Rossetti Reviewed

Waugh Society member Milena Borden has kindly prepared the following review of the Dante Gabriel Rossetti exhibit currently running at the Tate Britain museum. This was mentioned in previous postings. The review is entitled “What Is Wrong with Rossetti?”:

The Tate Britain’s current exhibition The Rossettis features Evelyn Waugh’s biography Rossetti: His Life and Works displayed alongside poetry collections and Jan Marsh’s biography of Christina Rossetti. The company in which Waugh’s book is placed would likely please the author, known for his admiration of the Victorians. The exhibition highlights the extraordinary artistic family, focusing on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his sister Christina, his brother William Michael, and his wife and model Elisabeth Siddall (Lizzy). The Rossettis are credited with bringing about an artistic revolution in Britain and beyond. 

 The exhibition provides expert explanations of the origins and aims of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (P.R.B.), of which Rossetti was a founding member. Rossetti’s paintings are curated alongside key poems by Christina Rossetti, which are read aloud when viewers step on digitally activated spots on the floor. Rossetti’s art radiates from the gallery walls, particularly showcasing his renowned portraiture of his beloved women who served as his models, muses, and lovers. The Tate hails the Rossettis as successful “medieval moderns” and “radical romantics.” 

 However, amidst the praise and the exquisite display, there is a noticeable absence of criticism or questioning of Rossetti’s art or life. No mention is made of the highly symbolic yet unsettling depictions of women’s faces on unnaturally thick necks, nor is there discussion about the overall confusion in Rossetti’s compositions, which possess both biblical and non-religious elements. 

 In contrast to the exhibition’s celebratory tone, it is worth reflecting on what Waugh wrote 95 years ago. Waugh believed that Rossetti lacked “essential rectitude” and argued that real art should possess a moral centre and social value. He criticized Rossetti’s brooding on magic and suicide as symptoms of mediocrity rather than genius, pointing out a spiritual inadequacy and a sense of disorganization in his work. 

 This raises the question of who is correct: Waugh or Tate Britain? However, a more intriguing question arises: Why was Waugh drawn to Rossetti in the first place, given his critique? 

 Italians have historically thrived in London, and Rossetti embodies the stereotypical image of an Italian in England. As the son of a political refugee, he was named after Dante Alighieri and grew up in a household surrounded by notable Italians. While his sister emerged as one of the finest Victorian poets, Rossetti became one of the most famous members of the P.R.B., associated with mystical imagination and a somewhat divine artistic madness. Yet, his scandalous personal relationships with working-class English women who became his muses and models, along with his hot-headed and eccentric nature, contributed to the tragic aspects of his personal life. 

 This context sheds light on Waugh’s interest in Rossetti. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Waugh aspired to be an artist, and he had already written an essay about the P.R.B. before publishing this “product of its own time” (M. Brennan, Introduction,  The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh: Rossetti His Life and Works, vol. 16, OUP, 2017). During that period, Waugh, like Rossetti, embraced a romantic and bohemian lifestyle while studying at Oxford and cultivating deep friendships. Their shared rejection of established academic norms, Waugh of Oxford and Rossetti of the Royal Academy of Arts, may have contributed to Waugh’s fascination with the enigmatic and melancholic Victorian painter.

 The Tate exhibition provides valuable insights into Waugh’s motivations by examining Rossetti’s paintings. While Rossetti is recognized as a radical and revolutionary figure within the 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite movement, his highly symbolic works never quite achieved the status of true masterpieces. Appreciating Rossetti’s peculiar mastery over his primitive biblical compositions and his depiction of working-class English models, one must also confront the core of his artistic achievement—his failure. Are his works idealistic or salacious, revolutionary or exploitative? 

 Waugh’s critique extends beyond artistic analysis. By exploring Rossetti’s dual life as a romantic painter and a cruel husband and lover, one can find valuable insights in his early biographer’s judgement. Waugh thought very highly of the painting “Beata Beatrix” (1864-1870), which is displayed centrally in the exhibit depicting Beatrice as the saintly muse with the poet Dante hovering mournfully in the background, capturing the weighted symbolism and foreshadowing death. It serves as an apt subject for a psychological analysis of the artist’s mind, paralleling the tragic real-life story of Rossetti’s wife and model, Lizzy. It is perhaps interesting to note here that Waugh’s analysis of this painting avoids making judgements or drawing conclusions about the more modern theme of Rossetti’s guilt as the driving force behind it. After his wife’s tragic death at the age of 32 from an overdose of laudanum, he continued to have love relationships with his models, most notably with Jane Burden (William Morris’s wife) but seems to have never quite recovered from the shock. 

Waugh dedicated his first book to his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, to whom he was married for a very short period of time. Much later on in his life he did say that he would like to rework the Rossetti biography but, since it didn’t happen, one can only speculate about what he might have written about the Rossetti’s marriage with perhaps more understanding of Elisabeth’s emotions. After his failed marriage Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930 and this would have most probably changed his thinking about Rossetti who was a declared atheist. 

Since 2020 under the pressure of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Tate has taken a new direction of rethinking the artistic depictions of racial hierarchies. Nowadays Rex Whistler’s mural at the Tate is closed for recreation which would try to acknowledge problems with racism. It seems obvious that in line with this policy, it is represented in the context of race too. The Beloved (1865-6) which depicts a bride attended by virginal bridesmaids and an African page is displayed alongside individual studies of the boy in order to expand the theme. Also a fictional essay by Chiezda Mhondoro dedicated to this topic is published in the catalogue. Waugh disliked ideological and progressive interpretations of art and it is virtually certain that he would have dismissed this trend as a misguided decolonization. 

Both Tate and Waugh discuss Rossetti from an English point of view and say almost nothing of his reception outside Britain. It seems that the Rossettis have integrated to such an extent into Victorian London that they became an entirely English phenomenon with limited fame and almost no influence in Europe. Giuliana Pieri, an Italian academic, writes convincingly that despite the acknowledged aversion to Rossetti’s paintings in late 19c Italy as “ill painted and repulsive”, he remains the most popular of the pre-Raphaelites in his native Italy which he never visited. 

The Tate Britain exhibition about Rossetti, in its celebratory nature, glosses over some uncomfortable aspects of the artist’s “incongruous” achievement to use Waugh’s definition and avoids criticism and inquiry. In contrast, Waugh’s book on Rossetti, despite its relative obscurity and acknowledged limitations, remains a delightful read due both to its critical assessment and the elegance of its prose. It offers a welcome break from the ambitious and weighty exhibition dominated by live narration of Christina Rossetti’s poetry combined with her brother’s high symbolism. 

 As visitors step across the floor circles within the exhibition, Waugh’s question lingers in the mind: “What is wrong with Rossetti?”



This entry was posted in Academia, Art, Photography & Sculpture, PRB, Rossetti: His Life and Works and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.