ante Gabriel Rossetti's struggle to accept the tenets of his religious upbringing left a space in his life that he filled with his art. He turned to the Fair Lady — whether as Blessed Damozel, femme fatale, or victim — as a source of salvation. His heaven was a heaven of earthly pleasure. His God smiled approvingly on the lovers' embrace. The creation of art was an act of devotion and the appreciation of female beauty a form of prayer. Rossetti's devotion to female beauty in his work reflects a similar obsession in his personal life. In his poetry and painting, Rossetti used the theme of feminine beauty to explore his own fantasies and conceptions of heaven, salvation, and the dichotomy between earthly and spiritual love.
According to David Sonstroem, who wrote Rossetti and the Fair Lady, 95% of his poems and 98% of his paintings were in some way about feminine beauty. Some of Rossetti's paintings were portraits, but most were allegorical, mythical, literary, or historical figures with some conceptual significance beyond the readily apparent physical representation. Many of Rossetti's works relate to text, either having been inspired by other poets or stories, or by inspiring poetry from the image itself. Rossetti's Fair Lady paintings repeatedly used the same models that Rossetti chose because they represented his idea of ideal beauty. The Rossetti type, though not universal in all his work, distinguishes Rossetti from his Pre-Raphaelite brothers, W. H. Hunt and J. E. Millais. Rossetti's Fair Lady has long, lustrous hair and an elegant, though sturdy and elongated neck. She has heavy eyelids and a pouting mouth that speak of sensousness and soulfulness simultaneously. Her pale, luminous skin illuminates Rossetti's canvases with a glow that seems to come from within. Though Rossetti used many models during his career, his type remained relatively consistent.
Rossetti drew inspiration for all of his work from personal experience. Even if he was portraying mythological or historical figures like King Arthur and Guinevere, his own relationships colored the work. In fact, there was no clear distinction between his life and his art. The two were in constant dialogue, mirroring each other, informing each other, and providing solutions to the problems of each area. As Sonstroem put it:
The category of the moment seems repeatedly to be an extension of Rossetti's own life, as it was or as he imagined it. The tales that he borrowed were seldom taken over whole, but were refashioned, apparently, in such a way that he could more easily see himself in them. Changes in his own life were answered by removals from one fantasy to another. 
Some might consider Rossetti's tendency to place his experience at the center of all of his work self-absorbed and myopic, and, according to Eben Bass, such a conclusion holds some truth:
It is no wonder that his works are filled with mirrored images of himself looking back at himself. Rossetti was a supreme egoist, revealing empathic powers very late in life only. He was concerned with la condition humaine only insofar as he himself represented it. [Bass 195]
His tendency to meld the real and the fictional can also be seen as an attempt to make the historical and mythological tangible and universal to a modern audience. Instead of seeing Christian text, for example, as doctrine to follow for salvation, he saw it "as a poetic construction" (McGann 91) that was a jumping off point for his creative work.
Rossetti was born May 12, 1828 in London and lived in England his entire life. He was part Italian, connecting him with his namesake, Dante, the famous Italian poet. Rossetti rearranged his name early in life to place emphasis on this namesake. Dante was also an important source of artistic and poetic inspiration, and even obsession, throughout Rossetti's entire career. His parents and siblings were also artistically inclined. Cultivating his poetic and artistic affinities from a young age in this prolific environment, Rossetti began writing at the age of five. He also read extensively as a child, giving his imagination fodder for later poetic and visual creations. His early writing focused on the themes of chivalry, battle, and weaponry, but starting in his early adolescence, women began to take a central role in his compositions.
Rossetti was raised a strict Anglican by his mother. During his mid-adolescence, though, he began to turn away from his religious upbringing. In contrast to his sister, Christina, and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite brother, William Holman Hunt, Rossetti didn't embrace a structured, orthodox religious doctrine. Still, Christian history, stories, symbols, and imagery remained major thematic elements in his work long after he stopped adhering to organized religion. His first two oil paintings, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini center around his fascination with the Virgin Mary, perhaps his first Fair Lady.
