The Rossettis: Revolutionary Romantics Or Femme Fatalities

The Rossettis: Revolutionary Romantics Or Femme Fatalities
This Spring, Tate Britain open a timely exhibition devoted to the Rossetti generation. The individuality and cultural defiance of their approach to art, love and lifestyles was once considered radical. Today they are reimagined in an immersive show, using spoken poetry, drawings, paintings and design.

The Rosettis were a family of thinkers and artists who had a large impact on 19th century London. Their father was an Italian revolutionary exile and the four siblings grew up in a creative household. This exhibition concentrated on the poet Christina, poet and painter Gabriel, and his wife Elizabeth Siddal. 

Their passionate, anti-establishment personalities challenge our ideas of the Victorians – demanding poetry and painting express lived experience and feeling, as they searched for modern beauty and explored stories, themes and questions that remain relevant today. Theirs was a world steeped in myth, romance and mysticism of their own design.

Considered by some to be the Addams family of the era, modern accusations mostly target the artists’ sentimentality, but the closer relationship to death of the age, meant they held beliefs that are more easily dismissed now. Even if you just think “medieval and manic, punctuated with exalted religious sentiment” – it’s going to be good.


The Pre-Raphaelite Royal Rulebreakers

The Royal Academy of Art was founded in 1768 with the aim of: ‘raising the quality and status of art in Britain’. British artists were encouraged to see themselves as part of a great tradition of European art, in which the art of classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance was held in especially high esteem. The founding president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his Discourses on Art, encouraged aspiring artists of the RA Schools to:


“Study the works of the great masters… Study nature attentively, but always with those masters in your company; consider them as your models which you are to imitate, and at the same time as rivals with whom you are to contend.”


Art was ranked according to a ‘hierarchy of genres’. Ambitious artists were expected to create ‘history paintings’: complex figure compositions illustrating narratives from the Bible, ancient history or classical mythology. Next came portraiture, followed by genre painting (scenes of modern life), landscapes, and still life.

Works from the pre-Raphaelite years demonstrate how the spirit of popular revolution inspired these artists to initiate the first British avant-garde movement, rebelling against the Royal Academy’s dominance over artistic style and content. Gabriel searched for stories in literature from around the world: popular folk ballads, Arabic tales from One Thousand and One Nights, gothic architecture, horror, and artists outside the establishment. Like William Blake before him, Gabriel and his fellow students at the RA mocked its founder, the artist Joshua Reynolds, anointing him ‘Sir Sloshua‘.


“I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” – William Blake


Works such as Siddal’s Lady Clare and Christina’s famous poem The Goblin Market questioned the many forms of love in an unequal and materialist world. Following new research, the surviving watercolours of Elizabeth Siddal were shown in a two-way dialogue with contemporary works by Gabriel, expressing their relationship in jewel-like medieval settings. As a working-class artist who was largely self-taught, Siddal’s work was highly original and inventive, but has often been overshadowed by her mythologisation as a muse, and her early death.


Femme Fatalities and Fatal Fraternities

In historian Jonathan Jones‘ wonderfully scathing review of the ‘taxidermy exhibit’ and ‘decidedly non-revolutionary Pre-Raphaelites’, he states that ‘the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were a bunch of so-so male artists who got together in 1848 to dress up their art in the borrowed robes of 15th-century religious fervour and promote themselves as social saviours.’ Further citing historical inaccuracies:


“In its desperation to see the Rossettis as high-minded and progressive, this exhibition makes a startling factual error. A wall text explaining Rossetti’s 1859 painting Bocca Baciata tells us it illustrates ‘The Decameron, a sensual medieval Italian poem by Giovanni Boccaccio’. But there is no medieval ‘poem’ called The Decameron. It is the founding masterpiece of Italian prose: a collection of ribald stories that’s an ancestor of the modern novel… Rossetti in fact is illustrating the seventh tale on the second day of The Decameron, in which an eastern princess on her way to marry the Prince of Algarve is shipwrecked before being pursued and in effect raped by a series of men. So this painting is very far from the ‘romantic radicalism’ this exhibition claims for him. In portraying his lover Fanny Cornforth as Boccaccio’s princess he seems rather to be making a dirty joke, or sexual boast… It’s the Pre-Raphaelite muse, a myth this show signally fails to bust. Christina Rossetti sees the role women will always have in her brother’s art: to be fed on.”


An alternative but not dissimilar reading is that: the book’s primary title exemplifies Boccaccio’s fondness for Greek philology – Decameron combines Greek δέκαdéka (ten) and ἡμέραhēméra (day) to mean ten-day [event], referring to the period in which the characters of the frame story-tell their tales. Boccaccio’s subtitle, Prencipe Galeotto, refers to Galehaut, a fictional king portrayed in the 13th-century Lancelot-Grail who was sometimes called by the title haut prince (high prince).

By invoking the name Prencipe Galeotto in the alternative title to the Decameron (the ‘proem’), Boccaccio alludes to a sentiment he expresses later in the text: his compassion for women deprived of free speech and social liberty, confined to their homes and, at times, lovesick. He contrasts this life with that of the men free to enjoy hunting, fishing, riding, and falconry.

Gabriel’s friendship with the model Fanny Cornforth, a working-class woman, fed his visions on the idea of female sanctity and ‘redemption‘. In Lips That Have Been Kissed (Bocca Baciata), she is cast as Alatiel, the Babylonian princess. Both misfortune and adventure await her in several parts of the world, and having overcome her trials, symbolised by marigolds, she eventually returns to her betrothed and marries him. The title comes from a quote on the back of the painting: ‘the kissed mouth loses not its favour, but renews itself like the moon‘.

