The Rossettis: In Conversation

Dr Melissa Gustin, Eduardo De Maio, Robyn Valentine, Dr Marte Stinis, Nicholas Dunn-McAfee
Edited by Susie Beckham and Eliza Goodpasture


"You Say Rossettianism, I Say Pre-Raphaelitism, Let's call the whole thing off!"


The Rossettis has been marketed as an exhibition that “follows the romance and radicalism of the Rossetti generation, through and beyond the Pre-Raphaelite years.”[1] Nonetheless, as a visitor to Tate’s dedicated webpage for the show, you will currently find that the majority of the recommended online material here have titles like “How to Paint a Flower like a Pre-Raphaelite”, “Think you know the Pre-Raphaelites?”, “Draw Like a Pre-Raphaelite”, and “Who are the Pre-Raphaelites?”. Rather than trying to establish an identity for Dante Gabriel Rossetti outside of Pre-Raphaelitism – and be under no misconception, it is this artist-poet who forms the focus of the show, despite minor gestures towards Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddall – the show appears content to embrace the association. 

This is not particularly surprising. For many people, Rossetti’s pictures are synonymous with the Pre-Raphaelite label. In the case of the majority of the artist’s most familiar works – such as those chosen to adorn the covers of exhibition catalogues and coffee-table books, like Lady Lilith (altered 1872–73), Proserpine (1874), and Astarte Syriaca (1877) – they were completed long after the disbandment of the PRB and, on the surface, appear far removed from the aesthetics and ethos that defined the group’s formation. Elizabeth Prettejohn has proposed that one reason for the continued application of the label in relation to this body of work is “simply convenience”, since “the more informal later grouping never adopted a name or slogan.”[2] However, another “less innocuous” explanation for this phenomenon is that “Modern publishers trade on the pictures’ eroticism, but they disguise it as art history under the respectable term, Pre-Raphaelitism.”[3] Perhaps for this very reason, some scholars are inclined to try and narrow the definition of the Pre-Raphaelite label. Indeed, this formed a topic of debate at the concluding panel of the exhibition’s associated conference, ‘Rossettis: In Relation’ (15–16 June 2023), where some attendees argued for Rossetti’s more appropriate overall classification as an Aesthetic artist and others petitioned for the removal of the Pre-Raphaelite moniker from anyone outside the original Brotherhood (farewell Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and John William Waterhouse).[4] This brings us to a central set of questions. Should we stop calling Rossetti’s paintings of pouting, red-haired, long-necked women Pre-Raphaelite? Should we only refer to him as a Pre-Raphaelite artist with regards to works completed during his membership of the PRB? Should we cease to call him a Pre-Raphaelite artist at all, and instead place him in a stylistic category of his own, named Rossettianism?

In the course of my undergraduate dissertation, written many years ago, I attempted to provide a solution to these questions. Inspired by a deep love of the realism, detail and symbolism found in the Pre-Raphaelites’ earliest paintings and drawings, combined with a somewhat naive placement of trust in William Holman Hunt’s accounting of the movement and what constituted Pre-Raphaelitism, I took great issue with Rossetti’s continued identification amongst their ranks. I was happy to acknowledge that he was an integral member of PRB and that his paintings of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848–9) and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) (1849–50) could be identified as Pre-Raphaelite but was adamant that once he began his intense studies of sensual beauty – signalled by the completion of works like Bocca Baciata (1859) – the moniker should be withdrawn. I felt supported in this distinction by John Everett Millais’s own analysis of his former Brother’s work, as recorded by his son in the posthumous text The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (1899): 

His aims and ideals in art were also widely different from ours, and it was not long before he drifted away from us to follow his own peculiar fancies. What they were may be seen from his subsequent works. They were highly imaginative and original, and not without elements of beauty, but they were not Nature. At last, when he presented for our admiration the young women who have since become the type of Rossettianism, the public opened their eyes in amazement. ‘And this,’ they said, ‘is Pre-Raphaelitism!’ It was nothing of the sort. The Pre-Raphaelites had but one idea – to present on canvas what they saw in Nature; and such productions as these were absolutely foreign to the spirit of their work.[5]