Rossetti was an eccentric. He had reclusive tendencies, as well as leanings toward lethargy and depression. He didn't like to fulfill obligations (perhaps his rejection of religion had something to do with this.) His commissions were often in arrears. In art school he turned to translating medieval Italian poetry instead of practicing technical drawing skills because he couldn't stand the structure of artistic study at the art academy. Partially due to his myopic focus on his own work and the inspirations for it, Rossetti's knowledge of other subjects like science, geography and theology were limited (Sonstroem 10). However, "Counteracting Rossetti's reclusiveness was his growing interest in women, for they gave him reason to keep his imagination in touch with everyday life" (Sonstroem 12).
Rossetti concentrated on spiritual and conceptual meaning in his work instead of literal and physical meaning. He started with a spiritual concept and then found physical and visual representations that would make that concept palpable for his audience. The spiritual concept behind the work was more important than the need to describe the subject visually or with words (Eben 319). In fact, Rossetti focused on technique only to the degree to which it would help him express his ideas, and certainly not for its own sake. For example, Rossetti's treatment of perspective is often haphazard (for example, in Ecce Ancilla Domini) as well as self-conscious. Rossetti didn't obsess about details mirroring life exactly because his goal in his work was to express an idea, not to reproduce the world in two dimensions. "Everything he did was undertaken with absolute decision on one hand, and as part of a spiritual pursuit on the other" (McGann 3).
At the age of nineteen Rossetti began his dramatic monologue, "The Blessed Damozel." It was also around this time that he began to describe women in religious terms.
No one can say certainly why Rossetti was so attracted to the fair lady as savior, but I might suggest that the young man, in rejecting the comforts of Christianity, turned, as he often did, to his imagination to supply the lack; and in his fantasies he found a Beatrice or Virgin Mary offering a compensatory salvation accordant with his own notions. Dante's beloved suggested his own ideal, and Dante's conception of a woman as heavenly savior, when applied to himself, appealed to important imaginative and religious needs of his own in addition to his more general sexual needs. (Sonstroem 20)
Rossetti began the poem while he was translating Dante's Vita Nuova in which Beatrice in heaven is the earthbound Dante's savior. Similarly, in "The Blessed Damozel" a deceased woman looks down at her beloved from heaven and longs for him. The poem has three voices: a disembodied narrator describing the relationship, the thoughts and desires of the woman in heaven, and the voice of the still living beloved. As the poem progresses, however, we soon realize that the text represents a projection on the part of the beloved of what he wishes were true of his deceased lover. Heaven is filled with embracing couples. The activity of heaven is actually earthly, corporeal love. This love has become spiritual, though, because it's based in the love and desire for the union of two souls and two bodies, not just a lust after the physical. In Rossetti's fantastical code, anyway, true love is spiritual and smiled upon by God. The damozel's earthbound lover primarily desires union with her spirit rather than with her body sexually. The fact that the damozel is in heaven and gives no concern for God or salvation is obviously blasphemous. The poem centers entirely on the part of the lover on earth projecting onto his deceased counterpart.
It's unlikely that the damozel would look down from Paradise and long for the life she had on earth. Therefore, the Earthly lover still living must be dreaming that his lover in heaven is also thinking of him. He puts words in her mouth and desires in her heart. In order to further illustrate this dramatic monologue, Rossetti painted an accompanying oil picture by the same title much later in life. Like the poem, the painting emphasizes the material, sensual, tactile aspects of heaven and the Blessed Damozel. Her bosom that "must have made/ The bar she leaned on warm," rests on the "gold bar of Heaven." Her long, flowing hair cascades down her back while her eyes look longingly toward her lover on earth. Her bright red lips, slightly parted, show a glimpse of teeth and contrast her pale, glowing skin. The sensuous folds of her robe work with the flowers that overflow and cramp the space to create a flat picture plane that's filled with texture and material objects that are anything but heavenly, in the conventional sense. The Blessed Damozel is much more human than her precursor, Beatrice in Vita Nuova because Rossetti chose to describe her physical characteristics, e.g. the warmth of her bosom and her hair color. Three angels border the bottom of the canvas, their pouting lips suggesting sensuality not often portrayed on the faces of spiritual beings. The embracing lovers that pepper the shallow background are fully entwined in passionate hugs and kisses.
This blending of physical beauty and sensuosness with the idea of heaven and salvation is exactly Rossetti's fantasy. The man is draped along the bottom of the painting in a predella depicting a separate landscape, looking to his lover in Heaven for his salvation. She will be his savior and she has not forgotten him for a moment, though she's been dead for ten years. There is no mention of judgment, sin, or atonement in this depiction of heaven. Rossetti released that doctrine when he released his Christian upbringing.
