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Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the old masters.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti played a major role in forming Victorian patterns of taste. As a young painter, he rejected the conventional path by turning from the techniques of post-Raphaelite artists towards the style of the Italian and Flemish early Renaissance. A number of Rossetti's sonnets are dedicated to old master paintings and his work as an artist reflects various influences at different times in his career. In the 1860s he began to emulate Titian and the Venetian school, and at a later point he discovered Botticelli, who subsequently became an icon of the aesthetic movement.

During the nineteenth century, art students in Western Europe were encouraged to revere their predecessors. Whether they were making detailed drawings after classical sculpture or copies from the old masters, the 'sense of the past' was always with them. The 'past', however, was not a static concept. As Francis Haskell has so brilliantly demonstrated, the precise identity of these great predecessors was constantly evolving and changing. (1) While some were 'in', others were 'out', and the space between the two took in a wide variety of 'grey areas'.

The career of Dante Gabriel Rossetti illustrates the shifting sands of nineteenth-century taste. In 1846, as a young Royal Academy student, he told his godfather, the naturalist Charles Lyell, that he was 'making some drawings at the Academy from The Gates of San Giovanni at Florence, the work of Lorenzo Ghiberti, which Michel Angelo pronounced "worthy to be the gates of Paradise"'. (2) Appropriately enough, it was while Rossetti was studying the Academy's cast of the famous fifteenth-century doors that a fellow student, William Holman Hunt, noticed him:

alone, perched on some steps stretched across my path, drawing in his sketch-book a single female figure from the gates of Ghiberti. I had recently been attentively drawing some of the groups for their expression and arrangement, and I told Rossetti then how eloquent the Keeper had been in his comments on seeing me at work from the group of 'The Finding of the Cup in Benjamin's Sack', saying that Ghiberti's principles of composition were in advance of his time in their variety of groupings, and that his great successors had all profoundly profited by these examples. (3)

The Keeper, Mr Jones, told Hunt that he 'regretted that the gates were not more often studied by young painters' (Hunt, 1, 107).

Hunt and Rossetti spoke for a while about 'these quattrocento epochal masterpieces', although, as Hunt remarks, it was their common love of the poetry of John Keats which brought about their 'intimate relations' (ibid.). From Richard Monckton Milnes's Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats, published in 1848, the young artists discovered that Keats, enthralled by prints of the Campo Santo frescos in Pisa, shared their enthusiasm for 'the early men'. (4) When they drew up a list of 'Immortals' in August 1848, however, expecting their friends to sign up to it, there were only two 'early men' among them, Ghiberti and Fra Angelico.

Ghiberti was certainly 'Pre-Raphaelite', in the strictest sense of the word, and it is apposite that his work should have brought Hunt and Rossetti together. The name eventually chosen for their Brotherhood, formed with five others in 1848, demonstrated a shift in taste, a movement away from admiration for the artists of the high Renaissance to those, such as Ghiberti, who preceded them. The Pre-Raphaelite Brothers were not alone in championing what had previously been dismissed as 'primitive' art. Charles Lyell gave a copy of Anna Jameson's Memoirs of the Early Italian Painters, first published in 1845, to Rossetti. Reprinting a series of articles originally published in the Penny Magazine, the book's scope included painters from Cimabue to Titian and the Venetian school. The same author's Sacred and Legendary Art came out in 1848, with descriptions and illustrations of 'early' paintings. Alexis-Francois Rio's De la poesie chretienne of 1836 and Lord Lindsay's Sketches of the History of Christian Art of 1847 were pioneering studies of art before Raphael. It was Hunt who introduced Rossetti to the work of John Ruskin, and the second volume of Modern Painters, which came out in 1848, is evidence of Ruskin's research among the early Italian painters, undertaken from 1845 onwards. The importance of these studies for the history of Pre-Raphaelitism and the parallels between the Brotherhood and the earlier Nazarene movement in Germany have been extensively discussed. It has been clearly established that the Pre-Raphaelites knew very little about these early artists. Indeed Francis Haskell points out (p. 49) that they seem not to have seen the 1848 exhibition of early Italian paintings at the British Institution.

What is known is that they studied the engravings by Giovanni Paolo Lasinio from the frescos by Benozzo Gozzoli and others in the Campo Santo at Pisa. Those who knew the originals criticized the accuracy of the engravings, but for the Pre-Raphaelites they were a revelation. The frescos were regarded as an important event in the history of early Italian art. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing from Pisa in 1846, had told a friend:

I mean to know something about pictures some day. Robert does, and I shall get him to open my eyes for me with a little instruction. You know that in this place are to be seen the first steps of art, and it will be interesting to trace them from it as we go farther ourselves. (5)

At this date the London National Gallery was in the same building as the Royal Academy and so very familiar to Academy students. The Gallery had yet to acquire the outstanding collection of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian paintings now to be seen on its walls and young artists interested in such works had to use prints. The few examples of early art included Lorenzo Monaco's Adoring Saints, purchased in 1848. Malcolm Warner has argued convincingly that the relationship of the figures in this painting influenced the design of Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin (Tate), begun in the same year that it was acquired. (6) Further 'goldbacks' were added a decade later by one of the National Gallery's greatest directors, Sir Charles Eastlake, who held the post from 1855 to his death in 1865. The Gallery had originally opened in the house of John Julius Angerstein, and the Angerstein paintings formed the nucleus of the collection.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were, it seems, .red with an idea, a theory, and, like so many such theories, before and since, it found its origins in a revolt against existing taste, rather than (initially, at least) in admiration for the art of the past. Hunt, writing many years later, commented on their choice of name:

There was then no suspicion among artists, any more than with the public, that Guido, Giulio Romano, Baroccio, Guercino, Murillo, Le Brun, and others of the same flock were birds of a different feather to Jove's bird, so that the name of the princely Urbinite [Raphael] was made to cover all conventional art. (I, 52)

This article sets out to look closely at the career of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, documenting those moments when he is known to have been responsive to works by the old masters, often on the walls of art galleries. The influence of these, upon both his painting and his poetry, will be considered, together with his contribution to a wider change in nineteenth-century aesthetic taste. In parallel with this, his responses to art will be compared with those of other nineteenth-century writers.