Christina addressed the notion of looking and being looked at when she wrote In an Artists Studio, which was not published during her lifetime. Its context is that it was a reaction to Gabriel and Siddals’ quarrels and eventual separation, and the sonnet questions the relationship between dream and reality, muse and maker, love and lover, and the feeding on ‘One face… Not as she is, but as she fills his dream’.

Christina and Maria Rosetti explored social justice through their work and involvement with the Anglican Church, while Gabriel and William sought psychological change through their art. Due to their father’s influence, their London household was often full of visiting activists. In 1848 popular rebellions against political regimes spread across Europe. Inspired by the spirit of reform, the ‘Brotherhood’ was formed.

This movement of modern art sought to challenge the ‘soulless self-reflections’ of the state-sponsored Royal Academy, by injecting biblical imagery and medieval methods straight into the veins of their contemporary lives. First and foremost, the young men and women of the Brotherhoods’ circle desired to express themselves authentically.

As their father had devoted his vocation to teaching and translating the poet Dante Alighieri’s work (who’s first name Gabriel adopted), this provided Gabriel with a model of an artist searching for beauty, love and truth. Dante’s critiques of the class and political divides of medieval Florence still chimed with Victorian London.

The Rosettis explored the ambiguities of romance where authentic relationships are distorted by the superficialities of society, and where anything other than the wealth of the soul is but a fleeting currency. Unlike his sisters, Gabriel was an atheist, but the Pre-Raphaelites appreciated the spiritual and visual force of religious art, symbols and ideas. They sought authenticity through ‘truth to nature’.

Maria and Christina also questioned the persistent attitudes towards women. By 1860 they had each chosen a single life, living together and working in the community through an Anglican order of nuns. They worked especially closely with sex workers – one of the few areas of society where should the tables be turned, men would be found high in supply and distinctly lacking in demand. Although they shared many prejudices of the age, the family aligned themselves with ideas around equal rights and social reform.

A popular monolithic interpretation of Lilith is that Gabriel was prominent in exploring the idea of the ‘dangerous’ and ‘vain’, sexually empowered ‘fatal woman’ or the ‘femme fatale’. This culturally negative vision of feminine power or the ‘dark feminine‘ responded to Victorian anxieties about social change – and persists in literature and art today (note that the male equivalent is James Bond). John Keats’ ballad about a supernatural fairy enchantress in La Belle Dame Sans Merci was an early inspiration for this figure, with a sketch depicting a woman who sees little need for a knight.

Gabriel painted his ‘modern’ version of Lilith with a sonnet on ‘Lilith (Body’s Beauty)’, exploring sensual love and what he sometimes saw as ‘the perilous principle in the world being female from the first’. A female figure in Mesopotamian and Judaic mythology, theorised to be the first wife of Adam – Lilith was sculpted from the same clay, signifying the ‘demonised’ demand for equality, unlike Eve who was subsequently created from Adam’s rib, and made to lie beneath him (probably why she poisoned him with that apple). Lilith’s ‘she-demon’ image was connected to the ‘New Women’ of the time, who were campaigning for equal rights.

While it is today evident and yet still lacking, that humans should be treated as equals, the depiction and distinction between ‘Body’s Beauty’ and ‘Soul’s Beauty’ also imparts the notion of women demanding equality in emulating the worst aspects of their masculine principle; In conquest and superficial superiority, contrasted with the self-possessed nature of divine or self-love and soul connection – in which neither marriage nor monogamy necessarily play a part.

Sibylla Palmifera (Soul’s Beauty) was a double work of art intended to partner with Lilith, the accompanying sonnet of the same name describes a classical prophetess of spiritual love. The palm lends her authority and butterflies symbolise the soul. ‘The sky and sea bend on thee,- which can draw, By sea or sky or woman, to one law.’

Christina’s verses were inspired by her own romantic experiences, as well as popular songs and sermons. Many of her works have become popular hymns today, such as In The Bleak Midwinter. She spoke of love in many voices – tender and fierce, joyful and hapless, familial love, divine love, professional intimacy, friendship and kinship, and even voices from beyond the grave.


Mercantile Media and Moving Merchandise

Gabriel found success away from the mainstream, displaying work in alternative exhibition spaces and selling to private enthusiasts. The goal of the aesthetic movement had eventually been to create ‘art for art’s sake’, but many of his wealthy financiers were a new generation of bankers, merchants and industrialists enriched by the commerce of empire, and he catered to their tastes.

In the 19th century, the Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawed sexual relations between men, and the adapted features employed in search of a ‘universal beauty’ may have been underpinned by a sentiment to seek a common humanity amongst perceived differences. As a group, the artists wed or partnered between different social classes, which was unusual for the times, and these unconventional households inspired new designs. However Gabriel’s use of orientalist fantasies appealed to a market with an Imperial tendency to see the world as a treasure trove, and is today viewed as idealising whiteness.

Inspired by Renaissance portraiture and mythological texts, his sensual portraits suggested touch, sound, and scent as well as vision – later exploring feelings more than stories. They are characterised by their experimental changes and repainting, emphasising the pleasure of form and colour, and looking ahead to the abstraction of the following century.

Ultimately, the line between ‘revolutionary’ and ‘fatality’ has always been painstakingly thin; but the Rosettis illustrate that the nature of love, lust, ferocity, fortune, vice and virtue, with their equivocal cast of profundity and profanity in-between, never goes out of style. You can purchase their printed T-Shirts on the way out.