Although he rejected the institution of Christianity, many of its forms and promises still appealed to him. So, like the courtly poets of an earlier day, he stole from Christianity what he considered of value-its beauties of language, attitude and situation, and its rewards-and left the toils behind. [Sonstroem 28]
Rossetti doesn't give religiously symbolic meaning to elements of the painting such as the seven stars in the damozel's hair or the three lilies that she holds. These elements are purely aesthetic. Rossetti's rejection of typological symbolism here directly contrasts with the often overwhelmingly meaningful symbols that Hunt and Millais sometimes used in their work. When Rossetti does use religious symbols in other work, e.g. the dove and lilies in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, he includes them more as ethnographic than didactic elements because he realizes the power of these images despite his lack of belief in them (Landow). The painting and poem of the same name depicting the Blessed Damozel reflect Rossetti's projection of spiritual meaning onto his female subjects, both painted and real life.
Bored by the Academy School and desiring to express himself through painting rather than simply representing reality in two dimensions, Rossetti quit in March of 1848 and convinced Ford Madox Brown to take him on as a student. After two months working with Brown honing his technique, painting subjects such as pickle jars, Rossetti again felt uneasy and left to work with William Holman Hunt. Rossetti never achieved the technical prowess of his fellow Pre-Raphaelites. Still, he was the main intellectual force and strongest personality in the Brotherhood that formed in 1848. It was Rossetti's intensity that truly brought the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood into being (Wood 25).
In Holman Hunt's studio Rossetti was allowed to pursue subjects of his own choosing. As Ruskin urges in Modern Painters, he began to follow nature in his paintings. This method would soon be adopted as part of the doctrine of the PRB, a doctrine that Rossetti would to on to abandon to some degree. Instead of focusing on detail in writing or painting for narrative purposes, Rossetti's goal in creative expression was to reflect an inner emotional state and "the sensed experience of the moment," (McGann 322). The PRB's concentration on nature was "not simply a matter of verisimilitude; it was most of all a manner of concentrating so powerfully upon each visible or sensible fact that the perceiver would indeed become aware of its even greater 'reality' as a symbol for universal and eternal values" (McGann 318). Motivated by the desire to express meaning and not just aesthetic beauty in his work, in the late 1840s, Rossetti began to paint his fantasies from real life.
Rossetti's tendency to let his life and work melt into one another sent him on a quest to find models who would fulfill his fantasies of them as blessed sources of salvation in real life. His search led him to Elizabeth Siddal who came from a modest, lower-middle class background. Rossetti met her while she was working for a milliner's assistant in 1851. He fell in love with her grace, her pale aloofness, her sensuously elongated neck, her golden red hair, and the way that she embodied his own fantasy of spiritual love. Lizzie Siddal was to become Rossetti's first Beatrice — his life and art was intertwined with her until his death, even though she died twenty years before him (Sonstroem 39). She was the first of three significant loves in Rossetti's life.
Elizabeth Siddal is essential to the discussion of how Rossetti's work related to his notions of religion and salvation because Lizzie symbolized the Blessed Damozel for him. He drew and painted Lizzie incessantly and eventually wouldn't even allow his friends to use her as a model. Rossetti's fantasy of a woman whose beauty was spiritual, whose sexuality divine, and who was the key to salvation was fulfilled by his projections on Lizzie. "As long as Elizabeth Siddal sat like a picture, graceful and silent, meeting Rosssetti's fantasy half-way, his imagination would do the rest; but when she acted and spoke her mind she betrayed a personality that must have troubled his dreams" (Sonstroem 43). Though Lizzie was the visual embodiment of Rossetti's fantasy, she was also a bit neurotic and prone to hysterical fits. When her humanity impeded Rossetti's ability to impose his imaginings onto her, tensions arose.
