decorated initial 'T'he revitalization of the link between the painting and poetry, the so-called sister arts, formed a key component of the Pre-Raphaelite project. Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets employed two distinct modes of synthesizing their two arts. First came the complementary approach, in which a work in one art form acted as a complement to a work in the other, resulting in a double artwork whose poetic and pictorial components produced a combined aesthetic effect. Later Pre-Raphaelites employed a digressive approach in which a preexisting work in one medium served as the point of departure for a radically different work in the other art form. The shift from one approach to the other suggests not only the chronological evolution of Pre-Raphaelitism but also the equal viability of both approaches. A comparison of the Pre-Raphaelites' two modes of combining the sister arts shows that while they could imitate one art by means of the other, they could also produce derivative works whose effectiveness did not depend on faithfulness to their sources.

Since antiquity, Horace's maxim ut pictura poesis -- "as is painting, so is poetry" -- has served to encapsulate the analogy between the visual and verbal arts. The statement originally referred to the fact that some poems stand up to only a superficial reading whereas others can survive close scrutiny, just as some paintings delight the viewer only when seen at a distance, whereas others provide equal pleasure when seen from close up (Hagstrum 9). For centuries, however, critics have extrapolated upon Horace's analogy to argue that poetry should emulate painting's ability to imitate nature. The most concrete application of ut pictura poesis appears in the even older tradition of ekphrasis, the poetic description of actual or imaginary works of art. In this tradition "a poem aspires to the atemporal 'eternity' of the stopped-action painting, or laments its inability to achieve it" (Steiner 14). A similar set of traditions, including the history painting based on literary sources, the miniature, and the book illustration, allow for ekphrasis in reverse: the creation of a pictorial work based on a poetic source.

By 1856 the ut pictura poesis analogy, along wth its associated traditions, had lost much of their former vigor, but John Ruskin revitalized them in order to formulate his own theory of the alliance of the sister arts. In volume three of Modern Painters, Ruskin identified both painting and poetry as forms of imaginative expression: "Painting is properly to be opposed to speaking or writing, but not to poetry. Both painting and speaking are means of expression. Poetry is the employment of either for the noblest purposes" (qtd. in Landow 1971). Ruskin drew an analogy between poetry and painting partly for polemical reasons, to advocate for the widespread recognition of the latter. At the time poetry enjoyed much greater popularity than painting, a situation which Ruskin tried to rectify by favorably comparing the two:

Art was gaining respectability (there was a Royal Academy), but painting had not achieved anything like the popularity or prestige of literature. Education of increasing numbers of people and new publishing practices had produced a sizeable reading public in England, and part of Ruskin's purpose in Modern Painters was to create and attract a similar audience among those, largely the middle classes, who were unaware of the art of painting. [Landow 1971]

Ruskin's equation of painting with poetry constituted an attempt to improve the public perception of painting by analogizing it with an art that already enjoyed popular acceptance. As one component of this project of public aesthetic education, Ruskin implicitly argued that each of the two arts could attempt to emulate the distinctive qualities of the other. His technique of word painting, as used throughout Modern Painters, employed language to replicate the experience of viewing visual stimuli. although Ruskin wrote his word paintings in prose rather than in poetry, their effectiveness implied that in the hands of a skilled artist, the creative tools of one medium could recreate the effects of the other.

The Finding of ther Saviour in the Temple

The early work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood represents a translation of Ruskin's theories into practice. The original Pre-Raphaelite painters created paintings which partook of the narrativity and symbolic techniques of poetry and elucidated the meanings of these paintings through the use of explanatory poetic texts. Paintings such as William Holman Hunt's The Finding of the Savior in the Temple resembled poetry in their complexity and symbolic density, and thus demanded to be read as closely as poems. Furthermore, the Pre-Raphaelites employed literary texts as a means of aiding the viewer's interpretation of their paintings. For example, in the frame of the aforementioned painting Holman Hunt inscribed a Scriptural quotation from the story of Mary's finding Jesus in the Temple. This quotation identifies the scene depicted in the painting, as well as hinting obliquely at the symbolic meaning of the painting. However, Dante Gabriel Rossetti employed an even more powerful strategy for making painting accessible to readers of poetry, a technique which Maryan Wynn Ainsworth has called the "double work of art" but which one might also call self-ekphrasis.

