Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter, Poet, Sexual Revolutionary?

In our time of confined specialization, it’s hard to comprehend the multimedia talents of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose poetry and painting helped shape the Victorian Age into the paradox-laden, hot mess of an era we know it as today. The recent reissue of Alicia Craig Faxon’s Dante Gabriel Rossetti, her masterful 1989 monograph on the artist—the the first and still the best—along with a new book on sex in the age of Queen Victoria, raises the question of whether a new job description should be added to Rossetti’s resume: sexual revolutionary?


Patron, critic, and once friend of Rossetti John Ruskin once called the artist “a great Italian lost in the Inferno of London.” Like his 14th century namesake, Dante often found himself caught between dimensions of his moral and aesthetic universes, often suffering along the way. “His prodigious art ranged from the crowded, detailed canvases of his early years, through the jewellike brilliance of his medieval period, to the sensuous, symbolic women of his late works,” Faxon writes. “He plundered the past for his painted and poetic images, but his art was always uniquely his own, instantly recognizable and unforgettable.” Co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, called by some the first antiestablishment art movement, Rossetti found himself both a part of a vast support group of artists yet also alone in his pursuit of specific goals.

Even two decades after Faxon’s encyclopedic and enlightening encomium of Rossetti, the misconceptions surrounding Rossetti, which enhance or diminish his reputation depending on the receiver, persist. The flowing drapery and even more flowing tresses hide his inability to draw the nude academically, or so the story goes, until you see how Rossetti often drew models in the nude before clothing them, including one study for the Annunciation featuring the Virgin Mary. Lingering myths that Rossetti turned reclusive over time, as “proved” by his refusal to publically exhibit his works after 1850 and his solitary existence after the tragic death of his wife and fellow artist Elizabeth Siddal, seem silly in the face of Faxon’s documented list of public shows and reproductions of limericks written by Rossetti about friends and associates, including the American raconteur artist Whistler. If a public-showing, limerick-writing misanthropic hermit seems silly to you, it is, and yet the classic story sticks, regardless of Faxon’s best efforts.

Perhaps the worst misconceptions swirl about the works of Rossetti’s late period—the voluptuous pin-up girls of the time. Rossetti takes a critical hit for reproducing some of these works multiple times—a practice he personally disliked, but one he performed to supply the demand of passionate patrons of this final period. “Replica,” as Faxon demonstrates, barely fits the bill as Rossetti often altered or emphasized different versions of an image that made each one as distinct as the amorous buyer. The worst misconception in Faxon’s eyes, and I heartily agree, is that these grand ladies of Rossetti’s age represent the worst in his art. Rossetti himself called them “unquestionably the best I ever did,” but critics—then and even now—often fail to agree, for a multitude of reasons.

When Ruskin walked in on Rossetti painting Venus Verticordia, the repressed critic awkwardly sputtered criticism of the foreground flowers’ “coarseness,” as if he hadn’t noticed the topless, copper-haired beauty behind them, sensuously staring him straight in the eye. Faxon sees these late works as transformative, a pivot in which “the woman is no longer an object for viewing but, unequivocally, a subject.” Faxon echoes other critics who see these women “as projections of the artist’s anima and as sacred icons of a new religion that worships beauty, uniting sacred and profane love.” Rossetti claimed that his portrait of his mistress Fanny Cornforth titled Lady Lilith (detail shown above) represented “Body’s Beauty,” an abstract, spiritual ideal literally embodied in the physical beauty of women.

The sexual assertiveness of such images upset more than just poor Ruskin, whose friendship and patronage with Rossetti understandably cooled as the subject matter heated up. During the 1880s, when women slowly began to gain legal rights to their bodies and their property in England, Rossetti’s “dominant women” earned “a reaction that had nothing to do with their aesthetic merit,” Faxon concludes. Deborah Lutz’s Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism places Rossetti on the front line of the sexual revolution that threatened to pull the covers off of Victoria’s secret. A recent book review by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker culling together Lutz’s study and other sexual revolution tomes (centering on 18th century London and 20th century Communist-tinged utopianism) shows how every generation lays claim to the title of sexual revolutionary. “It would be tempting to conclude that sexual liberation was really a nineteenth-century project” after reading Lutz’s book, Levy writes, “if it weren’t for the fact that the eighteenth century had a sexual revolution, too.”

Claims of primacy inevitably fall away in the world of sexual revolution since people have literally been doing “it” since the beginning of time and thinking they were the first (and the best), but looking at the works of Rossetti (beautifully displayed in Faxon’s book, which offers 265 images, 140 in breathtaking color) reminds us that even if the sexual revolution didn’t start with the Victorians (including everyone from Rossetti to Jack the Ripper), that era contributed to everything that went after in an irrevocable way. Stuck as we Americans are in our own neo-Victorian age, when “family values” conservatives are simultaneously the largest consumers of pornography, flipping through the pages of Alicia Craig Faxon’s Dante Gabriel Rossetti might be like looking in an old family album and seeing a face both troubling and reassuringly like our own.

[Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lady Lilith (detail), 1867. Watercolor on paper, 20 x 16 ¾ in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Rogers Fund. 1908.]

[Many thanks to Abbeville Press for providing me with the image above and a review copy of Alicia Craig Faxon’s Dante Gabriel Rossetti.]

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