Aged twenty-one, who was I to discount the great Millais’s testimony as to this etymological misjudgement! Rossetti himself rejected his categorisation as a Pre-Raphaelite. He was supposedly once asked at a party “if he were the ‘Preraphaelite Rossetti’”, to which he replied: ‘Madam, I am not an “ite” of any kind; I am only a painter.’”[6] Nonetheless, despite personal interventions such as this, Rossetti’s legacy as a Pre-Raphaelite artist and leader amongst the movement’s original and later developments has endured. It had been my youthful intention to correct this record, reestablishing the “true” meaning of Pre-Raphaelitism in order to demonstrate Rossetti’s departure from these principles, thus unlinking his most famous post-PRB images from the Pre-Raphaelite label. Beyond the obvious impossibility of completing this task within the limits of an undergraduate dissertation, this was the wrong approach for a number of reasons. I shall limit myself to two essential factors.

Firstly, as noted by Millais, one of the central tenets of the PRB’s mission is the truthful study of nature. Combined with Ruskin’s pamphlet written in support of the group in 1851, where he celebrated the PRB for finally carrying out his “advice to the young artists of England” to “go to nature in all singleness of heart . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing,” we might consider Rossetti’s idealised (and increasingly stylised) image of feminine beauty to be incompatible with an ethos such as this.[7] However, as observed by several contemporary critics in the late 1860s and 1870s, the Pre-Raphaelites’ fidelity to nature was also thought to include their efforts to capture romantic and spiritual truthfulness. In this vein, Rossetti’s oeuvre might be said to exemplify this element of the Pre-Raphaelite mission. 

The second essential error relates to linguistics. When we attempt to course-correct the present day meaning of a word in order to return it to its original and/or historical meaning, we commit an etymological fallacy; we ignore the evolution of language. Rather than rejecting the popular understanding of the Pre-Raphaelite label with its firm associations with Rossettian imagery, would the more engaging task for us as scholars instead be to analyse how, when, and why this idea became so prominent in the popular consciousness? These questions, like the contributions included in this Conversation Piece, allude to the further directions in which Pre-Raphaelite and Rossetti scholarship can develop. With contributions from past and current History of Art doctoral students from the University of York, the following short essays illustrate the department’s reputation as a centre for the study and expansion of this field of scholarship.


What do we do with a picture like Ligeia?


I came out of the Cézanne show at Tate Modern—a monographic exhibition about an artist in whom I had little interest—wholly convinced of the painterly power of his apples and jugs. As a Victorianist, I came out of The Rossettis annoyed. Visiting an exhibition like The Rossettis as a lurker in Pre-Raphaelite studies is frustrating, a frustration that stems from being back on the same old sex, drugs, and rigamarole of biography and scholarly baby steps. 

Given the constraints of a conversation piece, I’m going to focus on what I’ve been calling the Hair Fetish Room (properly, ‘Poetic Portraits’). This is the room the punters have come for, with thick-necked beauties baring one tasteful breast to be analogised to a piece of fruit. In the immortal words of David Mitchell about the Desperate Romantics adaptation, these are tits masquerading as breasts—and there’s nothing wrong with that.[1] However, the Hair Fetish Room also bares, like Venus Verticordia’s apple, the original sin of Pre-Raphaelite studies: The Model Fetish. Hardly a label goes by that we aren’t told who modelled for which body part, whose sensuality stands in for which mistress, temptress, or vampiress, who allegorises which nuance of Gabriel’s middle-class fascination with working-class women. What about this is new scholarship, or at least a newly opened window into the humid masturbatorium of Rossetti’s femmes fatales

Figure 1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ligeia Siren, 1873. Coloured chalk on paper. Private Collection. Photo by author in Rossettis exhibition, June 2023. 
Figure 2. Label for Ligeia Siren, Rossettis: Romantic Radicals, Tate Britain. Photo by author.