Siddal and Rossetti were engaged a year after they met, but weren't married until 1860. During their engagement, Siddal refused to consummate their love sexually. Dante's sexual frustration was of a physical and spiritual sort, for "In denying Gabriel 'passion of the naked kind' Lizzie was also denying him Paradise. Rossetti's strong sexual desires and his equation of earthly and heavenly love make it easy to see why he would see sexual consummation as the salvation of his earth" (Sonstroem 48). Lizzie fell very ill during the couples' engagement and Rossetti's admiration for her became less reverent and more focused on "concern and pity, and belittling fondness for her — attitudes inimical to the concept of her as savior" Sonstroem 45).
In his sexual frustration, Rossetti turned to themes other than spiritual salvation through love. Themes like prostitution and the femme fatale began to replace earlier religious themes. Lizzie was synonymous with the holy and spiritual, so in his turning away from her, he turned away from the heavenly in his work, as well. Instead of making paintings and poetry about the female savior of man, his work now turned to man saving the fallen woman, or even the fallen woman beyond help. Found, a painting that Rossetti began early in his career and never finished, shows a downtrodden woman literally being pulled up from the ground by a man. She's a prostitute whose morally depraved behavior has literally sent her crawling on the street. Other work that worked with the theme of the fallen woman includes the poem "Jenny" about a young man who takes pity on a prostitute. These works bring to light Rossetti's judgment of sexual promiscuity, which he saw as destructive to women. In essence, by deriding sexual promiscuity, Rossetti was protecting his fantasies of the fair lady (Sonstroem 53). If he confused his image of the impenetrably divine fair lady with the sexual pleasure associated with the femme fatale or the fallen woman, his hopes of salvation through spiritual love would be dashed. Consequently, Rossetti's work attempted to keep the two types of fair lady separate.
Just as his work took a turn as he increasingly neglected Lizzie, he started to search for a new model/lover to fulfill his desires. Her name was Fanny Cornforth. The story of their meeting, though not one hundred percent validated, is that while walking one day in 1856, Rossetti saw Fanny and flicked her hair "accidentally" so that it came undone and fell down her back. While apologizing profusely, Rossetti asked her to come sit for a painting, and she conceded (Drewery 2). The association that began that day would last until Rossetti's death.
Partly as a result of the time at which she came into Rossetti's life, and partly as a result of her own personality, Fanny represented "Body's Beauty". She was most likely part of the inspiration for the sonnet of the same name. She was more overtly sexual than Lizzie. Her features were less graceful and delicate, her body more voluptuous. Fanny was a larger, plump woman whom Rossetti somewhat endearingly called "Elephant". "The works of this time drawn from Fanny emphasize the sensual, almost to the exclusion of all else, and those depicting heavenly women are purified of sex" (Sonstroem 66). Though it's likely that Fanny fulfilled more than a sexual role in Rossetti's life, her likeness is used to represent little more than earthly, physical pleasure or fantasy. Perhaps this is because of her lower stature in life; some historians claim that she was a prostitute before she worked with Rossetti. Though this accusation may not be true, Rossetti occasionally painted her as one. Even when she was living with Rossetti as his housekeeper and mistress while Lizzie was sick, he treated her with condescension because of her crude language, her lack of education, and her forcefulness with the other servants (Bass 274). In reality, though, she was probably the most stable of all of Rossetti's women.
Based on his paintings of her, we can conclude that Rossetti treated Fanny more as an object than a person. The visual work based on her image emphasizes her physical appearance rather than any expressive or soulful qualities. In portraits, she often looks straight at the viewer, eliminating any mystery or intrigue of the emotional or spiritual sort. The direct eye contact is both seductive and straightforward, leaving little space for emotional or spiritual interpretation.
The first painting of Fanny was called Bocca Baciata or "The Kissed Mouth." This painting gives no pretense of spiritual importance or higher meaning. The emphasis is revealed in the title and the painting is faithful to it. The woman in the painting, modeled after Fanny, sits with hands resting on a table in front of her. She gazes off into the distance at an unknown point. Characteristic of Rossetti, the compositional plane is flattened. The woman fills most of the picture plane framed by a dark, flower peppered background. An apple sits on the table on the right edge of the painting, possibly symbolically reminiscent of Eve and Eden. The woman's hair is clearly Fanny's, red and imposing, taking up a great deal of space in the painting. Fanny's pale skin is contrasted with her dark clothing and the dark background. Fanny holds a single flower between her fingers and a rose embellishes her voluminous hair. Her expression doesn't reveal much emotional intensity. In fact, her eyes appear slightly, vacant. Her mouth, the main subject of the painting, is almost dead center on the canvas. Her lips, though pink and inviting, don't hint at any particular emotion. The painting is about the female face, specifically the mouth, and the title implies that the painting isn't about much beyond that. "Fanny's taking over the delights of the five senses as her own province caused his early union of body and soul, heavenly love and earthly love, to collapse. Although Rossetti himself did not realize it, body and soul were now divided" (Sonstroem 68).
