Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Oil on canvas
Main canvas: 34 7/16 x 27 1/4 inches.
Predella: 9 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches.
Chicago Art Institute (acc. no. no. 25.722)
Charles L. Hutchinson Collection
Provenance: William Graham; Christie's, 3 April 1886, lot 116 Li,207; Charles L. Hutchinson, 1886-1925; Art Institute of Chicago.
Commentary by Patricia McDonnell and Timothy R. Rodgers
Within the Pre-Raphaelite tradition Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti employed vastly different means to illustrate a literary text, a divergence that is perfectly characterized by the comparison of The Lady of Shalott and Beata Beatrix. Dante's Vita Nuova, the subject of Beata Beatrix, was one of numerous early Italian works that Rossetti translated. Dante portrays himself in La Vita Nuova as a poet captivated by an unattainable love personified by Beatrice. After Beatrice's death Dante, who cannot overcome his lingering love for her, resolves to express his love through his art. Rossetti found that the illusory imagery depicting idealized love interwoven throughout Dante's poem complemented his own taste for visual and literary narration. Thus Rossetti generally followed the themes of Dante's poem but interpreted the narrative freely to compose an image that asserts his personal conception of ideal love. Whereas Hunt employed precise iconography and typological symbolism in The Lady of Shalott to present his specific interpretation of Tennyson's poem, Rossetti preferred a freer por- trayal of his literary subject. For example, Hunt depicts the Lady's moment of illumination by the cracked mirror, her wildly windswept hair, the unraveling tapestry, and the falling light. In contrast, Rossetti illustrates Beatrice's transcendence by utilizing limited tonal contrasts, blurred transitions between forms, and Beatrice's reflective, devotional pose, which appears to derive from Rossetti's earlier drawings of Elizabeth Siddal as Delia in The Return of Tibullus (c. 1853).
Rossetti outlined the basic meaning of the painting in a letter to William Graham of March 1873 in which he described the painting
not as a representation of the incident of the death of Beatrice, but as an ideal of the sub- ject, symbolized by a trance or sudden spiritual transfiguration. Beatrice is rapt visibly into Heaven, seeing as it were through her shut lids (as Dante says at the close of the Vita Nuova): "Him who is Blessed throughout all ages"; and in sign of the supreme change, the radiant bird, a messenger of death, drops the white poppy between her open hands. In the background is the City which, as Dante says: "sat solitary" in mourning for her death; and through whose street Dante himself is seen to pass gazing towards the figure of Love opposite, in whose hand the waning life of his lady flickers as a flame. On the sundial at her side the shadow falls on the hour of nine, which number Dante connects mystically in many ways with her and with her death. The date below the predella (3ist March 1300) is that of Dante's meeting Beatrice in the Garden of Eden. [The date 9 June 1290 heading the main panel represents the date of Beatrice's death.] The words, "Veni, Sponsa De Libano" are sung at the meeting by the women in the train of Beatrice. [Horner, 25]
In this letter to William Graham, Rossetti comfortably discussed the literary meanings of the painting; how- ever, Beata Beatrix also commemorates the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal. In a manner paralleling Dante and Beatrice's relationship, Rossetti idealized his wife but could only express his idealized love through his art. Although Rossetti compared Elizabeth Siddal to Beatrice from the beginning of their relationship, he was overwhelmed by the parallel after her suspected suicide. In Beata Beatrix Rossetti gave symbolic expression to his personal reaction to the loss of his wife. Rossetti presents a remote, idealized love that he longs for yet cannot attain until, like Dante, he dies and is then transcended to the Garden of Eden where he will be reunited with his ideal love. The fundamental conflict of desiring without possessing love in Beata Beatrix echoes the correlation of love and loss in Victorian poetry and simultaneously sets forth the dualities of love that preoccupied Rossetti for the remainder of his career. Beata Beatrix is in fact a stylistic departure from Rossetti's fleshly paintings of assertive, monumental femme fatales of this period. Although an exemplar of late Pre-Raphaelitism, Beata Beatrix also reveals proto-Symbolist characteristics in its strong evocation of mood and secular spiritualism.
A year after his wife's death, Rossetti began painting his first version of Beata Beatrix, with which he struggled until its completion in 1870. Prompted by William Graham in 1871, Rossetti began this replica in August while approaching a major turning point in his life. Work started as he resided with the Morrises in Kelmscott but was broken off when he returned to London in October (Rossetti, 2:238). Robert Buchanan's virulent attack on Rossetti, "The Fleshly School of Poetry" (text) appeared in the October 1871 Contemporary Review and was republished in pamphlet form in early 1872. Rossetti, insomniacal, paranoic, plagued with guilt over his wife's death, and steadied only by chloral and alcohol, was profoundly upset by Buchanan's charges, and his ensuing depression led him to attempt suicide in early June 1872. Rossetti recuperated over the summer at William Graham's Scotland mansion and first mentions that he resumed Beata Beatrix in his 5 September 1872 correspondence (Rossetti, 2:253). One week later Rossetti reported that the main panel was completed (Rossetti, 2:256). Although the predella panel was begun in Scotland, Rossetti probably finished it when he returned to Kelmscott in late September. Some months later, on 4 February 1873, Rossetti wrote his brother that the predella and the frame were finished and conceded that the replica no longer was a "dreary work" (Rossetti, 2:138), but rather was "quite satisfactory" (Rossetti, 2:279). — Ladies of Shalott (1985), pp. 140-42.
Horner, Lady Frances, Time Remembered. London: W. Heinemann, 1933.
Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and Its Contexts. Ed. George P. Landow. Providence: Brown University, 1985.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. The Poetical Works. 2vols. [Ed. William Michael Rossetti.] Boston: Little, Brown, 1913.
Rossetti, Michael Rossetti. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1895. 2:238, 253, 256Ñ79
Surtees, Virginia. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. Catalogue no. 168 R3.
Last modified 26 May 2007