wronged? To the rescue of her honor,

My heart!

Is she poor? What costs it to be styled a donor?

Merely an earth’s to cleave, a sea’s to part!

But that fortune should have thrust all this upon her:

(‘Nay, list,’ bade Kate the Queen,

And still the maiden binding her tresses;

‘’Tis only a page that carols unseen,

Fitting your hawks their jesses!’")

This is the page’s song and the incident of the picture. The beautiful queen, whose long hair of pale gold lies like a veil over her white surcoat and pale violet robe, checks with her hand the prattling of her waiting damsel, and listens with eyes expressive to the singing of the youth; he lolls back on his elbow, caroling to the broad sunlight, and holding the hawk by its jess. The rich effect of the subdued light which results from the darkening of the room by heavy curtains, is admirably rendered in this picture; all the colors which compose it are wisely chosen to assist thereto, and at the same time carry out an idea of soft gorgeousness, which is peculiarly appropriate to the feeling and the subject. The row of maids of honor, whose dresses are vermilion [sic] (darkened in the room), contrast finely with the black robes of the one who is reading, and the violet and white costume of the queen herself; there is some green very skillfully introduced in another portion of the picture, while the clear, cold blue of the sky, visible without, contrasts the sober richness of the interior; the page’s dress is a rich crimson. It may be needless to remark that the action of the fool is allusive to the position into which the page’s fervid heart is driving him. "Dante rebuffed by Beatrice" is a scene suggested by a passage in the "Vita Nuova," where the poet describes himself as meeting Beatrice at the entrance of a house where she is acting as bridesmaid to one of her friends. The passage is as follows: "After which it happened that the gentlest lady was present at a place where many gentle ladies were assembled; to which place I was also taken by a certain one of my friends; and the gathering of these ladies together was to bear company to a gentle lady who had been married that day: the usage of that city being that they should all bear her company when she went down for the first time to the house of her new husband. And suddenly on my arrival I felt a wonderful tremor beginning at my left side, spread itself through all my body, whereupon, to dissemble it, I leaned my back to a painting which ran round the walls of that mansion: and fearing lest my confusion should be perceived by others, I lifted my eyes, and looking upon these ladies, perceived among them the most gentle Beatrice; and many of them, discerning the change in me, began to marvel amongst themselves, and in their talk to mock at me with this gentlest one; whereupon, my friend being confounded, took me by the hand, and drawing me forth from the sight of those ladies, said, ‘What aileth thee?’ and I rested a little while, and said to him these words, ‘I have set my foot in that part of life beyond which no man may go who would return.’"

The heart-stricken Dante, leans, as he says, against the painted wall of the house, accompanied by his friend, while the ladies sweep past to enter. Beatrice is nearly in the centre, with that cold sense of recognition which has chilled him; her light footstep seems to float her onwards, while her lovely, pure, cold, and spiritual head, with its fixed eyelids and calm lips, gives no answer to the poet, whose sick heart trembles at his mouth: he cannot say how lovely her face is, or how different in character from those of her companions; roseate sunlight upon snow is not more beautiful, or more ineffably impassive than her expression; and yet, and yet–we see that the snow might melt, so human is it, from the very pride of the chastity which causes her to rise to her utmost height, while not failing to see him: thus subtle is the expression. The other ladies, or chorus of human angels, are some of them looking at him with espiègle [especial] attention, one particularly, who thrusts herself forward, to see over Beatrice’s shoulder (so as to contrast her own darkening tints and black locks with the fair seraphine face and the golden fire of hair which Beatrice has); behind are others, some indifferent, some self-conscious, sink their eyes to the ground; but all pass onwards without stay;--all are robed alike in green and blue, but of color so ineffably beautiful, so tender, so soft, and pure, that one becomes painfully conscious of the impossibility of rendering even an account, much less a fair description of it. They pass into the house, where others have preceded them, and we see a troop of gentlemen following in rich and sombre dresses, who are taking from the hands of some vintagers in the front. Dante’s dress is crimson, and the wall against which he leans has painted on it lines of angels ascending in adoration; there are garlands on the door-posts. A girl, offering flowers to Dante, suggests a part of the motive of the picture, though this would be quite needless, so powerfully is it told: if we could say how graceful the ladies are, how charming their faces, and how expressive Dante’s action, we should have brought the reader to a perception of the loveliness of the picture; but we feel ourselves to have utterly failed, and are half ashamed of the attempt.