As students at the Royal Academy Schools, the young Pre-Raphaelites were exposed to that Bible of early nineteenth-century taste, the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds, originally delivered to students at the same school between 1769 and 1790. That the Discourses, and perhaps those who recommended them so strongly, were a major target for the young men's reforming instincts is clear enough. 'Slosh' became a byword among them, a symbol of their distaste for the conventional admiration of the high and late Renaissance artists, for the painters of the Bolognese school, the Carracci, Guido Reni, and Domenichino. The term 'slosh' served a double purpose, as a play on Reynolds's first name, Joshua, and as a mocking description of the techniques of those painters whose work they so much disliked, those who espoused broad brushwork, thick impasto, and strongly emphasized effects of mixed or combined colours. They objected to the striking and dramatic chiaroscuro and gestures of Reynolds's favoured painters, preferring clearly defined outlines and areas of pure colour. The Pre-Raphaelites reacted to conventional art by painting in direct and even light. Instead of creating artificial effects, they declared a determination to return to a spirit of truth to nature.

The Pre-Raphaelites were not the first rebels to challenge the establishment. In 1847 the Rossetti brothers, Dante Gabriel and William Michael, bought a notebook once used by William Blake, the great outsider of the previous generation. Both from this notebook and from other sources the brothers learnt of Blake's hatred for the Royal Academy and for the patronage that supported it. Blake's comments on Reynolds were particularly vituperative, and he would certainly have joined the Pre-Raphaelites' 'anti-slosh' campaign. Among the targets of Blake's spleen were the artists whom he perceived to have favoured colour over outline: 'Till we get rid of Titian and Correggio, Rubens and Rembrandt, We shall never equal Rafael and Albert Durer, Michael Angelo, and Julio Romano', he wrote. (7) At the outset of his career, whether through direct influence or coincidentally, Dante Gabriel Rossetti took up a Blakean position. Within a decade, however, he had markedly diverged from the standpoint of the earlier artist.

The Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ was in part a manifesto for this point of view. Frederic Stephens's article on 'The Purpose and Tendency of Early Italian Art', published there in 1850, argued that 'the earlier painters came nearer to fact, that they were less of the art, artificial'. (8) Significantly, Stephens (p. 59) quoted (or rather misquoted) from Robert Browning's Old Pictures in Florence, which first appeared in 1845; the poet contemplates the work of the pre-Renaissance painters, often unidentified by name, and, by the mid-nineteenth century, seemingly indistinguishable:
 Monotonous to paint
 Those endless cloisters and eternal aisles
 With the same series, Virgin, Babe, and Saint,
 With the same cold, calm, beautiful regard.


Rossetti's major contributions to The Germ were a number of poems and a short story, 'Hand and Soul'. In this latter work he contrasts the modern-day reputation of two Italian paintings hanging in the Pitti Palace in Florence. One is by a 'primitive painter', who remains faithful to his vision, and the other is a fictitious work by Raphael. Inevitably, Rossetti champions the position of the 'goldback' painter, but he does not entirely condemn the work by Raphael. He simply presents it as an example of a work which the critics admire because it marks a step from the archaic to the naturalistic. He satirizes those who follow this art-historical fashion blindly, but he was, like Blake, prepared to recognize Raphael's genius. In Rossetti's poem 'Jenny', begun in 1847, Raphael is presented, with Leonardo da Vinci, as a measure of excellence, a painter who could catch the beauty of a woman's neck and cheek. In 1849 he wrote home from Paris describing a 'wonderful head by Rafael' in the Louvre, presumably that of Balthazar Castiglione (Correspondence, I, 114).

The 'wonderful head' was one of the pleasures of Rossetti's first sight of the Louvre, part of the itinerary for a visit to France and Belgium undertaken with Hunt in the autumn of 1849. Their aim was to visit art galleries and see original works of art at first hand. Rossetti wrote a travel journal in blank verse, several sonnets, and a number of letters. Never fond of travel, he describes his dismay at the behaviour of fellow travellers, his distaste for aspects of Parisian life, and his outright disgust at the time (three days) spent in acquiring a passport for Belgium.

While in Paris, Hunt and Rossetti visited both the Louvre and the Luxembourg Palace (where contemporary French painting was to be seen), as well as some artists' studios and a number of churches. Rossetti's response to pictures in the Louvre may have been coloured by his anti-French sentiment, but also reflected his abhorrence of post-Raphael art. In his poem 'Last Visit to the Louvre. The cry of the P.R.B. [Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood] after a Careful Examination of the Canvases of Rubens, Correggio, et hoc genus omne', he expresses his disgust:
 [...] dear God! the flesh Thou madest smooth
 These carked and fretted, that it seemed to run
 With ulcers; and the daylight of thy sun
 They parcelled into blots and glares, uncouth
 With stagnant grouts of paint. (9)


The subtitle of Rossetti's poem singles out Rubens and Correggio for particular opprobrium. In another sonnet of approximately the same date, 'At the Station of the Versailles Railway', 'the knave Claude [Lorraine]' joins them, as Rossetti ponders why '(sense apart) Rubens preferred a mustard vehicle', and characterizes Correggio as 'a toad' (CPP, p. 351).

