D. G. Rossetti, (left) King Arthur and the Weeping Queens and (Right) St. Cecelia

In 1857 Dante Rossetti created four designs for illustrations to be included in Edward Moxon's collection of Tennyson's poetry, which also included illustrations done by many other members of the PRB. Two of these engravings, titled King Arthur and the Weeping Queens and St. Cecelia, illustrate Tennyson's The Palace of Art, a poem that expresses the spiritual despair of the Soul who isolates herself in her arts and can only be cured by leaving the palace of art for a cottage among men. In the case of all of these illustrations, Rossetti drew his designs straight onto the blocks of wood, thus the actual drawings were destroyed when carved (Ironside 33). Rossetti felt that the engravers who actually reproduced his works did not do them justice, even the prominent Dalziel brothers. However both illustrations still demonstrate Rossetti's interpretive creativity in their design.

In King Arthur and the Weeping Queens, Rossetti chose to illustrates the passage:

Or mythic Uther's deeply-wounded son
In some fair space of sloping greens
Lay, dozing in the vale of Avalon,
And watch'd by weeping queens.

Ten long-haired queens surround the prostrate King Arthur, tending the body of the "deeply wounded son." The women all seem to share similarly idealized Pre-Raphaelite expressions of feminity, with long tresses, down-cast eyes and curved lips. The folds of their dresses and their flowing hair seem to protect and envelope the figure of Arthur as they bend over him in concern. Rossetti skillfully depicts this circle of kneeling women, creating believable space among the overlapping figures. While all share similar physical traits, each of the ten queens wears a crown of different design. Rossetti also creates interest by depicting some of the women in different positions: one woman holds her hands to her face in despair while another fingers her chin, and others crane their necks to lean over the body. Rossetti also takes the initiative to include the "vale of Avalon" with the surrounding wildflowers and hills, and presumbably Arthur's boat floating in the background.

For St. Cecelia, Rossetti depicts the kneeling figure of St. Cecelia playing the organ while an angel leans down to kiss her. This illustration refers to the passage in the poem that describes how

in a clear-wall'd city on the sea,
Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair
Wound with white roses, slept Saint Cecily;
An angel look'd at her.

In Tennyson's poem, the angel merely looks at St. Cecelia. However, in Rossetti's illustration, he clearly shows the angel kissing her forehead. The poem also describes her sleeping. However, Rossetti's version shows St. Cecelia in the act of playing the organ. Thus her posture, as she leans back to accept the angel's kiss, with her eyes closed, introduces an element of sensuality that does not appear in the poem. The long, flowing hair of both figures and the angel's clothed and hidden arms wrapped around her shoulders heightens the sensuality of their pose. This added element echoes the sensuality we find in many of Rossetti's portrayals of women, and thus the interpretation very much reflects and fits the artist. He also utilizes this artistic liberty to create the medieval fantasy world that surrounds the two figures, envisioning the clear-walled city described in the poem. Rossetti surrounds the figures in a castle or medieval fortress, with a harbor and ships in the distance. He includes an inner courtyard complete with trees and flags waving in the wind. Rossetti also depicts soldiers and men at work and even adds a guard, obliviously munching on an apple, in the foreground. Both illustrations are evidence of Rossetti's skill, showing great attention to spatial and atmospheric details, however they also demonstrate the artist's creative and interpretive role as an illustrator.

Discussion Questions

1. Rossetti gives his views on illustration in a letter to writer Allingham around this time: "I fancy I shall try the Vision of Sin and The Palace of Art, etc.--those where one can allegorise one's own hook on the subject of the poem, without killing for oneself and everyone else a distinct idea of the poet's" (Ironside 34). How do these illustrations show the artist's own "hook" or interpretations? According to Rossetti, how should the artist's interpretations work in relation to the distinct idea of the poet's work? How should they be reconciled?

2. Does this view of illustration differ from the conventional ideas on illustration and the job of the illustrator?

3. Do Rossetti's illustrations differ from that of Hunt's or Millais's, who are also featured in Moxon's Tennyson? How so? What Pre-Raphaelite qualities do they share?

4. Could these plates be viewed as works of art in their own right, or does the fact that they are illustrations of another's work prohibit them from being considered high art?

References

Poems by Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet Laureate. London: E. Moxon, 1857.

Ironside, Robin & Gere, John. Pre-Raphaelite Painters. NY: Phaidon, 1948.


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Last modified 16 September 2004