Figure. 3 François Balthazar Solvyns, Street scene with musician playing a saurinda, a type of violin, Calcutta, West Bengal, 1799. Coloured etching. Wellcome Collection 31130i 

This is not to say I don’t appreciate the beauty and artistic value of the inhabitants of the masturbatorium. I unironically love Rossetti’s pulpy turn towards Tizianismo, and frankly this holds some of the most interesting passages of artmaking in the exhibition—juicy paint, crusty paint, obsessive ink, velvety chalk. I simply don’t care about models, and I was hoping for some kind of critical commentary or more detailed explanation of what makes these highly aestheticised images radical. The hothouse sensuality of the big-sleeved, purse-lipped advertisements for Victorian hair treatments and Venetian velvet-sellers nearly drown out the quiet, crisp chalk figure of Ligeia Siren (Fig. 1, 1873), half-Parmigianino sybil, half-Alexa Wilding with a fiddle—in Rossetti’s own words, ‘certainly one of my best doings.’[2] Ligeia Siren is one of those rare Rossettis I can’t recall having seen before, that’s simultaneously obscure enough to be new and interesting, high-quality enough to be worth displaying, and well-documented enough to have a Wikipedia page, entries on the Rossetti Archive scholarly platform, and multiple scholarly articles in respectable journals.

But the label for the work (Fig. 2) says nothing of use about the image, nor the text it’s based on (it’s not a poem, it’s a prose narrative plan for an unrealised dramatic piece), nor what the picture is showing, doing, or saying. Instead we are told that ‘Sirens are “femmes fatales” of legend, women-like beings whose song lures sailors to their death.’ We learn, at least, that she is playing an Indian sarinda, and that this relates to Rossetti’s interest in music and poetry. Is she playing it correctly? Would Rossetti know how a sarinda is played (Fig. 3)? Surely this could be connected to other points made about Orientalist and colonial attitudes in the exhibition—points that were well-made and about time, too. I would suggest that Rossetti used a bird-headed instrument for its iconographic properties—because the sirens were properly bird-bodied women, not Mannerist pin-ups with Alexa Wilding’s hair, and the bird on the head of the instrument signifies this—but using it without regard to its cultural history or even how it’s played (with a bow) is interesting. It says something about Rossetti’s artistic practice, the ways he visualised the stated ‘[interest] in giving poetry and painting the qualities of music,’ that the practicalities of how an instrument was played didn’t come into consideration as long as the vibes were right.

I understand that labels have to be written for a specific reading level, and that in 75-100 words you can’t explain every aspect of an artwork. This is one of the reasons major exhibitions have catalogues with object entries, to give a deeper insight into the work, provide scholarly apparatus, and often incorporate a wider range of knowledgeable voices to comment on the works. Or at least, it’s why they used to—an aggravating trend in recent exhibition catalogues (not just at Tate) is the absence of this content. In this case, Ligeia Siren is reproduced but entirely undiscussed. No discussion of the model (even if I don’t care, I know a lot of people do, and her unrecorded identity as a ‘singular housemaid of advanced ideas’[3] seems like peak Pre-Raphaelite Studies content); no discussion of the prose libretto or its thematic content in relation to Rossetti’s ideas of beauty, music, love, eroticism, and death; no commentary on the fact that the full nudity of the work apparently made it commercially inviable so Rossetti had to cover up the ‘unpopular central detail… so as to render it saleable.’[4]

This was easily discovered with twenty minutes of idle snooping around, but I’ve got the pre-existing experience to know where to look and a university librarian who can scan and email me pages of books on request. What about a non-specialist visitor, who might not obsessively photograph every label and doesn’t already know their way around the Rossetti Archive website? With regards to Ligeia, there is no reference in the catalogue to Macleod’s 1982 article on the work or Alan Davison’s 2012 piece on Rossetti and music,[5] nor Rossetti’s use of a subject from Edgar Allan Poe (developed elsewhere in the exhibition).[6] No serious connection is made to other image-music subjects from Rossetti’s oeuvre. There is no connection between the 81 words of Ligeia’s label and the thesis of the exhibition—what’s radical or romantic about Ligeia Siren?

This then is my complaint: what is the point of this much effort by so many people to produce a show and a catalogue if the artworks—our focus as art historians, nominally—are let down by unambitious, tired, or poor art history? The show is driven by a network of romantic biography around Gabriel, with critical visual analysis only seldom allowed to peek in the fogged-up window of the House of Life.




The most distinctive trait that has frequently been associated with the Rossetti family is the strong internationalism that, originating from the biography of the family itself, developed into a sincere commitment to the rediscovery of Italian medieval art and literature.