Among the few bright spots was The Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico. Originally an altarpiece for the church of San Domenico in Fiesole, it shows Christ crowning the Virgin amidst a throng of angels and saints. For Rossetti it stood out from the 'maps Of sloshy colour' (CPP, p. 353). A few years later, he paid tribute to the artist in a drawing, Fra Angelico Painting (Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery), showing the painter kneeling at his easel, at work on a picture of the Virgin and child.

Rossetti was already moving out of the Blakean mould. He noted some excellent paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, including the Mona Lisa, which had, at the time, nothing approximating to its present fame. Hunt recorded that the work 'appeared as the first example to us of his supreme power to express dreamy beauty' (Hunt, I, 191). Rossetti's sonnet on Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks relates, not to the Louvre version of that subject, but to the version in London, and 'For "Our Lady of the Rocks" by Leonardo da Vinci' was written before the journey to Paris. Like many of Rossetti's sonnets on paintings, the response of the poet is reflected in a series of questions as he probes the meaning of the incarnation: 'Mother, is this the darkness of the end, |The Shadow of Death?' Here Rossetti insists upon themes of darkness and death, writing of the child blessing 'the dead with his hand silently', when the real object of the blessing is the infant John the Baptist. The poem draws on the imagery of the painting, but Rossetti's interpretation of the infant Christ blessing the dead is a personal one. The rocky setting, comparable to that of the Mona Lisa, underlines the misery of the human condition and the mystery of existence:
 Mother of grace, the pass is difficult,
 Keen as those rocks, and the bewildered souls
 Throng it like echoes, blindly shuddering through,
 Thy name, O Lord, each spirit's voice extols,
 Whose peace abides in the dark avenue
 Amid the bitterness of things occult.
 (CPP, p. 183)


Writers have related this poem, first published in 1870, to Walter Pater's famous tribute to Leonardo in The Renaissance.

Titian was among the painters whom Blake had execrated, but Rossetti was won over by Titian's portrait Francis I, which he called 'stunning' (Correspondence, I, 109). The Concert champetre, or, as he calls it, 'Venetian Pastoral', then attributed to Giorgione but now given to Titian, inspired a sonnet, 'For a Venetian Pastoral by Giorgione (in the Louvre)'. Rossetti already knew the painting from an engraving, and found the subject sensuous, evocative of music, of female beauty, and of warmth: 'so intensely fine that I condescended to sit down before it and write a sonnet' (Correspondence, I, 114). This much-discussed sonnet is one of his best, capturing details of the painting like the woman dipping the vessel into the water to the left or the 'brown faces' in the centre of the canvas, 'Mournful with complete pleasure'. Characteristically, Rossetti lingers on the figure of the young girl with a musical instrument. The last six-and-a-half lines of the original version, published in The Germ, are as follows:
 Her eyes stray
 In distance; through her lips the pipe doth creep
 And leaves them pouting; the green shadowed grass
 Is cool against her naked flesh. Let be:

 Do not speak unto her lest she weep,--
 Nor name this ever. Be it as it was:--
 Silence of heat, and solemn poetry.

 (The Germ, p. 181)


Paintings then attributed to Giorgione, an artist whose work is notoriously difficult to identify, continued to fascinate Rossetti. On a visit to Antwerp with his brother, William Michael, in 1863, he made a sketch of 'A Giorgione (?) head of a beautiful young man, with peculiar and delightful costume'. (10) That Rossetti felt a personal affinity with Giorgione is clear from the subject of a drawing, Giorgione Painting, of about 1853 (Birmingham City Museumand Art Gallery), showing the Venetian artist at work with a model, taken from Elizabeth Siddal. A few years later, on his honeymoon in Paris, Rossetti betrayed Pre-Raphaelite principles by declaring Veronese's Marriage at Cana to be 'the greatest picture in the world beyond a doubt' (Correspondence, ii (2002), 298). Confronted by such a great painting, Rossetti felt no qualms in abandoning his theories of art.

Earlier in date than the paintings in the Louvre by Leonardo and Giorgione/ Titian which he so much admired was Mantegna's Mars and Venus, otherwise known as Parnassus. The picture inspired another sonnet by Rossetti, 'For an Allegorical Dance of Women by Andrea Mantegna (in the Louvre)', which explores the relation between the painter and his subject. Did Mantegna, Rossetti wonders, intellectually comprehend what he was creating, or was he responding to an inspiration, like a stream of music? He tells his reader something about the visual appearance of the painting, the 'rocks' and 'ridged sea', the girl dancers who pass before us (CPP, p. 184). In his admiration for Mantegna Rossetti was displaying avant-garde taste. George du Maurier, in his novel Trilby, describing his experiences as an art student in Paris in the 1850s, writes of 'the school of Botticelli, Mantegna, and Co.--a form whose merits had not as yet been revealed to the many'. (11)

Writing poems on pictures reflected the Pre-Raphaelite aim of combining the arts. The subtitle of their journal The Germ was 'Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art'. Rossetti's picture poems also reflected the influence of Romantic works such as Shelley's 'On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci, in the Florentine Gallery', inspired by a work in the Uzi Gallery, then attributed to Leonardo.

Following their visit to Paris in 1849, Rossetti and Hunt travelled to Belgium, which had recently achieved independence from Holland. Unlike Charlotte Bronte, who recalled with pleasure her experience of travelling from Ostend to Brussels seven years earlier, Rossetti was indifferent to the Belgian countryside. He called it 'miles of barren chill' and
 draggled reeds in a flat slime.
 Next, the old country, always all the same.
 Now, by Hans Hemmling and by John Van Eyck,
 You'll find, till something's new, I write no more.

 (CPP, pp. 356-57)


As these lines of Rossetti's confirm, it was the attraction of early Flemish art which had drawn them to Belgium in the first place.