The story of Francesca da Rimini is justly a favorite with painters. Leigh Hunt says it stands like a lily at the mouth of hell. Rossetti has three portions of the tale in one picture, which is so divided;--in the centre are Dante and Virgil, as the former describes them through Hell; over their heads is the inscription "O lasso!" The motto of the whole picture being the exclamation of the poet–"Alas, how many sweet thoughts, how much desire led these two to this dolorous pass!" They go with guarded steps. To the right of this is the committal of the sin, the first fiery kiss which Paolo says he took "all trembling;" to the left the punishment thereof, the pallid and dim ghosts of the unhappy lovers, who float in their judgment of the fiery rain. He retains the same costume in both divisions;--in the first, the feeling is of something sad and mournful, the colors are sombre and threatening–black and brown-crimson: but the fiery fervency of that kiss startles one, flushed with passion, hand to hand, and lip to lip, fiercely they drink of the guilty bliss, unheeding the symbol of the cross, which the bars of a circular orb of a window make standing sharp against a clear, calm, even-tinted sky; we need not say that this circular window is the earth, guarded by the cross, and backed by the overhanging sky. In the left hand division Paolo and Francesca are seen, pallid and worn, still embracing, and still loving, floating across the blackened background, wherein perpetual flames of the fiery rain surround them–hopeless gloom is over them, and their only comfort is the perpetually enduring love, their ever-remaining tenderness, given them for consolation. All is terribly sad, and we cannot help exclaiming with the poet, "O lasso!" as sweeping with folded feet they go.

Another picture is of a subject invented by the artist, the tale of which may be told thus:--A knight has been slain in defence of a lady, whose lover takes up the quarrel, and is about to enter the lists of combat against the defamer, and avenge upon him the death of her champion: over the grave of the dead knight a chapel of preparation has been erected, wherein the avenger has received the sacrament before battle, and is now being armed by the lady herself; she is about to fasten on his sword, but he takes the blissful benediction of a kiss while kneeling at her feet. The color of the tent, which is dark crimson, diffuses a purplish light thoughout [sic], and enriches the white of her long over-robe, which from the horns of her headdress falls over her blue gown to her feet: on the turf-floor of the tent we see the grave of the slain knight, with a cross at head and foot, which crosses are crossed and re-crossed by burning tapers (an admirable point of imaginative symbolism). The lady’s new champion is a mighty knight, with a fell of hair like a lion, and gorgeously robed. Through the opening of the tent, or more properly we should say, pavilion, the lists are discerned bright with grass in broad sunlight, across which proceed the priests who have been administering the office to our champion, and are to visit his adversary, whose tent, with its flaunting flags, is seen on the other side. The lady kneels in a chair of mediæval fashion, behind is the sacramental table and patines for the service of the eucharist. There is a great manliness of spirit in the way in which this drawing is executed, much in contrast and widely differing from the dramatic delicacy and subtle feeling of the former of the two we referred to last, as well as from the fierce passion and sad terror of the last itself. The color is as far from resembling them as the subjects are from each other, yet it is in all as perfect and appropriate as it can be: the spirituality of the first, with its varied and delicate tints of green and blue, with the crimson and black of the other dresses, is as fitting to that subject as the black and brown-crimson (which seems to have an under-fire) repeated in each of the wing subjects, with also the blue and dark purple, and green of the dresses of Virgil and Dante in the centre compartment; these are as perfect and appropriate, we say, as the rich diffusion of crimson light in the tent’s interior with the sunny glare of the lady’s blue dress, are to the motive of the last subject.

"The Celebration of the Passover in the Holy Family" is one of those subjects which are of paramount interest in the history of our Lord, as being, of course, one which really took place annually, and therefore of more value than others which are frequently only invented by painters, thus independent of its deep signification. Rossetti has chosen this subject, and represented it in the following manner. At the entrance of the house we see Zacharias, as priest, sprinkling the blood of the lamb upon the lintel and side of the doorway. Christ, a boy, has the vessel of the sacrament in his hand and is eating thereof, as the law enjoins; he has shoes upon his feet, for it is ordered, "And thus ye shall eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord’s Passover." At his feet kneels John, loosening the latchet of Christ’s shoes, for he says, "He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose." It is further ordered, that "with bitter herbs shall they eat it;" therefore we see the virgin mother of Christ gathering herbs by the side of the doorway. Behind, Joseph approaches with the lamb on his shoulders, his sacrifice is complete, and Elizabeth is about to roast the lamb on faggots already prepared. In the distance are other Jews taking their lambs to the Temple to be killed. To the left of the picture we see a window, the bar of which is raised, and the blind of dead sticks, bound with fresh vine branches, is lifted up, so that we see into the house prepared for the feast of the evening; for it says, "And they shall eat the flesh in the night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread;"--it was ordered that, "if the household be too small for the lamb, let him and his neighbors next unto him take it according to the number of souls." This justifies and gives occasion for the introduction of the household of Zacharias, and affords an opportunity for the introduction of the whole of the Holy Family into one subject; all has reference to the motto of the picture–"This is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many, for the remission of sins," said by Christ himself at the Last Supper.