The Rossettis’ thorough immersion in foreign culture has been widely demonstrated. Biographically speaking, well known are the historical circumstances that led the Italian intellectual, patriot and Dante-scholar Gabriele Rossetti to flee from his native country to settle in London – a famous destination of expatriates in the nineteenth century – where he encountered the Anglo-Italian literate Frances Polidori, with whom he would raise his four children, the painter and poet Gabriel Charles (later known as Dante Gabriel), the poet Christina Georgina, the author Maria Francesca, and the art critic William Michael. Equally renowned is the meticulous examination of Italian and French medieval poets and artists that inspired Dante Gabriel and William Michael in the foundation of the nineteenth-century British Avant-garde par excellence, the short-lived Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the group's associated magazine, The Germ, to which Christina also contributed.[1]

From an artistic perspective, it is widely acknowledged that French engravings and printed reproductions of Italian artworks played a crucial role in the foundations of Dante Gabriel’s early artworks, shaping motifs and visual directions that would characterise the latter part of his artistic career. Furthermore, well-documented is the anecdote that recounts Dante Gabriel’s influential encounter with Edouard Manet’s revolutionary masterpiece Olympia (1863) in Paris, that would be a pivotal turning point in Rossetti’s artistic path, laying the foundations for his painting The Beloved (The Bride) (1865-66).

The other Rossetti children navigated cultural internationalism throughout their careers as well, although to different extents. For instance, Christina’s link with internationalism was chiefly the outcome of the influence of the Anglo-Italian familial and cultural context that she had been part of since an early age. Maria Francesca distinguished herself as a valuable Dante scholar and a bilingual literate. William Michael’s link with international culture would become stronger in the latter part of his life, when his contributions as a contemporary art critic would resonate in the main London art magazines.[2]

Although the current exhibition at Tate successfully explores the role of the Rossettis in British art history – investigating their artistic careers through the filter of the current lively debate on gender, ethnicity, postcolonialism, queer culture, feminism and social instances – the show offers only a limited glimpse on the international engagements of the Rossetti family, missing the chance to present a discourse on their role as cross-cultural trait d’union in the age of rising internationalism of the turn of the twentieth century. This absence in Tate’s show is a symptom of a wider problem in Rossettis studies and their translation into exhibitions for the wider public: that, despite an increasing number of academic contributions and exhibitions investigating the relationship between Pre-Raphaelitism and other nations in the European continent, there is still, at least in Britain, a far greater interest in grounding the Rossettis within the phenomena of British culture. In doing so, the magnitude of their international impact remains largely unacknowledged.[3]

Victorian and fin-de-siècle studies in Britain have addressed the crucial involvement of both cultural and socio-economic internationalism for the development of artistic and cultural liaisons, artistic currents and intellectual tendencies in the European continent and beyond, across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; however, more research is encouraged on this aspect of the Rossettis. Thorough acknowledgement is needed of the impact the Rossetti family had worldwide as well as more research into their more specific links with contemporary foreign culture. For example, as above mentioned, William Michael's prominent role in the reception of foreign art in Britain is well documented; however, the opportunity remains for deeper analysis of his critical writing as a bridge between the Rossetti family's internationalism and the manner of his analysis of non-English art.