Before the travellers could relish the sight of the early masters, they had to confront the very fountainhead of the 'slosh' school in the person of Peter Paul Rubens. No doubt the galleries in the Louvre containing the famous cycle of The Triumph of Marie de Medici by Rubens were included in Rossetti's sweeping account of racing 'at full speed | Along the Louvre', yawning 'from school to school' (CPP, p. 351).

In the museum at Brussels, faced with another room full of Rubens paintings, Rossetti and Hunt 'held aloof' (Correspondence, I, 125). This was not what they had come to see. Here they would have found common ground with Charlotte Bronte, who writes in Villette of the Rubens paintings in the Musee des Beaux Arts: 'Several very well executed and complacent-looking fat women struck me as by no means the goddesses they appeared to consider themselves.' (12) A few chapters later, she challenges Rubens to match the fire of the theatrical performance of Vashti (a character in the novel drawn from the French classical actress Rachel):

Let Peter Paul Rubens wake from the dead, let him rise out of his cerements, and bring into this presence all the army of his fat women; the magian power or prophet-virtue gifting that slight rod of Moses, could, at one waft, release and re-mingle a sea spell-parted, whelming the heavy host with the down-rush of overthrown sea-ramparts. (Chapter 33, p. 248)

In exchanging Brussels for Antwerp, the painter's home town, Rossetti and Hunt were exposing themselves to yet more works by Rubens. They would have known a number of Rubens paintings in the London National Gallery, where early benefactors and judicious purchases had already established a fine holding. Rubens's masterpiece The Deposition from the Cross in the Cathedral was one of The must-see attractions for visitors to Antwerp. Unfortunately, during the time of Hunt and Rossetti's visit the famous altarpiece was being restored, and Hunt recalled that 'Our estimate of Rubens at Antwerp was not so much heightened as we had hoped it would be'. He notes that they found The Adoration of the Magi and the Pieta in the Museum of Fine Arts 'so coarse, that the wonderful facility of drawing and painting scarcely added merit to the productions' (Hunt, 1, 192). Their negative reaction to the Pieta was probably accentuated by the prominence given to Christ's half-naked body, the representation of anguish on the faces of Jesus and his mother, and the powerful effects of chiaroscuro.

Another excursion in Antwerp took the travellers to St Jacob's Church, where Rubens lies buried, and where hangs a second painting popular with nineteenth-century tourists, Our Lady Surrounded by Saints. In this work Rubens depicts himself as St George, with his first and second wives as the Virgin and Mary Magdalene respectively. Thackeray, who describes the altarpiece in 'A Roundabout Journey' of 1860, writes with comic fervour of the artist's worldliness: 'That is his own portrait as St. George. You know he is an English knight? Those are his two wives as the two Maries. He chooses the handsomest wives.' (13) Hunt, writing more than half a century after his own visit, thought that this painting and a handful of portraits were the only works 'we saw [...] of his of equal merit to four or five of our paintings in the National Gallery' (Hunt, I, 192). This hindsight should be treated with caution. Hunt may indeed have felt more warmly towards Rubens than Rossetti, but the latter's total lack of sympathy with what he dubbed 'drivel' is only too apparent from his poem 'Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Antwerp)':
 The clod

 Has slosh by miles along the wall within.
 ('I say, I somehow feel my gorge begin
 To rise.')-His chair in a glass case, by God!
 ... To the Cathedral. Here too the vile snob
 Has fouled in every corner. ('Wherefore brave
 Our fate? Let's go.') There is a monument
 We pass. 'Messieurs, you tread upon the grave
 Of the great Rubens.' 'Well, that's one good job!
 What time this evening is the train for Ghent?'

 (CPP, pp. 359-60)


Bruges, that 'stunning place' as Rossetti calls it, had the advantages of 'a quantity of first-rate architecture and very little or no Rubens' (Correspondence, I, 127); 'Rubens seems here to be considered a common fool enough' (ibid., p. 131). Thackeray had had a similar experience: 'There are no more pictures of Rubens to be seen, and, indeed, in the course of a fortnight, one has had quite enough of the great man and his magnificent swaggering canvases.' (14)

In 1863, when Rossetti was once again in Belgium, this time with his brother, William Michael, his attitude to Rubens had softened. William Michael observed: 'Gabriel and I agree in thinking that the enormously vaunted Rubenses here are over-rated. [...] The Adoration of the Kings is, on the whole, rather a specimen of Rubens's ouensive qualities' (Rossetti Papers, pp. 33-34).

In 1849 the 'failure' of Rubens was balanced by the pleasure which the young men took in the work of the early Flemish artists. The paintings of Memling and Van Eyck seemed 'miraculous' to them. They had been expecting fine Van Eycks, but the work of Memling, particularly in Bruges, 'stunned' them (Correspondence, I, 128). Listening to the carillon there, Rossetti rejoiced in the thought that Van Eyck and Memling would have heard the same bells. A keen response to Italian painting, whether of the early or late Renaissance, was a natural corollary of Rossetti's Italian ancestry. Less predictable was his overwhelming enthusiasm for what he often describes as the 'early Germans'. In what William Michael Rossetti believed to have been the first of Rossetti's sonnets for pictures, 'For an Annunciation (Early German)' of 1847, Dante Gabriel described a picture seen in an auction room. The painting showed the young Virgin Mary kneeling in prayer:
 So prays she, and the Dove flies in to her,
 And she has turned. Within the porch is one
 Who looks as though deep awe made him to smile.
 Heavy with heat, the plants yield shadow there;
 The loud flies cross each other in the sun;
 And the aisled pillars meet the poplar-aisle.

 (CPP, p. 343)


The reference to heat here, in this unidentified work, highlights a feature which would be unusual in northern painting. The effect of the sonnet is comparable to that of the sonnet on the Concert champetre, raising the suspicion that Rossetti altered the setting of the work to suit his own preoccupations.