Mary's Girlhood

Of the major Pre-Raphaelites, only Rossetti achieved greatness as both a painter and a poet. From early childhood onward, he simultaneously practiced both arts with great distinction. Due to his talent for, and love of, both arts, he hesitated between the two throughout his career, thereby suffering great personal anxiety (Ainsworth 1). Yet despite the stress it caused him, Rossetti's simultaneous proficiency in both of the sister arts also made him uniquely qualified to create hybrid works that combined the two. His first major painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-1849), went together with an accompanying sequence of two sonnets, "Mary's Girlhood (For a Picture)." Rossetti published the first sonnet in the catalog of the exhibition where the painting was first shown, and inscribed both sonnets on a gold leaf which Rossetti attached to the frame of the painting (Rossetti 392). The painting portrays the young Mary and her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim, along with a number of objects -- a stack of books, a palm tree, and so on-- which all have some symbolic meaning. The second sonnet interprets the significance of these details. Rossetti flatly states "These are the symbols," then enlightens the viewer/reader as to their significance:

The books -- whose head
Is golden Charity, as Paul hath said --
Those virtues are wherein the soul is rich.
Therefore on them the lily standeth, which
Is Innocence, being interpreted. [186]

The second sonnet clarifies the proper reading of a painting which a contemporary spectator might have found difficult. It does so in an aesthetically pleasing way: its attractive verbal imagery and rhythm mirror the equally attractive pictorial imagery and compositional rhythm of the painting. The sonnet thus functions as an aesthetic object in itself, despite being clearly subordinated to the aesthetic object it explains.

The first sonnet goes beyond this explanatory function by augmenting the surface meaning of the painting. In the first eight lines of the sonnet, Rossetti amplifies the painting's depiction of Mary's character: "Unto God's will she brought devout respect, / Profound simplicity of intellect, / And supreme patience" (185). The viewer might infer all this from the picture, which depicts Mary's patient, passive pose and her intelligent-looking expression. However, the sonnet clarifies the ambiguity of Mary's visual portrayal and also provides deeper insights into her character. Rossetti goes on to connect the scene depicted in the painting with its antitype:

So held she through her girlhood [...]
Till, one dawn at home,
She woke in her white bed, and had no fear
At all, -- yet wept till sunshine, and felt awed:
Because the fulness of the time was come. [186]

The Annnciation

In a technique highly characteristic of Rossetti, these lines create a sense of simultaneity between two different times: the time of Mary's girlhood and the future time of the Annunciation (the morning on which Mary awoke without fear in her white bed, as depicted in Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini). Rossetti thus adds an additional layer of meaning to the painting, encouraging the viewer to see it as a simultaneous representation of two different temporal periods. Overall, this double work serves as a textbook example of the complementary approach to ut pictura poesis. Though the painting stands as a semiotically complete entity, the sonnet explains its meaning to the perplexed viewer and also adds additional layers of meaning. As the sonnet's subtitle, "For a Picture," suggests, Rossetti assigns primary importance to the painting rather than the poems, but the sonnets still function as a work of art in itself rather than as a mere appendix to a work of art. Moreover, the combination of the two creates a clearer and more powerful aesthetic experience than either work on its own could create. In this double work Rossetti succeeds in blending painting and poetry harmoniously.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel

In all but two of his double works, Rossetti executed the painting first and composed the poem subsequently (Rossetti's Double Works). However, The Blessed Damozel, the unique case in which he proceeded in the opposite direction, shows that he could work equally well in the illustrative and the ekphrastic modes and that he took largely the same approach to both. (In the other exceptional case, that of the introductory sonnet to The House of Life, Rossetti executed the poem and painting simultaneously as an illuminated text.) The painting The Blessed Damozel (1846-7) predates the similarly titled poem (1875-8) by some decades, but exactly replicates the imagery with which the poem opens. The main portion of the canvas shows the damozel wistfully looking down from the "gold bar of heaven," with seven stars in her hair and three lilies in her hand, just as stated in the poem's opening stanza. Around her Rossetti depicts the "lovers, newly met / 'Mid deathless love's acclaims" of lines 36-37. In the painting Rossetti adds the additional element of a predella which shows the narrator/lover gazing up at the scene depicted above. The visual realization of the lover, who appears in the poem only as a disembodied voice, enriches the painting and turns it into more than a simple translation of visual language into images. This new element makes up for the painting's inability to reflect the gradual unfolding of the damozel's thoughts as presented in the poem. Furthermore, the predella serves the same purpose within the painting as the parentheses in the poem, which delineate between the lover's third-person narrative of the damozel in heaven and his first-person meditations. Both elements separate the lover's imaginative vision of the blessed damozel's heavenly condition from the wretched condition of his actual reality. Thus Rossetti employs differing formal aspects of his two media to produce a common aesthetic effect. The equivalent artistic successes of Mary's Girlhood and The Blessed Damozel show that Rossetti could approach the double work of art from the direction of either artistic medium with equal dexterity. Moreover, in both his self-ekphrastic works and his unique self-illustrative works, Rossetti strove for the closest possible aesthetic unity of picture and painting.

This held true even when Rossetti's source did not originate with himself, as with his paired sonnets "For Ruggiero and Angelica by Ingres," written in 1849 and based on Jean Ingres's painting Ruggiero Delivering Angelica. These sonnets form a nearly exact parallel to the "Mary's Girlhood" sonnets; like the latter, the former pair consists of one descriptive sonnet and one interpretative sonnet. The first "Ruggiero" sonnet exhibits what Abigail S. Rischin calls "static ekphrasis": it "presents an evocative and faithful description of the painting's compositional elements and their spatial relation to one another" (217-218). Here Rossetti simply translates Ingres's visual image into a verbal image, confining himself to the temporal and compositional context of his source. In the next sonnet, however, Rossetti imagines Angelica's thoughts at this emotionally charged moment, then jumps ahead in time to describe the subsequent moment:

Clench thine eyes now, -- tis the last instant, girl:
Draw in thy senses, set thy knees, and take
One breath for all; thy life is keen awake, -- [...]
He turns to her; and she,
Cast from the jaws of Death, remains there, bound,
Again a woman in her nakedness. [Rossetti 185]

Rossetti transcends the boundaries of Ingres's work by inquiring into the heroine's personality and the moment after the depicted scene. As Rischin argues, the "dynamic ekphrasis" of this second sonnet differs from the static ekphrasis of the first: in the second sonnet Rossetti goes beyond the painter's original conception and interposes his own perspectives into the narrative space of the painting. However, the two sonnets share the quality of attempted faithfulness to their original. Rossetti works not to transform Ingres's vision according to his own artistic agenda, but to expand upon Ingres's vision and amplify the aesthetic effect of his original. Similarly, in the Moxon Tennyson illustrations Rossetti's goal was to "allegorize on one's own hook on the subject of the poem, without killing for oneself and everyone else a distinct idea of the poet's" (qtd. in Ainsworth 40). He employed an essentially complementary mode of ekphrasis or illustration which based itself on imitating the aesthetic effect of the original.

Theorists such as G.W. Lessing and Wendy Steiner have denied the possibility of any such perfect melding of the two sister arts, suggesting that there exists an unbridgeable semantic gap between the two which prevents representations in one medium from ever becoming truly equivalent to representations in the other medium. Steiner cites Lessing's "distinction between the spatial and temporal arts," a distinction based on painting's inability to depict sequential narratives (8). Rossetti endeavored to blur this distinction and to bridge this gap as fully as his capabilities permitted. His followers Morris and Burne-Jones adopted a similar approach at times, particularly in the case of their ambitious collaborative project of the 1860s: an edition of Morris's epic poem The Earthly Paradise with copious illustrations by Burne-Jones. Joseph Dunlap describes this as an attempted double work: "To Morris the illustrations were an integral part of the undertaking. 'Morris always had a yearning for illustrations to his poems; he saw the stories in brilliantly defined pictures, and desired that other people should do so, too'"(10). However, this massive collaborative work never came to fruition (as indicated by the title of Dunlop's work on the subject, The Book That Never Was), and Morris and Burne-Jones both demonstrated a greater commitment to an opposite, Lessing-esque view of the relation between the sister arts.