Bearing in mind current developments in postcolonial studies and recent research on cultural pollination beyond national borders, now is the moment to thoroughly address how crucially the Rossettis emerged as captivating figures who not only left an indelible mark on British artistic circles but also fostered connections that resonated internationally.[4] These connections generated conversations that not only saw the Rossettis “influencing” other cultures, but also saw them acknowledging and reinterpreting these cultures. Whether we may refer to terms such as interchange, networking, translation, influence, transmission, or reinterpretation, the literary and artistic works by the Rossettis became the opportunity for a tangible international cultural exchange at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the context of these studies, the two countries that first encountered interest among art historians were France and Belgium, particularly regarding the impact of the Rossettis and Pre-Raphaelitism on Symbolism.[5] In the last two decades, another country that has received greater attention is Italy, finally seen – albeit still partially – not only as the country whose medieval and Renaissance art so profoundly inspired the Rossettis, but also as a nation capable of creating prestigious art at the turn of the twentieth century, with strong links with the Rossettis and Pre-Raphaelitism. Several Italian intellectuals, literates, and artists came into direct or indirect contact with the literary and artistic works by the Rossettis, and embraced their rediscovery of the link between the sister-arts painting and poetry, i.e. Ut Pictura Poesis. One can observe the case of the translations of and literary criticism on DGR’s poems especially by Enrico Nencioni, Florentine intellectual and scholar in English literature who helped popularise Dante Gabriel in Italy at the turn of the 1880s.[6] A further interesting case is represented by the painter and Roman cosmopolitan, Giovanni Nino Costa, and his connections with the British art world. Driven by his strong Anglophilia, Costa established in Rome the cultural circle In Arte Libertas, devoted to the circulation of foreign and particularly British culture, and to the exhibition of reproductions and originals of works by DGR and other Pre-Raphaelites. The circle became a lively location for international interchanges and contacts.[7] A further instance worth recalling is the artistic syncretism of the painter Giulio Aristide Sartorio, who not only merged Rossetti’s art, Italian Renaissance and German Symbolism in his own artistic production, but whose admiration for Rossetti was so intense that he wrote the first comprehensive essay dedicated to the art of the British Pre-Raphaelite painter ever published in Italy.[8] Lastly, one must not forget that the Italian fin-de-siècle art magazine Emporium was among the earliest cultural magazines in the continent to devote two articles in 1895 and 1904 respectively to Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddall. These articles not only recognized the value of the former as a pivotal figure among “contemporary English poetesses”[9] but also placed significant importance on Siddall's “limited” work, emphasising how much “could this extraordinary woman have contributed to art”.[10] Further instances of international interest in Pre-Raphaelitism can be seen in the scholarly work undertaken in both continental Europe and the United States of America, where an increasing number of studies have emerged on the relationship between local arts, literature, and the Rossettis.[11]

In conclusion, despite their undeniable international impact, the role of the Rossettis – in particular Dante Gabriel, Christina, William Michael and Elizabeth Siddall – is still confined to an anachronistic and limiting Britain-based view that, being mostly grounded in the context of exhibitions and museums in Britain, keeps their presence confined in the British borders. The interchange between their work and continental cultural movements reshaped artistic conversations and encouraged an intricate creative exchange that crossed national borders, in which the Rossettis played a pivotal part. In years characterised by global communication and the reassessment of artistic narratives, it is the time for the Rossettis’ international interchanges to be definitely addressed: By examining their artistic output through the lens of international connections, we can unveil a more comprehensive narrative that highlights their role as trait d’union between British culture and the broader international cultural context. The Rossettis’ legacy resonates not only within the borders of their homeland but embraces the whole world, revealing how fruitful and deep was their impact on the international art scene of the fin de siècle.

Figure 1. Giulio Aristide Sartorio, Madonna degli Angeli (Magnificat), 1895. Oil on canvas, cm 124 ø. Private Collection. Low-resolution detail photograph of out-of-copyright artwork used under fair dealing for critique or review, from Renato Miracco, ed. Giulio Aristide Sartorio, 1860-1932 (Florence: Maschietto-Mandragora, 2006), 174.


The Tractarian Rossettis


Walking around The Rossettis exhibition at Tate, I was surprised by the lack of discussion of Tractarianism, considering how entrenched the Rossetti family were in the Tractarian movement. A deeply devoted family, embedded within the controversial religious communities of the nineteenth century, the faith of the Rossetti family feels neglected in favour of more prominently popularised topics, such as fallen women and obsession. The controversial religious community that the family were involved in, that of the Tractarian movement, was founded in 1833 by John Henry Newman, John Keble, Richard Hurrell Froude and Edward Pusey. At its essence, Tractarianism was a movement that called for the Church of England to reclaim its Catholic heritage and embrace a ritualistic religious practice, leading to the advent of modern Anglo-Catholicism.[1] The father of the Rossetti siblings—Gabriele Rossetti—originated from Vasto, Italy, where he experienced a Roman Catholic upbringing.[2] This was at odds with the Anglican Church of England, the religion most prevalent in England during the nineteenth century. The tension between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism can be seen in the reception of early works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Towards the beginning of the exhibition, two of Gabriel’s early religious paintings are displayed. The two works in question— The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (Fig. 1, 1848-1849) and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) (Fig. 2, 1849-1850)—both feature Christina Rossetti as the Virgin. In The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, their mother Frances Rossetti is cast as St Anne, while William Michael Rossetti is one of the models used for the figure of the angel in Ecce Ancilla Domini. The final Rossetti sibling, Maria, is absent from the works, as she is from most of the exhibition. The exhibition, and its accompanying catalogue, draws attention to Gabriel’s use of family members as models during his earlier works but fails to explore the rich religious discourse that surrounds this act; in particular, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin can be used as a nucleus to trace the Tractarian networks of which the Rossetti family was part.[3] Upon its completion in 1849, the painting was bought by Frances Vesey, the Dowager Marchioness of Bath, for £80.[4] Lady Bath—a follower of the Tractarians—had a surprising connection to the Rossetti family through Charlotte Polidori, sister of Frances. Polidori was a governess for Lady Bath and continued as her companion once her tutorage was no longer required.[5] It is this familial relationship that likely inspired the Marchioness to purchase one of Gabriel’s early works.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1848-1849, oil paint on canvas, 83.2cm x 65.4cm. London, Tate Britain. © Tate