In Paris Rossetti had been struck by 'a tremendous Van Eyck' (Correspondence, I, 109). This must have been The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin, representing the Madonna sitting with the child and the donor in front of a window. Beyond lies a wide vista of open country, with a glittering turreted town. Hunt writes that 'the exquisite delicacy of the workmanship and the unpretending character of the invention made us feel we could not overestimate the perfection of the painting, at least that of John van Eyck' (Hunt, I, 193). Rossetti reported seeing in Brussels 'a few very fine early German pictures, among them a wonderful Van Eyck' (Correspondence, I, 125). There is no work given to Van Eyck in the Gallery today, so that identification of the painting is problematic. The two men were already familiar with the work of Van Eyck through the Arnolfini Portrait, purchased for the National Gallery in 1842. This double portrait of a man and his wife had considerable influence on Pre-Raphaelite art. The concave mirror on the wall behind the two figures is echoed in Ford Madox Brown's Take Your Son, Sir (Tate) and in the various versions

of Hunt's Lady of Shalott, beginning with the illustration for the Moxon Tennyson in 1857.

Rossetti certainly knew what he called the 'Van Eyck's picture at the [National] Gallery' (Correspondence, I, 128), and this familiarity, together with his enthusiasm for the Paris painting, makes his silence on the subject of Van Eyck's masterpiece Adoration of the Lamb in St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, all the more surprising. Hunt recalled that he had been disappointed by the altarpiece himself: 'although there was much suggestion derived from the Apocalypse which affected Rossetti to write of it' (Hunt, I, 193). The Rossetti poem, if that was what it was, seems not to have survived. Writing to Jane Morris in 1869, Rossetti told her:

I am glad you saw the Van Eyck at Ghent which I have seen 2 or 3 times and always with the greatest delight. It is certainly the noblest picture of that school I know, though when I first went to Belgium I was I believe more attracted by the curious variety and interest of Memmling's pictures at Bruges. (15)

Rossetti was again struck by a Van Eyck painting in Bruges. This must have been The Madonna with Canon Joris Van der Paele in what was then the Royal Academy, now the Groeninge Museum. Here St George presents the Canon to the Virgin and to St Donatian. The elaborate biblical symbolism of these paintings, with saints identified by their haloes and their attributes, Christ represented by a lamb, and other typological references, must have been profoundly stimulating for the artist, tying in as it did with the imagery of his own work at this early period. He had recently completed The Girlhood of the Virgin (Tate), in which the Virgin's embroidery, the vines behind her, and the altar-like setting of the window all employ a pattern of symbols. He found, however, that the realism of the Bruges work was less pleasing: 'some of the heads of which however are dreadfully vulgar in character' (Correspondence, I, 128). 'Vulgarity' and 'coarseness' were terms of opprobrium in his discourse.

Van Eyck's star was thrown into the shade by Rossetti's discovery of an artist of a generation later, Hans Memling or Memlinc (1435-94), who worked in Bruges for most of his life. Rossetti exploited the variant spellings of the artist's name, calling him Hemmling, Memmeling, and Memmelinck to suit the scansion of his verse. Rossetti had not seen work by Memling prior to his visit, and, in his view, the younger painter was far more 'poetical' than Van Eyck. In comparison, the Arnolfini picture showed 'a more sober subject and an interior', but Memling's paintings had the 'intrinsic superiority' of his 'intellect' (Correspondence, I, 128). Hunt's response was more qualified. Rossetti, he believed, was attracted to Memling more by 'the mystery of the subjects' than by their 'real claim' as works of art (Hunt, I, 193).

Hunt and Rossetti saw paintings by Memling in the Hospital of St John, the Academy of Fine Arts, and elsewhere. The Hospital of St John, built between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, still had its medieval wards, dedicated to the care of the sick and dying. Thackeray gives a full account of the scene there, an odd mixture of the picturesque and the pathetic, in his 'Little Travels'. Both Thackeray and Rossetti repeat the legend of Memling's arrival in Bruges, which must have been popular with guides, and which is, sadly, apocryphal. According to Rossetti:

Memling's pictures in the Hospital of S. John were presented to the Institution by that stunner in return for the care bestowed upon him when he was received there, severely wounded and in great want, after the battle of Nancy. (Correspondence, I, 128)

Memling painted the St John triptych, dedicated to the patron saints of the monastic house, St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, for the high altar of the Hospital church between 1479 and 1480. The outer wings depict incidents from the lives of the two saints, while in the central panel St Catherine and St Barbara flank the Virgin and child. The figures stand out against carefully observed landscapes, with a mystic scene from Revelation behind St John the Evangelist.

The Hospital owned two other triptychs by Memling, presented to the church by two local worthies, Jan Floreins and Adriaan Reins. In 1489 the monastery had acquired the relics of St Ursula, who was killed by the Huns with eleven thousand virgins on their return to Cologne from a pilgrimage to Rome. Memling decorated a casket for the relics with scenes from Ursula's life and martyrdom. Two Memling portraits had been given to the hospital in 1815, those of Martin van Nieuwenhove and of an unidentified young woman. The Nieuwenhove portrait is part of a diptych, with, on the other panel, the Virgin offering the Christ child an apple. A decade or so before Rossetti and Hunt arrived in Bruges, many of these Memling paintings were collected together and thus made accessible to the public.

The altarpiece which so 'stunned' Rossetti and Hunt had, however, remained in situ in the church. Rossetti's revealing response, as reported in a letter to his brother, is worth quoting at length:

I shall not attempt any description: I assure you that the perfection of character & even drawing, the astounding finish, the glory of colour, and above all the pure religious sentiment & ecstatic poetry of these works, is not to be conceived or described. Even in seeing them, the mind is at first bewildered by such Godlike completeness; and only after some while has elapsed can at all analyse the causes of its awe and admiration; and then finds these feelings so much increased by analysis that the last impression left is mainly one of utter shame at its own inferiority. (Correspondence, I, 128)

Rossetti was not only impressed by the intellectual power of the Memling paintings, but also intrigued by their technical construction, carried out in oil but 'with some vehicle of which brandy & white of egg are the principal components' (Correspondence, I, 129).

