Romantic love is a concept which appears continuously and persistently throughout the works of many Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets. Nonetheless, Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets vary greatly approaching this subject, even to the point of diametrical opposition. Pre-Raphaelitism, like so many other ideologies ending in “ism,” has contained artistic works which contain serious contrasts, as well as the obvious overlaps. For painting by the Pre-Raphaelites or those that followed them, the influence or stylistic agreement is often rather apparent. The original members of the Pre-Raphaelite BrotherhoodWilliam Holman Hunt, Sir John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti — created their earliest paintings with clear agreement of compositional and stylistic principles, and as their careers progressed, they then moved onto more individualistic modes of expression, creating even more distinct lineages.

With the poets, however, the Pre-Raphaelites constitute a far more amorphous group. Certainly any group which can, on some level, include both Christina Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne cannot have strict principles regarding either approach to subject matter or style. Yet they still certainly read each other’s work, knew other, interacted — and influenced — one another. And their close associations with each other and their works allow us to group them as Pre-Raphaelites, however tenuous this association may be.

Thus, in this essay, I wish to discuss the most distinctive and overt conceptions of romantic love in Pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry, showing similarities while emphasizing contrasts in the works of two painters and two poets. To begin with painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is the obvious choice. Of the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Rossetti most consistently and forcefully chose romantic love as subject matter. From his work came a great deal of admirers and followers, but none more impressive or important than Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Though the relationship between these two painters’ works is intimate and obvious, Burne-Jones eventually took off in his own direction not only in terms of style, but also in his portrayals of romantic love. On the other side, I will discuss the poetry of Christina Rossetti and Swinburne, poets with writing and ideology almost completely opposite one another — and both significantly different from either painter discussed. Throughout, I will discuss, first, how I interpret their conceptions of romantic love, and then use exemplary works by the painters and poets to demonstrate and clarify these interpretations.

Conceptions of Romantic Love in Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry

Last modified 26 December 2006