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), 1849-1850, oil on canvas, 72.4cm x 41.9cm. London, Tate Britain. © Tate, Purchased 1886

Lady Bath had further impact on the Rossetti family, supplying Frances and Christina with an opportunity to work alongside the contentious figure of Rev. William Bennett. Bennett’s ritualistic services at St. Barnabas, Pimlico, resulted in the “no popery” riots of 1850 and his resignation from his post.[6] In 1851, Lady Bath appointed Bennett to the Living of Frome-Selwood in Somerset, where, from 1853 to 1854, Frances and Christina ran a day school under Bennett.[7] The choice to work alongside such a controversial Tractarian figure was of no surprise considering the religious communities that the Rossetti family previously participated in. From 1843, the Rossetti family regularly attended services at Christ Church, Albany Street: a prominent centre for the Tractarian movement in London, under the guidance of Rev. William Dodsworth, before his secession to Roman Catholicism in 1851.[8] During the 1850s, Gabriel, Christina, Maria, and Frances also attended ritualistic services at St. Andrew’s, Wells Street, alongside fellow artists John Everett Millais, and Charles Allston Collins.[9] The Rossetti women— Frances, Christina, and Maria—were particularly ardent in their religious practice and were the most frequent attendees at the aforementioned churches, though they were often accompanied by Gabriel.

A belief in Tractarian ideals was a contentious stance to take and was particularly difficult when trying to gain support and patronage as a young painter. In The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Gabriel utilised religious symbolism in, as Alastair Grieve argues, the “same specific way as the Ecclesiologists used them in their church furnishing.”[10] The lily for example—in both The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini—serves as a symbol of the Virgin’s purity and innocence. The use of symbols to signify the divine was a notion closely linked to Tractarianism, with the Tractarians taking this concept from the teachings of the Church Fathers. The writing of the Church Fathers was seen as distinctly Catholic, with Protestants often discounting their teachings. The Church Fathers tended to allegorize both scripture and nature, giving sacramental meaning to symbols in order to remind followers of the omnipresence of God.[11] The use of such symbolism by the Tractarians and their followers was consequently regarded as an implication of Catholicism. Gabriel’s use of religious symbolism in this way—such as in the use of the lily—therefore adds a Catholic undertone to the works. When Gabriel exhibited Ecce Ancilla Domini! in 1850, the frame included the Latin title. Gabriel displayed an awareness of the damage that the use of Latin could cause for his reputation when, in 1853, he chose to change the title to The Annunciation “to guard. . . against the imputation of Popery.”[12] Likewise, his brother William Michael was also keen on protecting the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from accusations of being Tractarians, explicitly stating:

the notion that the Brotherhood, as such, had anything whatever to do with particular movements in the religious world—whether Roman Catholicism, Anglican Tractarianism, or what not—is totally, and, to one who formed a link in its composition, even ludicrously, erroneous.[13] 