Rossetti began sonnets for two pictures in Bruges which had impressed him. One, inevitably, was the St John altarpiece. His focus was on the central panel of the triptych and in particular the figure of St Catherine of Alexandria. Women feature prominently in Rossetti's work, and they also caught his eye when he looked at the work of others. Saint Catherine's 'mystic marriage' to the infant Jesus was a popular subject with painters. In Memling's picture the figure of Catherine, in flowing gold and black, dominates the composition. She outshines the quietly dressed St Barbara, with her symbolic tower, and indeed the Virgin herself. The sonnet opens with the striking word 'Mystery', and 'knowledge', closed to most people, is a key word in a number of these early poems.
 Her life is hushed and mild,
 Laid in God's knowledge-ever unenticed
 From God, and in the end thus fitly priced.

 (CPP, p. 345)


Rossetti was fascinated by the idea that the Virgin knew the future of the world, and contained that knowledge behind her quiet demeanour.

The association between a beautiful woman and music, represented in the altarpiece by an angel with a portable organ, attracted him, and would feature in many of his own paintings.
 There is a pause while Mary Virgin turns
 The leaf, and reads. With eyes on the spread book,
 That damsel at her knees reads after her.
 John whom He loved, and John His harbinger,
 Listen and watch. Whereon soe'er thou look,
 The light is starred in gems and the gold burns.

 (CPP, p. 345)


Not long before, writing of his own Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Rossetti had taken the Spanish painter Murillo to task for anachronistically painting the Virgin with a book. Circumstances, one might say, alter cases. In the poem, as in the painting, the two patron saints become bystanders who 'Listen and watch' and the sonnet ends with colour and light of gems and gold.

Rossetti's second Memling sonnet, 'For a Virgin and Child by Hans Memmelinck (in the Academy of Bruges)', begins, like the St Catherine poem, with the word 'Mystery'. There is indeed a 'mystery', but of another kind, here.

Rossetti specifically states that the child Jesus 'holds' the 'symbol fruit' (CPP, p. 345). Memling often painted the Virgin handing an apple to the child, as in the Nieuwenhove diptych, or shows the child with an apple in his hand, but there was no painting with this motif in the Academy of Bruges. For this reason it has been assumed that Rossetti was referring to the St John altarpiece, where, in the central panel, the child is indeed grasping an apple. However, it seems unlikely that Rossetti, writing so close to the event, would have forgotten where the picture of his sonnet was located. Jerome McGann believes that the subject of the sonnet is not a painting by Memling at all, but the Altarpiece of the Baptism of Christ by a younger artist, Gerard David, which was sometimes attributed to Memling (CPP, p. 412). McGann's supposition is probably correct. In the Gerard triptych the infant Christ grasps a bunch of grapes, symbolic of the Church's support for the faithful and of the Eucharist. The Virgin, not looking at her child, seems completely withdrawn and wrapped in silent contemplation. This panel with the infant Christ is on the reverse of the triptych: when the doors are closed, the child is seen to be handing the grapes to the wife of the donor of the painting. That the outer panels were shown to visitors is clear from William Michael Rossetti's statement that he and his brother saw 'A very fine Memling, one of the outside panels being an extremely pretty Madonna and Child', on their visit to the Academy in 1863 (Rossetti Papers, p. 38).

Rossetti's poem again refers to the concept of knowledge. For those on earth
 Until God permits,
 His soul's elect still have the absolute
 Harsh nether darkness, and make painful moan.


The stillness and inwardness of the Virgin's face are reflected in the sonnet-her agony is over, and past and future are drawn together:
 There abideth on her brow
 The ended pang of knowledge, the which now
 Is calm assured. Since first her task began
 She hath known all.

 (CPP, pp. 344-45)


While in the museum in Bruges, Rossetti noticed a pair of pictures by an unknown artist, 'representing the capture & execution of Cambyses--equal to anyone for colour and individuality, & most remarkably fine in drawing' (Correspondence, I, 128). These paintings, The Justice of King Cambyses, are now given To Gerard David. In the first work, the King is on the point of ordering the arrest of his corrupt steward, whose anxious face reflects his guilt. In the second, the steward is flayed alive in the foreground while, behind, his son sits gingerly on a throne covered with the skin of his father. Rossetti evidently admired the way in which scenes are juxtaposed to one another within the picture, and Gerard's use of compressed space, with details of buildings crammed in behind the figures. This was a device which he himself would use in his medievalizing watercolours.

Today's tourists would note obvious gaps in Rossetti's survey of the major works of art in Bruges. He does not, for example, mention the group of paintings by Roger van der Weyden, and it was only on the later visit with his brother in 1863 that he referred to the St Ursula casket by Memling, noting that the paint seemed to have been touched up in the intervening years.

The first fruits of Rossetti's journey to Belgium were these sonnets and what is generally considered to be his early masterpiece, 'Ecce Ancilla Domini!' (Tate), an Annunciation scene with strong echoes of Flemish painting, which was begun soon after his return to London in November 1849 and completed in 1850.With Christina and William Michael Rossetti as the models, 'Ecce Ancilla Domini!' shows the Virgin on her bed shrinking away from the angel, who carries a lily in his hand. Modern critics have focused on the erotic undertones of the painting, pointing out the phallic aspects of the lily and suggesting the sense of violation in the relative gestures of the two figures. At the time, it was the religious symbolism which caught the attention of the critics--the angel and the lily, the dove, the altar cloth, and the haloes around the heads of the two figures. At a time of sensitivity towards the High Church movement, the painting was condemned by some people as overtly Catholic. The introduction of religious motifs, familiar enough in the early paintings which Rossetti had been studying, resulted in a chorus of criticism. As in his earlier Annunciation sonnet, Rossetti insists in the painting upon the heat of the scene, showing the Virgin with no bedclothes, and giving the whole an overall white tonality, akin To Whistler's White Girl paintings.