Whereas Ruskin distinguishes between static and dynamic ekphrasis, Morris's sonnets on Rossetti's paintings The Blue Closet and The Tale of Seven Towers exemplify a third mode of ekphrasis, a competitive or digressive mode in which the artistic vision of the ekphrastic poem digresses significantly from that of its original. Rossetti executed both watercolors between 1856 and 1857, and Morris's sonnets of the same titles appeared in his 1858 volume The Defence of Guenevere, "the first book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry" (Keane 75). Unlike works such as The Girlhood of Mary Virgin or Ecce Ancilla Domini which contain decipherable symbolic meanings, The Blue Closet and The Tune of Seven Towers lack any clear symbolism or implied narrativity. The latter painting, for example, depicts a lady seated on a throne playing a musical instrument while a man leans over her. Two other figures , possibly servants, stand at either side, and a lance bearing a banner cuts diagonally across the center of the composition. Rossetti offers no clue as to the identities of these people or to the narrative, if any, that surrounds them. Indeed, as Robert Keane notes, "the artist's motives seem to predominate over any clear narrative intent in the painting" (78). Rossetti apparently intended the figures in this painting not as characters within a story but as elements within a composition. Thus, when Morris creates a poetic narrative -- although a fragmentary one -- based on this painting, he goes beyond static or even dynamic ekphrasis and invests the painting with a different artistic vision than that of its creator. Due to its confusing diction, the poem resists interpretation almost as much as the painting, but it apparently centers around a certain "fair Yoland of the flowers" who requests that her lover Oliver recover her coif and kirtle from the titular seven towers. Thus Morris transforms the anonymous figures of the painting into individuated characters and creates a poetic narrative out of a fundamentally non-narrative painting. Keane proposes an alternative interpretation of the poem, reading Yoland and Olivier as the protagonists of the "tune" sung by the lady in the painting (78). However, the painting contains only the vaguest of hints as to the content of this tune. Therefore, even if one reads the poem as the actual tune of Seven Towers, Morris's presentation of that tune still derives from his own imagination rather than from anything in his source material. Furthermore, the mood of the poem contradicts that of the painting. Morris describes Seven Towers thus:

No one goes there now,
For what is left to fetch away
From the desolate battlements all arow,
And the lead roof heavy and grey? [...]
No one walks there now;
Except in the white moonlight
The white ghosts walk in a row;
If one could see it, an awful sight. [ll. 1-4, 7-10, full text]

Morris's portrayal of a bleak, lonely haunted castle bears little resemblance to the richly decorated chamber depicted in the painting, and the poem's dominant tonalities of leaden gray and ghostly white stand in opposition to Rossetti's rich and varied coloration. If not for the fact that the painting and poem share a title, one would hardly suspect that the former inspired the latter.

Morris's ekphrastic adaptation of Rossetti's poem thus departs significantly from its source; it functions not as an expansion of Rossetti's painting, but as a reimagining thereof according to Morris's personal vision. The two works have little in common other than their common pseudo-medieval aesthetic and the interpretative difficulties they both present. Just as Rossetti's painting operates as an abstract composition rather than as a representation of a story, Morris's poem privileges linguistic artistry over narrative. As in the above quoted excerpt, Morris's precisely controlled meter and rhyme create a greater impression on the reader than does his fragmentary narrative. Constance Hassett's observation on The Blue Closet and its associated poem applies to this poem-painting pair as well:

Each resists the Victorian burden of representation by resorting [...] to "an abundance of pattern." [...] Both Rossetti and Morris privilege constitutive formal relations, whether color symmetries or rhythmic groupings, over the demands of interpretable content.