It was the Rossetti sisters that remained the most publicly devout to the Tractarian faith. Maria became an Associate Sister in the Anglican order of The Society of All Saints, later becoming a fully professed sister before her death in 1876. While a copy of Maria’s A Shadow of Dante is included in the exhibition, her other works are not. Likewise, it is disheartening to discover that Christina’s own drawings are not included in the exhibition. Illustrations by Gabriel in response to Christina’s poetry are present, but otherwise Christina’s work is mainly embodied through text. Christina remained devout to Tractarianism throughout her life, so it is disappointing that her personal copy of Keble’s Christian Year—accompanied by her own sketches—is not present in the exhibition.[14] Christina’s simplistic drawings mainly appear near the title of Keble’s poems, often illustrating a few specific lines or stanzas rather than the whole poem. The majority of the illustrated figures are female. This is suggestive of Christina’s intimate and devotional engagement with the poems, where she was subjectively reading and responding to the poems from her own personal gendered perspective. In Christina’s visual reflections on Keble’s poetry, we can conceive the development of her own religious iconography. Christina’s response to Keble’s ‘Fifth Sunday After Epiphany’ features a crucified satanic figure towering over three women. Christina appears to be illustrating the lines: “Sin only hides the genial ray, / And round the Cross, makes night of day.”[15] Thus, the serpent-like figure acts as an embodiment of sin, blocking the cross—and God—from humankind. Christina’s own poetry also ruminates on the theme of sin, with her poem ‘The World’ (1862) featuring a satanic figure with “subtle serpents sliding in her hair”—imagery included in her illustration of “Fifth Sunday After Epiphany.”[16]

The inclusion of Christina’s sketches would have helped mitigate the difficulties of the amalgamation of text and image within an exhibition, a jarring juxtaposition that results in Christina appearing an auxiliary character in deference to Gabriel and Elizabeth Siddall. Gabriel and Siddall are primarily featured in the exhibition as visual artists, whilst Christina is categorised as solely a poet, despite her undertaking drawing lessons under Ford Madox Brown and having a multitude of surviving sketches. The exhibition seemingly pigeonholes the Rossetti family into distinct categories of artist, poet, and—in regard to William Michael—art critic. While Gabriel’s poetry is explored to a certain extent, Siddall’s poetry is underrepresented, with only a few lines included in the exhibition. The exhibition, therefore, presents Gabriel as a ‘jack of all trades,’ while Siddall and Christina’s creative outputs are reduced to a single category. Similarly, an exploration of Tractarianism in the exhibition would allow for a more detailed examination of the lives and work of the female members of the Rossetti family—in particular, Frances and Maria, who are almost non-existent in the show. The Tractarian faith was closely entwined with the lives of Frances, Maria, and Christina, and therefore it is necessary to consider this context when exploring their outputs. Furthermore, the exhibition presents the Rossettis as being ‘radical’ but fails to explore their radical involvement in the controversial religious network that followed the Tractarians. The devotion that the Rossetti women gave to Tractarianism, in a time in which such beliefs were largely controversial, is an important contribution to why the Rossettis were profoundly radical.     


Sound and Space: La Ghirlandata 


Of all the rooms in Tate Britain’s exhibition The Rossettis, the one covered in wallpaper, in original design by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is the most striking. Bright blue walls covered with slender fruit trees provide a visual rhythm throughout the room, even if the blue contrasts sharply with the bright white ceiling and green of a raised platform. Yet this room does not only cater to sight. At specific locations, the visitor finds themselves underneath a speaker. Instead of providing sound via an audiotour or headphones, Christina Rossetti’s poetry is read out and integrated into the exhibition space. It is almost eerie as you step underneath the speaker, facing Elizabeth Siddal’s drawings as a voice suddenly appears in your ear. 

Yet the inclusion of sound is appropriate. All Rossettis represented in the exhibition, in different intensities and at different stages during their career, were attracted to the intermedial potentials of sound and music. Christina’s poetry, by virtue of its medium, is filled with rhythm, spoken sound, cadences, and lyricism. We even face another musical picture as we hear Christina’s poetry: Elizabeth Siddal’s Lovers Listening to Music (1854), a delicate pen-and-ink drawing. It was William Michael Rossetti who, in his published writings, periodically used musical terminology to describe artworks. However, just as The Rossettis draws most of our attention to Dante Gabriel’s work, so too was he the Rossetti who took the interest in music the furthest. 