A later fruit of the Belgian journey was the altarpiece which Rossetti painted for Llandau Cathedral, The Seed of David, commissioned in 1856 and completed in 1864. With early Flemish works in mind, Rossetti suggested that he should paint a triptych, and that the three wings would centre on a Nativity, with King David on one side and St Paul on the other, the theme being worship flanked by song and sermon. With anti-Catholic feeling in mind, this was rejected in favour of having King David, as an ancestor of Christ, on both wings, 'sprung from high and low', as both 'Shepherd and King'. The close-packed central panel, with angels playing instruments within and around the stable, and a shepherd and a king kneeling before the child, clearly draws upon the thematic structures favoured in early Flemish art, although the catalogue of the recent Rossetti exhibition also notes that the 'more rounded, fully modelled style of the final work was influenced by Rossetti's growing enthusiasm for Venetian art'. (16)

Rossetti's change of style in the 1860s has been the subject of much discussion. During his early Pre-Raphaelite period, when he was influenced by early Italian and Flemish art, he worked in oils. Watercolour became his chosen medium during the 1850s, and then, around the turn of the 1860s, he came back to oil painting. With works such as Bocca Bociata of 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Fazio's Mistress of 1863 (Tate), he also adopted what might loosely be called a Venetian style. Here he was in tune with other avant-garde artists such as J.M. Whistler, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton, Edward Burne-Jones, and G. F. Watts, who spearheaded the aesthetic revolution of the 1860s. In place of narrative and moral subjects, these artists proclaimed a philosophy of beauty for its own sake, and they were heavily in debt to the decorative and sensual qualities of Venetian painting.

As we have seen, Rossetti admired the works by Titian which he had seen in the Louvre in 1849. He revisited Paris in 1855 and again in 1860, and on one or more of these occasions he must have seen Titian's Young Woman at her Toilet (sometimes known as An Allegory of Vanity). A young woman looks into a mirror, with an apple in one hand and her long hair streaming through the other. (17) Not only was this painting close in subject and style to Fazio's Mistress, but it also suggested parallels with Rossetti's sumptuous half-length portraits of beautiful women arrayed in rich costumes and aesthetic jewellery.

Rossetti was a natural pioneer, someone who had to swim against the tide. He never changed his mind about Guido Reni and the Bolognese school, of whose work he said: 'I have always thought the soul to be too visibly in a minor ratio, as compared to the body; and colour, which constitutes the pictorial atmosphere of beauty, is a sealed mystery to them'. (18) On the other hand, the prevailing criticism of Titian and his contemporaries, that they were artists who lacked morality and who favoured the worldly over the spiritual, may have been an incitement to him. There was an implied accusation in much of this criticism that they were lazy, not taking enough trouble. Rossetti would have reacted against such strictures as he moved from the broadly Christian ethical systems of his early work (as expressed in his letters and writings) towards that trust in the art of painting in and for itself which marks his later work. His friendship with John Ruskin, who had championed the young Pre-Raphaelites, was one casualty, recorded in an exchange of letters in which Ruskin lamented what he saw as the coarseness of Rossetti's later technique.

As he grew older, Rossetti's interest in the old masters diminished, to judge from his surviving letters. There are, however, exceptions. In 1867 he bought a painting by Botticelli from Christies, through Colnaghi, for 20 [pounds sterling]. It came from the French Pourtales collection. From an inscription on the frame Rossetti discovered that the subject of the painting was Smeralda Bandinelli, whom he identified, in a note to a sonnet, as the model for Flora in Botticelli's Primavera. Rossetti drew upon his Botticelli for the subject of the woman at a window in La donna della finestra of 1879 (Fogg Museum, Harvard), and Jane Morris, the model in his La pia de' Tolomei of 1868-70 (Museum of Art, University of Kansas), wears a dress copied from the Botticelli portrait. Botticelli was not well known in Britain at this date. Guidebooks to Florence mention neither the Primavera nor the Birth of Venus which now draw crowds of admirers. Rossetti paid tribute to Botticelli with his sonnet 'For Spring, by Sandro Botticelli', written in 1880. By the late 1870s, after Walter Pater had published his celebrated essay 'Sandro Botticelli' of 1870, collected into The Renaissance, the painter had become an icon of the aesthetic movement.

Seeing Botticelli's Mystic Nativity, then in a private collection and now in the National Gallery, at Leeds in 1868, Rossetti wrote in excitement of 'a most glorious Sandro Botticelli (Nativity)' (Letters, II (1965), 664-65). Alicia Faxon has shown how he adapted the design of clasped lovers for his Blessed Damozel of 1875-78 (Fogg Museum, Harvard) from the embracing figures at the bottom of the Botticelli. (19)

Michelangelo is another figure whose name recurs in Rossetti's later letters. As a young man, faced with a reproduction of Michelangelo's Last Judgement, Rossetti had declared it 'an admirable copy, I believe, but one of the most comic performances I ever saw in my life' (Correspondence, I, 109). Nor, several years later, was he prepared to praise Michelangelo's statue of David, even agreeing with one writer who called it 'simply bad' (Letters, iii, 1278). Rossetti does not mention the sculptor's early Bruges Madonna in his account of his first visit to the town, although he did see the statue with his brother in 1863. In 1876, after a period of research into the sculptor's life as part of an abortive scheme to translate Michelangelo's sonnets into English, Rossetti reacted angrily to Seymour Kirkup's 'Vandalic' criticism of the Medici Tombs in Florence (Letters, III, 1402).