Similarly, The Tune of Seven Towers and "The Tune of Seven Towers" each employ a kind of aggressive formalism. Each highlights the formal compositional aspects of its own art form rather than stressing the affinities of its art form with the other sister art.

Hassett argues that because of their formalist nature and their divergence from their source material, Morris's ekphrastic sonnets reveal an essential incompatibility between the sister arts: "'The Blue Closet' tacitly makes the case that a poem cannot be translated into a commentary, nor a picture into a poem" (60). This observation, however, does not take into account that Morris's divergence from his source material must have represented a deliberate artistic choice. Rossetti's ekphrastic and illustrative works demonstrate his ability to translate visual images into verbal images and vice versa, to the extent that the formal limitations of the two art forms allow for such a translation. If Morris had such an ability, he chose not to use it in the case of "The Tune of Seven Towers." His use of a digressive mode of ekphrasis suggests that in his adaptations of existing works of art, he preferred to present his own idiosyncratic perspective on his source material, rather than expanding upon it according to its creator's conception.

The paintings of Burne-Jones, Morris's lifelong friend and frequent collaborator, demonstrate the level of conscious stylistic choice involved in this rejection of the complementary version of ut pictura poesis. Though Burne-Jones never completed his illustrations for Morris's Earthly Paradise, his designs for the project served as rough drafts for many of his greatest later works. Christopher Wood describes the importance of this poem in Burne-Jones's artistic development:

The many designs and drawings he made for the book, especially the Cupid and Psyche series, were to furnish him with ideas for pictures for the rest of his life. In all, The Earthly Paradise was to provide the inspiration for no fewer than thirty-five paintings, making it by far the most important source for his art. [46]

However, this work served Burne-Jones primarily as a starting point from which he developed his own aesthetic vision. For example, in his four versions of Cupid Finding Psyche Asleep, Burne-Jones transformed the imagery of The Earthly Paradise's "Story of Cupid and Psyche" through the incorporation of outside sources of artistic inspiration and of autobiographical elements. In Morris's account, Cupid finds Psyche sleeping "amidst a fair green close / Hedged round about with woodbine and red rose" (qtd. in Cheney 59), holding a book in one hand and resting the other on the rim of a fountain. These lines provide the source for the four versions of Cupid Finding Psyche Asleep. Yet by the fourth version, executed in 1872, Burne-Jones had replaced Morris's rose bower with a stone parapet, thus exchanging one symbolically charged setting for another with equally strong but differing symbolic associations. Besides altering Morris's original description, Burne-Jones also interpreted it in terms of other artistic and personal sources of inspiration. Liana De Girolami Cheney claims that Burne-Jones based Cupid and Psyche's poses upon Roman statues like the Mars and Rhea Silvia funerary monument. She further argues that the poem originally captured Burne-Jones's attention "because, in illustrating this saga with his drawings and paintings, he could connect the fusion of the classical, mythological and emblematic traditions with his own tragic love affair with Maria Cassavetti Zambaco" (58).

If this painting "recaptures the ancient conception of ut pictura poesis" (66), as Cheney argues, then its artist's view of that concept stands in opposition to the view of ut pictura poesis which informed Rossetti's Blessed Damozel. Whereas Rossetti intended to translate the imagery of his own poem into visual terms, Burne-Jones uses Morris's poem as a starting point from which he pursues his own stylistic and expressive compulsions. A similar process occurs in Burne-Jones's unfinished Perseus cycle of 1875-1898, which developed out of his 28 unpublished illustrations for the "Doom of King Acrisius" section of The Earthly Paradise. Abigail Newman inquires into these paintings' surprising "beautification" of traditionally ugly characters, including the supernaturally hideous Medusa (Newman). This "beautification of ugliness" represents a break not only with tradition but also with Morris's specific description of those characters. For example, Morris describes the Graiae as crones,

Clad in blue sweeping cloak and snow-white gown;
O'er their backs their straight white hair hung down
In long thin locks; dreadful their faces were,
Carved all about with wrinkles of despair. [ll. 262-264]

