[Part II of the author's "Conceptions of Romantic Love in Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry."]

How Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted changed over time, but what he painted stayed rather consistent throughout the majority of his career — namely, individual portraiture of women and portrayals of romantic relationships. While I will focus on the latter, the two are certainly related and occasionally even overtly intertwined. In the case of either of these subjects, Rossetti painted a rather distinctive type of woman. Many of the women he painted have pouty lips, long red hair, slightly long necks, and observable power in their overall facial expressions. In this regard, Rossetti does, on some level, objectify the women he paints. Sometimes, Rossetti uses the women as means to portray some value, such as in Lady Lilith, who gazing into a mirror with a powerful pose is an obvious representation of vanity. And in this case, as well as in many other cases with far less obvious symbolism, Rossetti paints in a manner which clearly expresses a certain adoration and love for the female form and its beauty, and some of his portrayals have little reason to exist other than this adoration. Moreover, Rossetti paints these women in a fairly distinctive manner. Women in Rossetti’s painting almost always have an obvious and flourishing sensuality. While a viewer can appreciate the form itself from afar, Rossetti paints in such a way that touch seems pervasive, and sex never seems far behind. If women are objects in Rossetti’s paintings, they are often sexualized objects.

Nonetheless, despite the obvious sensuality and sexuality inherent in Rossetti’s painting, his portrayals of romantic love offer something else, which allows a viewer a reaction often more subtle and touching. Certainly Rossetti’s paintings on one level glorify beauty, but beauty, though necessary, does not seem sufficient for romantic love. Rossetti creates a spiritualized vision of romantic love which goes beyond a simple, one-sided adoration of beauty. The paintings imply a deeper connection between the lovers — on some emotional or spiritual, if not mental, level — that brings them together, that drives the passion of their feelings, and that causes the grief which occurs while apart.

Paulo and Francesca Rossetti's Beata Beatrix

Left: Paulo and Francesca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Right: Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Rossetti’s Paulo and Francesca is fine portrayal of romantic love with which to begin. This watercolor takes its story from Canto V of Dante’s Inferno (Wood, p. 26). Rossetti narrates this story using a triptych, which traditionally has been a format for religious painting. Here however, Rossetti uses a literary source with obvious religious influence, but centers the painting on a specific pair of lovers and what happens to them. Rossetti leaves the viewer not with a religious painting, but more a sort of secularized spirituality. On the left side, Paulo and Francesca kiss and embrace. In the center, Dante and Virgil compassionately watch over the tragic circumstances of the lovers in which they die together. On the right side, Paulo and Francesca float eternally, in each other’s arms, through hell (Wood, p. 26). And despite the implied tragedy, and despite the religious implications of their souls floating through hell, Rossetti’s rendition emphasizes above all the relationship, the love between the couple. The painting emits a definite warmth, as the two side panels (which are unusually large for side panels) both show the lovers in their embrace. If Rossetti wanted to emphasize the tragedy, he could have painted their death. Instead, Rossetti nearly glosses over this part of the story and leads us to think more of the beautiful sentiment of being in the embrace of a lover without end.

A quick and helpful comparison is to Rossetti’s own The Blessed Damozel, a considerably later painting. In this painting, a woman leans on the edge of Heaven, with flowers and angels around her. Despite being in Heaven, she can only think about her lover and times with him, while he lies on Earth thinking of her at the same time. In this painting, Rossetti completely usurps the religious notion of Heaven in order to emphasize the grief of separated love, suggesting, once again, that he values romantic love over religious notions. Paulo and Francesca seem altogether content in their tragic fate when compared to the obvious dissatisfaction of the damozel and her lover. Apparently, being in Heaven would not be enough, Rossetti suggests in this painting, if you are away from the one you love.

The Wedding of Saint George and the Princess Sabra

The Wedding of Saint George and the Princess Sabra by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Another relatively early and intriguing watercolor, on the subject of romantic love, is Rossetti’s The Wedding of Saint George and the Princess Sabra. Rossetti makes an especially medieval atmosphere present in the painting, aided by its decidedly flat surface. Though the painting abounds in medieval and gilded ornamentation and a great amount of little details, Rossetti focuses the composition above all on the lovers locked in an intimate embrace. Even the two women in the background, servants it would seem from their similar and relatively plain dress, look upon the lovers, who don’t seem to acknowledge or care that they are looked upon. Furthermore, Christopher Wood states “the Princess Sabra is cutting off a lock of her hair, to give as a favour to Saint George” (p. 26). Before she cuts, however, the lock of her hair is already intertwined in George’s armor, and it seems the two lovers themselves could hardly be more intertwined than they already are.

In its execution, The Wedding of Saint George and the Princess Sabra is exceptional, but in subject matter also, the painting distinguishes itself. Rossetti here conveys achieved, consummated love, which has an altogether different feel to it from the much more common conveyances of tragic love or unrequited love. Moreover, Rossetti paints achieved love without ulterior motives. In this regard, the painting begs comparison to somewhat similar works by other Pre-Raphaelites. Sir John Everett Millais’s A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew's Day refusing to shield himself from danger by wearing a Roman Catholic badge also has two lovers embracing, but the painting also has a clear political motive, as established by its unusually long title. William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd has two young lovers casually relaxing with one another, but the painting has an obvious and dominating moralizing element, because the shepherd should be attending to his flock instead. Rossetti’s The Wedding of Saint George and the Princess Sabra, however, allows the lovers’ embrace to be the subject alone and manages to convey a sense of purpose and grandeur — without need of any other motive.

Rossetti's Beata Beatrix

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Finally, regarding Rossetti’s works conveying romantic love, his Beata Beatrix must be discussed. Rossetti once again uses Dante as a source for his painting, but he takes a more personal approach here. Beata Beatrix is predominantly a posthumous portrait of Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth Siddal (Wood, p. 96), and is arguably Rossetti’s single most powerful work of art. Rossetti, in this painting, equates Siddal with Dante’s love, Beatrix, while a red bird approaches her as a messenger of death (Wood, p. 96). Beatrix is enraptured, eyes-closed, almost unaware of what’s happening. Meanwhile, a compass or clock separates the foreground and background, and in the background, Love and Dante gaze at each other (Wood, p. 96) as this death sequence symbolically takes place.

Beata Beatrix differs in a number of respects from Rossetti’s other portraiture. Firstly, and most obviously, Beata Beatrix contains a pervasive, brilliant sense of atmosphere and mood. Due to the intense mixtures of colors, a viewer has an immediate and intense reaction, long before he or she recognizes and processes the symbolic details of the painting. Secondly, Rossetti paints this portrait of his then dead wife with far more intimacy than the large majority of his others portraits. There is no stylization as in the aforementioned Lady Lilith, and Rossetti sees no reason for his characteristic exaggeration of lips and hair and so forth. Finally, and most importantly for the concerns of this paper, Rossetti includes Dante, Beatrix’s lover, in this painting. Although Dante is in the background and altogether an amorphous figure, this inclusion of the lover adds another dimension to this death scene. We realize the consequences of this death, and they are not simply a matter of beauty. The painting proves that physical beauty can and will be immortalized, but this beauty is not enough. When there is love without actual interaction, without life together, there is inevitably grief, remorse, and yearning. In this regard, Beata Beatrix summarizes Rossetti’s conception of romantic love, as I interpret it.

Conceptions of Romantic Love in Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry

Last modified 27 June 2020