Rossetti finally married Elizabeth Siddal in 1860, probably out of guilt for neglecting her while having a relationship with Fanny. Lizzie and Rossetti went on a honeymoon to Paris and Lizzie's health improved a bit when they returned. Fanny was upset by the marriage, as she had always hoped that Rossetti would marry her (Drewery 5). His marriage to Lizzie didn't seem to alter Fanny and Rossetti's relationship, however. Soon after Rossetti returned from Paris he painted Fanny in Fair Rosamund.
In February of 1862, only two short years after the wedding, Lizzie took an overdose of sleeping medication and died. It was probably a suicide, though this hasn't been completely substantiated. Rossetti flew into manic activity in the few years after her death, producing many poems and paintings, as well as going out all the time with his friends (Hunt, Burne-Jones, Morris, Millais, et al.), and obsessively collecting art objects. Though Rossetti's work didn't suffer as a result of the traumatic loss, his emotional state deteriorated steadily until his own death. He suffered from insomnia, which he medicated with chloral and whisky, a combination that became an addiction.
His work after his wife's death turned more towards the femme fatale than the heavenly woman. This change from the theme of heavenly love that colored most of his early work is significant because it provides further evidence of the lack of demarcation between Rossetti's life and work. Of course Rossetti felt tremendous guilt after his wife's death. He also blamed Fanny on some level, depicting her more and more as a dangerous woman, intertwining men in her hazardous web and leading to their downfall, as in Lady Lilith. Whereas before Lizzie Siddal's death Fanny was regarded as a sympathetic, soulful, good woman who was boisterously excited about life, she was now depicted as powerful and evil, a distinct departure from the soulful beauty that the deceased Lizzie had originally represented for Rossetti (Sonstroem 115). Though Fanny wasn't actually deceptive or kniving, the guilty Rossetti needed someone to share the blame. His lover seemed like a likely target.
Though the body and soul's beauty had remained separate in a great deal of Rossetti's work, the two concepts had a great deal in common. Rossetti's two types of woman, the blessed damozel and the femme fatale, were both "powerful and attractive forces, drawing the male to his death; both assume the spectra of good and evil and salvation and damnation; both have access to supernatural realms; both are beautiful" (Sonstroem 105). The events of Rossetti's personal life impacted his work in that his two supposedly distinct types began to overlap. Rossetti's reworking of Lilith's face is one example of this blurring of the lines between good and evil in the feminine form.
Lady Lilith was also originally modeled after Fanny in 1864. Unlike Bocca Baciata, Lady Lilith is an obvious depiction of the femme fatale. Engrossed in her own beauty, Lilith combs her lustrous, long, golden hair. Legendarily the first wife of Adam, her expression is cold, but her body voluptuously inviting. The painting is associated with the sonnet entitled "Body's Beauty" from The House of Life. In conjunction with Lady Lilith, "Soul's Beauty" or "Sybilla Palmifera", a sonnet from the same poem, and the painting by the same name set up a dualism between the two types of beauty. Sybilla Palmifera depicts a woman seated in front of two pots of the same roses and poppies that frame Lilith's face. These flowers represent sterile love or sleep/death in Lilith. The woman in Sybilla Palmifera holds a palm in her right hand, representing victory, perhaps "the triumph of beauty or the soul over death" (Faxon 1). The presence of the palm, the roses and the poppies may signify spiritual love overcoming the danger of death that involvement with Lilith might entail.
Lady Lilith's composition is pressed to the front of the picture plane, the same as Bocca Baciata. Similar to the other canvas featuring Fanny as his model, the fair lady's skin is contrasted with the dark background. Lilith is seated, her voluptuous form and cascading robes barely contained by her chair. A small mirror in the upper left corner revealing a tree and the abundance of flora indicate that Lilith is seated outside. Like Millais's Mariana, this painting seems to use interior space to mirror the internal character of the subject. The space is ambiguous, and consequently dangerous. Unlike the woman in Sibylla Palmifera, Lilith doesn't make eye contact with the viewer given that she's fully engrossed in her own reflection. Her draping dress barely covers her overtly feminine form, revealing her pale shoulders, clavicles, and breasts.
The overt sensuality of the painting is clearly grounded in physical beauty and desire, just as the sonnet speaks of the "Body's Beauty." Rossetti's sonnet tells of Lilith, who in Talmudic legend was Adam's first wife. She is Rossetti's femme fatal, seducing young men with her feminine wiles and then tossing them off. In the poem she casts her "spell through him, and left his straight neck bent; And round his heart one strangling golden hair." Lilith's beauty is fatal. He who falls for the corporeal sensuality that Lilith represents is doomed.
In an interesting twist in the meaning of this painting, Rossetti changed the face of Lilith to that of Alexa Wilding at the request of the patron who bought the painting. Lilith was no longer directly connected to "Body's Beauty" that Fanny represented. Instead he replaced her face with Alexa Wilding's. Another model of Rossetti's, though never his lover, Alexa's was also the face for Lilith's antithesis in Sybilla Palmifera. The painting is left with an ambiguous meaning because the two paintings with the same face no longer provide as strong a contrast. Changing Lilith's face from that of Fanny to Alexa's also releases Fanny from the burden of femme fatale that being depicted as Lilith had forced on her.
Rossetti's third significant muse was Jane Burden Morris. The two met when they were young. Jane married William Morris in 1859, but the marriage was an unhappy one. A great deal of evidence supports the assumption that Janey Morris and Rossetti were lovers, including the fact that Rossetti didn't attend Morris's wedding. Rossetti said of Janey in a sonnet in House of Life that she was "The meaning of all things that are," (HL XXVII). Janey was extremely important to Rossetti, particularly after his wife's tragic death in 1862. The two lived together at Kelmscott Manor for two years starting in July of 1871. During this time William Morris was traveling alone quite a bit for long periods of time (to Iceland, for example.)
Like Lizzie, Jane was described as strikingly attractive, perhaps more so than Lizzie, and certainly in a different way. Instead of the golden locks that Rossetti so frequently wrote about in his poetry (as in "Jenny" and "The Blessed Damozel"), Janey had raven colored hair. She was tall, pale, and had a somber countenance that is portrayed in many of Rossetti's works, including Prosperpine and Pandora. Many critics, like Holman Hunt, felt that Rossetti had idealized most of his models when he painted them, claiming that:
Rossetti's tendency in sketching a face [was] to convert the features of his sitter to his favorite ideal type, and if he finished in these lines, the drawing was extremely charming, but you had to make believe a good deal to see the likeness, while if the sitter's features would not lend themselves to the pre-ordained form, he, when time allowed, went through a stage of reluctant twisting of lines and quantities to make the drawing satisfactory. [Eben 270]
The work for which Janey was a model is an exception, however. According to several accounts, her beauty was never idealized in Rossetti's work; she simply was that naturally gorgeous.
Whereas Lizzie represented heavenly beauty and love, and Fanny represented corporeal and sensual love, Jane Morris lay somewhere in between. For Rossetti, she was both "Blessed Damozel" and Femme Fatale (Sonstroem 122). She was quiet and aloof, a bit of an unattainable beauty. This personality was perfect for Rossetti to model visually in his work; she was a blank canvas on which to project himself. "In exploring her eyes for residual deep meaning, he discovers instead his own reflected image; similarly, the universal notions that he seeks in her oracular face always turn out to be his own old thoughts, somewhat' light-circled for their reflection from her" (Sonstroem 129). Janey was neither distinctly representative of body's beauty or soul's beauty. She was Rossetti's Beatrice, but the two weren't young lovers like Dante and Beatrice. And there were visual disparities such as Janey's long black hair that gave her away as an imperfect Beatrice replica. However, she was still a Beatrice-type for Rossetti. He painted her in a variety of works, giving her likeness multiple meanings. "Janey's greatest disservice to Rossetti was her meaning too many things to him" (Sonstroem 173). Many of these works, like Proserpine portray a sense of being trapped in sadness and melancholy that was indicative of Janey's unhappy marriage. However, "Even though there is a heavy sense of despair in pictures like these, there is also an obvious, almost melodramatic eroticism about them" (McGann 279).
Janey Morris's multiple meanings are explored in Beatrice, A Portrait of Jane Morris. The title of the painting suggests a double meaning from the outset. Jane Morris is both herself and Beatrice in this work. She looks just past the viewer. Her full lips are closed and there's no real indication of expression on her face. The way her chin and eyes are cast downward suggests submissiveness. The portrait conveys Jane's beauty and sophistication. It could be read as a straightforward portrait were it not for the title and Rossetti's tendency to inject meaning into the real and physical.
Adding another level of meaning, and potential confusion, Janey represents Beatrice in the guise of Mariana (Landow). Mariana, depicted by Millais and written of by Tennyson, was a sexually frustrated woman awaiting and longing for her lover to return to her. Contrastingly, Beatrice was Dante's muse, a representation of an elevated, spiritual love, not lust. Mariana and Beatrice are essentially opposite characters. Mariana is unfulfilled and weak, whereas Beatrice holds a spiritual position of power. The fact that the painting could have at least two completely different meanings points to the fundamental ambivalence of Rossetti's life. It attempts to reconcile the spiritual and physical sides of love.
Rossetti was never able to reconcile his two moral codes that set the spiritual, heavenly beauty against the corporeal, body's beauty. The blessed damozel was a sexual being just as was the femme fatale, but her gaze led to salvation as opposed to damnation.
Behind the heavenly lady was the assumption, already described sufficiently, that human, sexual love is good and lead to heaven. Behind the femme fatale was the contradictory assumption that sex is sinful and leads away from spiritual salvation to damnation. The same relationship with the same woman was thus subject to two conflicting moral systems: one of his own making, which he desired but could not bring himself to believe utterly; the other the orthodox one of his youth, which he had disowned but could not drum out of his system. The confusion of fantasies indicated an emotional conflict between desire and guilt, and a moral conflict between adopted beliefs and basic feelings upon the subject of sexual behavior. [Sonstroem 162]
Although Rossetti distanced himself from his religious upbringing, he was never able to shake the moral code that was instilled in him at an earlier age completely. As much as he tried to articulate his own conceptions of heaven, salvation, and sexuality, conventional morality still influenced his work. The poem "Jenny" is an example of this moral judgment. Jenny is a prostitute hired by a young man who takes pity on her and just lets her sleep on his knee. Rossetti's attempt to reconcile his desire to separate himself from the moral codes of the Christian church led him to separate soulful beauty and love from the body's beauty and lust. At least then he could fall in love with the soulful beauty, the heavenly woman, and still ensure his own salvation and only apply his conventional morality to the femme fatale (e.g. Lady Lilith). Even this separation didn't prove successful, however. Near the end of his life Rossetti said to a friend: "I can make nothing of Christianity, but I only want a confessor to give me absolution for my sins — What I want now is absolution for my sins, that's all" (Sonstroem 177).
After his wife's suicide, Rossetti's emotional state spun in a downward spiral until his death. Following the publication of a rather scathing review of his work by Buchanan entititled "The Fleshy School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti", Rossetti began to suspect conspiracies against him and destroyed friendships because of his paranoia. He became increasingly depressed and disillusioned, calling "The Blessed Damozel" the "Blasted Damozel" or "Bloody Dam" (Sonstroem 178). After reading Buchanan's article and another poem by Browning that he thought was conspiratorial, Rossetti even attempted suicide with the same drug that killed his wife.
He also became increasingly skeptical of religion and metaphysics and attempted to disassociate his personal life with his work. Near the end of his life, Rossetti wrote: "Now I paint by a asset of unwritten but clearly defined rules, which I could teach to any man as systematically as you could teach arithmetic — Painting after all, is the craft of a superior carpenter. The part of a picture that is not mechanical is often trivial enough" (quoted by Sonstroem 181). Though Rossetti had avoided focusing on technique his entire career, he now devalued the conceptual and spiritual significance of his work, calling their substance "trivial."
"He took a desperate comfort in the similarity between the state of dying and the heavenly state, for he envisioned them both as the embrace of a beautiful woman" (Sonstroem 152). Rossetti finally found that embrace when he died of kidney failure in April 1882 at the young age of 54.
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Last modified 15 October 2004