Book review: Rossetti: Painter and Poet

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It’s funny how people have a “type.” Especially when the type is weirdly obvious and/or specific. (I’m thinking Ron Swanson’s Tammys from Parks and Recreation.)

Artists have types, too, naturally. Peter Paul Rubens was into portly women, Michelangelo was into muscular men, and the English artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a thing for women with strong jaws, prominent features and heavy-lidded eyes.

That’s a topical way to get into Rossetti, but his art is so much more than striking women. Rossetti was a Victorian-era painter, poet, translator and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (a school of thought related to art and literature). He was a high-profile figure during his own day, and even if his name isn't all that well-known now, his art is fairly popular.

Artwork like Rossetti’s is made for romantics. Not only because his main subject is beautiful women. His settings are flowery, medieval in landscape and style (think of the chivalrous stripe), and his themes vary from woman as idol to woman as devil.

These are simplifications, of course, but if you ever wanted to know more about this artist, look no further than Rossetti: Painter and Poet by J.B. Bullen. Even if Rossetti isn’t your immediate cup of tea, this book is no less fascinating. For one, Rossetti led an interesting, scandalous life, replete with passionate love affairs, fame and infamy, and drug addiction.

From Bullen’s website:

Bullen’s premise is that Rossetti was a courageous pioneer in the late-nineteenth-century world of evasion and repression. He dared to explore the hidden recesses of the mind and to claim that the libido was a driving force in human life. Both Rossetti’s art and his poetry were castigated for their "fleshliness" but Bullen maintains that in his painting and in his poetry Rossetti’s focus on the erotic life was a way of asserting the centrality of the sexual drive.

And one can easily trace his developments — and affairs — in his works. His passion for Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal, the woman who would later become his wife, burned hotly in the beginnings of their courtship, but waned as she took ill and his interests strayed. After her death by suicide, Rossetti painted her again, one result being “Beata Beatrix,” one of his best-known works, which portrays Lizzie in an allegory of death laced with a sense of mythical eroticism.

Beata Beatrix
  • "Beata Beatrix"

Other lovers, Fannie Cornforth and Jane Morris, held similar symbolic roles. Cornforth, the subject of the subversively lascivious “Bocca Baciata,” which graces the cover of the book, was his paragon of physical desire. The more severe Morris was an ideal of beauty.

Before relying more heavily on symbolism, Rossetti’s work was largely informed by such epics as Dante’s Divine Comedy and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. His portrayals of doomed lovers like Paolo and Francesca, and Lancelot and Guinevere are particularly intriguing for their glorious consummation in hell and guilty stolen moments, respectively.

Painter and Poet was published Oct. 11 and is available here.

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