Dante Gabriel Rossetti
( Originally Published 1909 )
ONLY once had I a long conversation with Rossetti, but it was significant in many ways. I had spent a part of the fourth of May in the year, 1871, with Thomas Carlyle in Cheyne Row, when he talked much of Ruskin and Pre-Raphaelites; and I went down afterwards to No. 16 Cheyne Walk, to see Rossetti, an illustrious member of the group. The house is now much changed. You then entered it from the river side, with many of the antique boats or barges visible. No one who ever went in through the old iron gateway can possibly forget it. It was "The Queen's House," traditionally that of Catherine of Braganza, the ill-fated bride of our Charles II, whose initials (C. R.) remained in 1862, on the twisted iron lettering of its seventeenth century back-garden rails. The house, with its wainscot rooms, its spiral staircase, its windows and door-ways, was said to have been the work of our architect Christopher Wren. The garden, too, into which I went, a relic of the royal palace-garden, had some fine lime trees in it. The dining-room had several mirrors, and old pictures on the walls, with curious designs, "flower, fruit, and thorn-pieces." The house had a strange history, with many other literary abodes quite near it. At number 4, both Daniel Maclise, the painter, and George Eliot, the novelist, lived and died.
Sir Thomas Moore, George Herbert, SmolIet, Izaak Walton, Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, Turner, Carlyle, the Kingsleys, George Mac-Donald, etc., all had lived near at hand.
In this year, 1871, John Everett Millais painted a somewhat remarkable picture, which was hung on the line in the Royal Academy, and fascinated most beholders from its consummate realism. I forget the exact title, but it represented three daughters of a Mr. Armstrong, magnificently dressed, and playing whist within an azalea bower on a summer forenoon. It was a splendid specimen of Millais's colour. When Rossetti began to talk of Art we passed from the "Holy Families" of the past—in which he took the greatest interest—to discuss our modern English work; and I spoke of this picture, I fear with the erratic impulse of youth, for I think I characterized it as "the incarnation of nineteenth century worldliness." Three beautiful English girls devoting a forenoon to whist in a gorgeous azalea bower! What a revelation it was of tendencies astir! Rossetti listened to what I said; and then, in a grave staccato style, replied: "Why do you speak in that way of my old friend's work ? It is not his fault that this age is a materialistic one. He finds it as God has permitted it to be, and it is my friend's choice to paint it as it now is." I ventured to say that I did not think that the noblest kind of work to do; that the greatest artists of the past invariably tried to lift up their age, and all that was in it, to higher levels; and that it was both vulgar, and dishonouring to Art, to paint such realistic pictures. He answered: "I fear we shall not agree on that point; we should all be both realists and idealists. But, will you come out with your friend into my gar-den, and see what is to be seen there ?" So out we went, and spent some time in that curious place where he had collected so many strange animals.
The impression he made on me on this first visit remained ever afterwards, viz., that his genius was far more idealistic than he himself knew; and yet that he was a solitary man, almost an alien in the artistic fraternity of England.
As to his personal character, all that I saw of him revealed a most chivalrous, sympathetic, honourable man, generous and just, and equally appreciative of his contemporaries as of his great predecessors in the twin regions of Art and Poetry. There was a temperamental intensity in him, which struggled to express itself both in Song, and in plastic Art; and I think that he was at times somewhat embarrassed by his own rich outpourings.
There was a vagueness, a wistfulness, and a dreamy languor, in much of his early work. He lived in a world of ideality; and "followed the gleam," as Tennyson puts it, to the very end. He was no copyist, or imitator of reality, not an artistic photographer; but, bringing the light of the ideal into all that he saw of the real, in that glorious atmosphere his pictures were made, and etherialised. I think, he always strove after the ideal; caring little for the actual. And yet he was so natural, so true to Nature at its highest, that in him the two tendencies, were superlatively combined.
In speaking of Rossetti's house and garden I should have mentioned his curious fondness for strange or slightly-known animals. He brought them to his house, placed them in cages, and gave them at the same time the run of his garden ; whence, they often strayed into neighbouring ones. He had owls and hedge-pigs, wombats, dormice, kangaroos, armadillos, marmots, squirrels, peacocks, parrots, jackdaws, lizards, and even a zebu! It was an extraordinary collection of nondescripts, and revealed an eccentricity in his own character.
To understand Rossetti aright it should be re-membered that he was, in a sense, an alien in England; not by birth, but by inheritance. He was a man of Tuscan blood, who brought into our English land some of the best elements of the Italian race. If you read the record of his life, you will see that he inherited the religious spirit of that race, with the insight which sees beyond symbols to that which they shadow forth. And then, with his gracious inheritance on both the father's and the mother's side, he was surrounded in his London home by genial influences which set him free from many a tradition, and from the trammels of conventionality.
Hear how Ruskin writes of him: "I believe his name should be placed first on the list of men, within my own range of knowledge, who have raised and changed the spirit of modern Art; raised it, in absolute attainment; changed it, in direction of temper. Rossetti added to the before accepted systems of colour in painting, one based on the principles of manuscript illumination, which permits his designs to rival the most beautiful qualities of painted glass, without losing either the mystery or the dignity of light and shade. And he was, as I believe it is now generally admitted, the chief intellectual force in the establishment of the modern romantic school in England."
I must add that the intensity of Rossetti's feelings and his passionate subjectivity, drawn out by the very splendour of his imagination, gave a certain sadness and pathos to his Art. His temperament was perfervid, and he never escaped from the circle of his own subjectivity. Hence there was no externalisation of his insight, in objective art-products. He attained, as all the world knows, to wonderful mastery as a colourist; but, as to form, he kept to one type—especially one type of female beauty – based on that of the lady who became his wife; and his individuality came out in his continuous portrayal of that face, perhaps more than in the case of any of his contemporaries, Burne-Jones only excepted.
What he did to familiarize his age with the work of some almost forgotten poets, such as Omar Khyam of Persia, and our own Blake, is too well known to require mention here. And now I only add that when we talked of the poets and the artists of the past and present, there was—in every sentence he uttered—brightness, and sympathetic insight, no moroseness, or egotism, or vanity on his part.