Michelangelo continued to fascinate him as a person, and he admired Ascanio Condivi's life of the artist, written from personal knowledge. Condivi was Rossetti's source for his sonnet 'Michelangelo's Kiss', which tells how, at Vittoria Colonna's deathbed, the sculptor kissed her hand rather than her 'brow or cheek', a source of much later regret (CPP, p. 169). The sonnet has another level of meaning. Rossetti associated Vittoria Colonna with Jane Morris, comparing her to the ideal heads in some of Michelangelo's drawings, which were then thought to represent Vittoria. Rossetti considered naming a portrait of Jane as 'Vittoria Colonna', 'but I thought it would not do to tackle Mike'. (20)

A second Michaelangelo sonnet, written in 1880, was inspired by an unfinished painting, known as the Manchester Madonna after its appearance at the famous Manchester Exhibition of 1857. The Madonna was bought for the National Gallery in 1870, and remains attributed to the artist. The subject of the painting is close to that of other works admired by Rossetti:

In this picture the Virgin is withdrawing from the Child the book which contains the prophecy of his sufferings--I suppose that of Isaiah. The idea is a most beautiful one. (Letters, IV (1967), 1828)

Rossetti was able to see the Manchester Madonna and the Mystic Nativity in the National Gallery, but, as he never travelled to Italy, there were many works for which he had to rely upon illustrations in books or photographs, copies, and prints. Occasional schemes to go abroad, to Venice, to Germany to see the work of Albrecht Durer, all came to nothing. Some patrons and friends, such as Lady Ashburton, F. R. Leyland, and William Graham, had their own collections of old masters, from which he could supplement his knowledge. Leyland owned the four panels of Botticelli's Nastagio Degli Onesti (Prado, Madrid, and private collection) which fascinated Rossetti. He seems never to have gone to the Winter Exhibitions of old masters at the Royal Academy, although he did seize the opportunity to see works from private collections in Leeds in 1868. Together with the Botticelli, he saw and enjoyed works by Carpaccio, Titian, Moroni, Bellini, and Velazquez in the exhibition.

Not surprisingly, he was happy to view the tracings and copies from early Italian art made for the Arundel Society and exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1856. He had probably seen paintings by Giotto and Benozzo Gozzoli, whom he later described as a 'god', in the Louvre, but he was otherwise dependent upon London galleries and reproductions (Correspondence, II, 118). During his boyhood, his father had received a watercolour copy of a head of Dante, said to be by Giotto, found under whitewash in Florence, and this was the source for Rossetti's own watercolour of the scene, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante of 1852 (private collection), of which he subsequently made other versions.

Friends sent him photographs and engravings from their travels. Two prints of Veronese and Tintoretto, sent by Charles Eliot Norton, were fixed to his bedroom wall at Kelmscott in 1871. When William Davies, the landscape painter, was on a visit to Rome in 1878, Rossetti gave him very precise instructions about which photographs to bring back. A year later he was advising Frederick Shields to look at Fairfax Murray's 'divine' photographs of the Jacopo Della Quercia fountain in Siena (Letters, IV, 1651).

While the above-mentioned poems and paintings by Rossetti on the theme of the old masters were serious, they did lead on to the easily mocked intensity of the aesthetic movement. It is good to end on amore light-hearted note. Writing to Jane Morris in 1879, Rossetti told her that Fairfax Murray had brought him a photograph of a Botticelli Holy Family, in which the Infant Christ is kissing the little St. John--really sweet beyond words. I have made a rhyme on Italian Art:--

(1) Francis Haskell, Rediscoveries in Art (London: Phaidon, 1976).

(2) The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. by William E. Fredeman, 4 vols (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2002-4), I (2002), 40. This edition will be referred to as Correspondence.

(3) W. Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1905), I, 106.

(4) Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999), p. 54.

(5) The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. by F. G. Kenyon, 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1897), I, 307.

(6) Malcolm Warner, 'The Pre-Raphaelites and the National Gallery', in Pre-Raphaelites in Context (San Marino: Henry C. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, 1992), pp. 1-11 (pp. 3-5).

(7) Peter Ackroyd, Blake (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995), p. 286.

(8) The Germ: The Literary Magazine of the Pre-Raphaelites, ed. by A. Rose (Oxford and Birmingham: The Ashmolean Museum and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1979), p. 60.

(9) D.G. Rossetti, Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. by Jerome McGann (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 352. Here after CPP.

(10) W. M. Rossetti, Rossetti Papers (London: Sands, 1903), p. 33.

(11) George du Maurier, Trilby (London: Osgood, McIlvaine & Co., 1895), p. 2.

(12) Charlotte Bronte, Villette (London: Smith Elder, 1871), Chapter 19, p. 190.

(13) W. M. Thackeray, 'A Roundabout Journey', Cornhill, 2 (1860), 623-40 (p. 628).

(14) W. M. Thackeray, 'Little Travels and Road-Side Sketches', in The Works of William Make peace Thackeray, 13 vols (London: Smith Elder, 1899), VI, 267-98 (p. 293).

(15) Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris: Their Correspondence, ed. by John Bryson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 14.

(16) Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Zwolle, Amsterdam, and Liverpool: Waanders, Van Gogh Museum, and Walker, 2003), p. 171.

(17) See D. S. Macleod, 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Titian', Apollo, 121 (January 1985), 36-39 (pp. 36-37).

(18) Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. by O. Doughty and J. R. Wahl, 4 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-67), III (1967), 1328. This edition will be referred to as Letters.

(19) Alicia C. Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Oxford: Phaidon, 1989), p. 209.

(20) Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris, p. 54.

(21) Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris, p. 113.
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Author:Ormond, Leonee
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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