Perseus and the Graiae from the Perseus series by Edward Burne-Jones

By contrast, Burne-Jones's 1892 painting Perseus and the Graiae depicts three fairly youthful women wearing greenish robes, not blue cloaks or white gowns. They have brown rather than white hair, and though only one of them turns her face toward the viewer, that face looks more attractive and placid than dreadful. Similarly, Burne-Jones's painting takes place in a mountainous outdoor landscape, whereas Morris locates the Graiae in "a mighty hall / where [...] a white marble wall / And milk-white pillars held the roof aloft" (l. 257-259). Rather than reproducing Morris's visual depiction of the Graiae and their environment, Burne-Jones transforms it almost to the point of unrecognizability. One can conjecture that he did so because he preferred to depict beauty rather than ugliness and nature rather than architecture; or because he had drawn inspiration from artistic sources, such as Italianate Renaissance paintings, that depicted natural landscapes and female forms like those of this painting. Whatever the explanation, Burne-Jones clearly did not feel bound by the strict language of his original. His digressive mode of illustration permitted him to use poetic texts as sources of inspiration while also remaining true to his own aesthetic preferences.

Though the alliance of the sister arts remained a major priority throughout the history of Pre-Raphaelitism, the early and late Pre-Raphaelites approached this alliance from varying directions. Ruskin's conception of a one-to-one correspondence between the two sister arts, a conception which informed Rossetti's double works of art, eventually gave way to Morris's and Burne-Jones's digressive conception, whereby a work in one sister art drew inspiration from a work in the other sister art but followed a separate artistic agenda. However, neither approach represented the only correct Pre-Raphaelite perspective on the sister arts. although Rossetti's complementary approach represented the view of the original Pre-Raphaelites, his refusal to exhibit his work may have ensured that the public would associate Pre-Raphaelitism with Burne-Jones's and Morris's digressive approach. The adoption of the latter approach represented not an acknowledgement of the inherent incompatibility of the sister arts, but a choice of one aesthetic strategy over another of equal validity.

Related Materials

Workd Cited

Ainsworth, Maryan Wynn, ed. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Double Work of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Gallery, 1976.

Cheney, Liana De Girolami. "Edward Burne-Jones'Cupid and Psyche: The Enchantment of an Ancient Tale." Wege zum Mythos. Ed. Luba Freedman and Gerlinde Huber-Rebenich. Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 2001.

Dunlap, Joseph R. The Book That Never Was. New York: Oriole Editions 1971.

Hagstrum, Jean. The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Hassett, Constance W. "Esthetic Autonomy in the Sister Arts: The Brotherly Project of Rossetti and Morris." Mosaic 25.4 (1992): 49-62.

Keane, Robert N. "Ut Pictura Poesis: Rossetti and Morris: Paintings into Poetry." Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 7.2 (May 1987): 74-79.

Landow, George. The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971. 17 Dec. 2004.

Newman, Abigail. "The Beautification of Ugliness in Burne-Jones' Perseus Cycle." The Victorian Web. 26 Oct. 2004. University Scholars Program, National University of Singapore. 18 Dec. 2004.

Rischin, Abigail S. Ekphrasis and the Art of Rescue: Rossetti's Sonnets "For Ruggiero and Angelica by Ingres." The Eye of the Poet: Studies in the Reciprocity of the Visual and Literary Arts from the Renaissance to the Present. Ed. Amy Golahny. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1996.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jerome McGann. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

"Rossetti's Double Works." The Rossetti Archive. 17 Dec. 2004.

Steiner, Wendy. Pictures of Romance: Form against Context in Painting and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Wood, Christopher. Burne-Jones: The Life and Works of Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998.

Scerba, Amy. "Lady Lilith". 12-11-04.

Speel, Bob. "Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys". The Website of Bob Speel. 12-12-04.

Speel, Bob. "John William Waterhouse". The Website of Bob Speel. 12-12-04.

Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.

Victorian Web Overview Visual Arts Pre-Raphaelites

Last modified 20 December 2004