It may be needless to dwell upon the elaborate and just symbolization which pervades the whole of this picture; how the old and the new sacrifices are here combined; how the calling of John and the mission of Christ are both united and illustrated;--how the removal of the old bar, and lifting up the blind of dead sticks refer to the freedom of the kingdom of Heaven, allowing us to see the feast prepared for the faithful. Christ standeth at the door under the joint symbol of security and redemption. The meaning of the fresh vine branch will be obvious. The whole picture is a perfect illustration of the mystic meaning of the sacrifice of the Passover, and the realization of the promise it referred to.

In the right of the picture is the entrance of a well, with a cross-formed windlass, such as is used to this day in the East, and attached thereto is a vessel of bright copper, reflecting every object around. The door-posts of the porch, against which Christ leans, are the trunks of young pines, whose bark is inscised [sic] with cuts in the form of a cross; into this the blood he has sprinkled is trickling; he regards it with recognizing attention.

The color of the dress of the virgin is a holy and pure blue; that of Christ is blood-red. Zacharias wears black and purple; John, of course, is clothed in a skin only:--we need not comment on the symbolism of these colors.

Of the execution of this picture we have only to say that it is the most carefully finished of all the drawings under consideration; the drawing is beautifully delicate, and the colors of skillful and new combinations as appropriate as may be conceived from what we have already said; the expressions are of the pure and holily noble order which befits the subject. The period of the day is, of course, evening, and Rossetti has succeeded most exquisitely in rendering the peculiarity of a soft evening light, when the air is still filled with the sun’s power; you notice the effect of this in a certain mysterious dreariness–so to speak–which is throughout the picture, which has a dim rich brightness about it, upon recognition very marvellous.

Rossetti has in progress a companion design to this, representing the preparation for the Passover as fulfilled in our Lord’s atonement.

Also, in progress, a drawing, whose scene is the exterior of the great circular Judgment Hall of Pilate, where outside the columns is seen the family of Christ waiting the trial, which is just concluded. He is being hurried along to crucifixion. Pilate, on the seat of judgment, washing his hands before the multitude, and on the steps of the Hall Barrabas, escorted by the shouting crowd: by the side the Virgin fainting.

The design of "Magdalene at the cross of Simon the Pharisee," shows her desiring to enter, and derided by her companions, who endeavor to stay her; the door, which is cut into the form of a cross, is approached by a flight of steps, upon which is the Magdalene, whose lover stretches his arms in front to hinder her entrance; beneath the steps is a common sewer, wherein are obscene things: a window at the side of the house shows us Christ and the other priests of the Pharisee, sitting at meat; by the side of the wall is a vine, overshadowing a well, where a fawn is drinking.

Amongst other drawings which Rossetti has in hand is one of the "Virgin in the house of John;" the time is a few years after the Crucifixion; the chamber is lighted by a high window, the bars of which are in the form of a cross; through this window Jerusalem is seen, with the approaching twilight. The Virgin has risen from her occupation of wool-combing as it becomes dark, is proceeding to trim a lamp, which is on the cross-frame of the window; she occupies one side of the window-recess, while in the other is John, seated with writing on his knees, from which he hastens to strike a light upon some tinder, to kindle the lamp when it is trimmed. The motto is, "In a little while ye shall not see me, and in a little while ye shall see me." Also, "Surely I come quickly; amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus."

There are two companion drawings of Mary Nazarine [sic] and Mary Magdalene; Mary Nazarine [sic] is represented as she really may have been, a country girl; her occupation is gardening, and she has planted a rose tree and a lily, which are growing up together; in the background is the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove, hovering over water. The motto of this is, "My Beloved is mine, and I am His, He feedeth among the lilies."

This motto also illustrates a version of the "Annunciation," in which the Virgin is represented standing in the middle of a stream washing her feet, while the angel descends, holding by one hand to the stems of one of a row of young poplars, as he walks with his wings crossed in front of him. The Virgin is looking round at the sound of his voice as he speaks, "Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women." At the sunlit entrance of the shaded creek the dove flies towards her, the stream is full of water-lilies[,] the banks lined with iris, and the slopes crowned with lilies, in allusion to the motto. The body of the picture is in shade, the stream being shut in by bushes, and its banks lined with poplars, except where the opening is seen beyond at the entrance of the copse; the fields of corn are bathed in sunlight, which strikes on the wings of the entering dove; an apple-tree, overburthened with fruit, contributes to the shadow in which she stands; this is, perhaps, allusive to the pains of childbirth consequent on the Fall.

The design of Mary Magdalene, accompanying this, is taken at a moment just preceding that already described (Magdalene at the door of Simon the Pharisee), when she is represented as leaving a house where her companions are feasting, and descending the steps in search of Christ.

(To be continued.)

* See the Numbers of The Crayon for August, 0ctober, November, and December, 1856.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews