[This essay first appeared in the Spring
1989 issue of
iven Pater's complimentary references to Rossetti and use of Rossettian allusions it seems unlikely that he would have felt either unqualified or unwilling to write the essay which Ward had commissioned, and it is therefore necessary to find another reason why he may have not felt "quite certain" about it. A comparison of what Ruskin said about Rossetti in Oxford in 1883 with what Pater wrote about him there that year suggests that "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" is not only a eulogy of the dead poet but also an implicit attack on Ruskin's latest view of Rossetti as painter, which often invokes Ruskin's earlier more complimentary evaluations of Rossetti as painter, in a process of assimilation central to Pater's strategy of appropriation. In order to appreciate fully the resonance of Pater's essay it is first necessary to realise the significance of what Ruskin said about Rossetti in 1883. The complete history of Ruskin's troubled relationship with Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites has yet to be written and here it is only possible to examine some relevant key areas. Rossetti was Ruskin's second Pre-Raphaelite protégé after Millais, first meeting him in April 1851 the month that Effie Ruskin left her first husband eventually to become Mrs. Millais. Between 1854 and 1856 the Rossetti-Ruskin friendship flourished with Ruskin patronising both Rossetti and his fiancée Elizabeth Siddall, encouraging the former to continue painting Dantean and Biblical subjects. In October 1855 Ruskin wrote eagerly to W. J. Stillman telling him that:
Wilkie and Mulready are only half sincere and natural, and that only in familiar subject; the Pre-Raphaelites are wholly sincere and natural and in heroic subject Dante Rossetti is at this moment painting a Holy Family with most exquisite natulalism. [5:37]
As Maggie Berg has pointed out, Ruskin's hopes for his latest protégé were publically expressed in January of the following year in Modern Painters 3 in which he claimed that "in many of the works of Watts and Rossetti is already visible, as I trust, the dawn of a new era in art, in a true unison of the grotesque with the realistic power" (5:137). Using this quotation as Ruskin's definition of Rossetti's art, Berg applies it to both his poetry and painting, neglecting, however, to make the crucial observation that by 1883 Ruskin had retracted this statement in Rossetti's case. For from the high point of optimism in 1856 the relationship between Ruskin and Rossetti became increasingly mutually ambivalent. By the time he came to write The Three Colours of Pre-Raphaelitism in 1878, Burne-Jones had become Ruskin's third Pre-Raphaelite favourite and he was complaining that "Mr. Rossetti threw more than half his strength into literature, and, in that precise measure, left himself unequal to his appointed task in painting" (CW 34:168). Yet at the same time he could proclaim that "all Rossetti's drawings from the life of Christ . . . together with all the mythic scenes which he painted from the Vita Nuova and Paradiso of Dante, are of quite imperishable power and value."
- Pater's Aesthetic Poet: The Appropriation of Rossetti from Ruskin — Introduction
- Why Pater Wanted to Write about Rossetti in 1883
- Pater's "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" and His Intellectual Relation to Ruskin
- Ruskin's 1883 Lecture on the "Realistic Schools of Painting"
- Walter Pater's "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" versus His "Aesthetic Poetry"
- Pater's Characterization of Rossetti's Poetry
Last modified 2002