Figure 1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Ghirlandata, 1873, oil on canvas, 124 x 85 cm. London, Guildhall Art Gallery. Photo credit: Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

One of Dante Gabriel’s most prominent musical images in the exhibition, also featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue, is La Ghirlandata (1873). This oil painting depicts a woman in a luxurious green dress surrounded by dense foliage. Cradled in her lap is a peculiar three-tiered harp, decorated and topped with two ornamental bronze birds and a wreath of light-pink honeysuckle flowers. As the woman plays her instrument, two girls, likely angels, listen from the top corners of the painting. William Michael saw it as a companion piece to Veronica Veronese (1872), where another musician dressed in green strums her violin.[1] Stringed instruments, such as the harp and violin, feature more broadly in Dante Gabriel’s oeuvre, including a Japanese koto in The Blue Bower (1865) and A Sea-Spell (1877), and a hollowed out folk instrument, likely an Indian sarinda, in Ligeia Siren (1873), also featured in the exhibition.[2] An interdisciplinary investigation into these works reveal several dimensions of music-painting overlap that Dante Gabriel was interested in, including the interrelationships between colour and musical tones, temporality and spatiality between art forms, and the physicality of instruments and their performers.[3] The exhibition The Rossettis tends to focus on the reputation of the models, especially Alexa Wilding, in Dante Gabriel’s musical pictures. Yet one detail often remains overlooked: the peculiar physiognomy of the musicians and their instruments. 

Dante Gabriel’s musicians, most of them women, strum, cradle, and hold instruments that are visually captivating but are often, upon closer inspection, unplayable.[4] The harp in La Ghirlandata is a three-tiered type, the strings painted so close together that they appear to overlap, rendering the instrument useless. In fact, the musician’s hair, trailing down her shoulder, is intertwined and interwoven with the strings themselves. The metaphorical relationship between musical string and strand of hair Dante Gabriel explores here has been recognised as a recurring motif and is used in La Ghirlandata to create a physiognomic relationship between human body and musical instrument.[5] Yet this ‘symbolic physiognomy’, as Alan Davison has called it, is disrupted by Dante Gabriel’s odd choice of hand placement. Indeed, in many of his works, including Veronica Veronese and A Sea-Spell, the hand placement in relation to the instrument seems to be more of an aesthetic choice rather than a realistic one. In La Ghirlandata, the musician seems to hover her fingers over the strands rather than plucking them, and in Veronica Veronese the violin hangs against a wall and the musician simply rests her hand against the strings with the bow not even in use. 

What emerges out of this is that Dante Gabriel clearly had an interest in the link between physical action and musical sound, an interest which was outstripped by his attraction to the visuality and physicality of his painted subjects. La Ghirlandata serves as a reminder that Dante Gabriel was drawn to the potential of music in its overlap with both poetry and painting. Music and sound remind us of the physicality of their medium, something we should take into account when thinking about paintings made with music, or even song or poetry, in mind.


Rossetti’s outré Magdalene


Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee (Fig. 1, 1858)—a small, complicated, yet otherwise-innocuous drawing in The Rossettis exhibition—becomes more legible and lively when we carefully parse its utter oddness. 

There is an internal division that structures the work: the outré mass of obsessive detail. The sharp focus and almost photographic attention to the minute connects the drawing to an earlier Pre-Raphaelite style while the abundance of symbolism points to artificiality as a governing principle. Rossetti’s Düreresque pen and India ink drawing depicts a fictionalised pre-narrative to the Gospel of Luke story of Jesus and Simon the Pharisee (7:36–50): the “sinful woman” of the narrative, cast here as Mary Magdalene, on the literal and metaphorical threshold between her previous life of vice and her new life of virtue. The stage moment feels almost overwrought. Rossetti litters the piece with interactions and exchanges: they both reiterate the metaphor and overdo it somewhat—making the whole scene look strikingly artificial. Mary is literally turning her back on a party; a female friend and male lover are blocking her path meaning she has to overcome them, or get through them, to reach her redemption; her behaviour is so shocking and out of character that the bride and groom are, on their own wedding day, distracted by her; a half-naked beggar girl looks up to her; there are Marian lillies in the open doorway; and hanging, just from her waist, she already has the anointing oil to hand.

Figure 1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee, 1858, pen and Indian ink on paper mounted on fine linen on a stretcher, 50.8 x 45.7 cm. Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum. © The Fitzwilliam Museum.

It is tempting to reach for the descriptor “camp” here—particularly given Susan Sontag’s formulation of camp as a “certain mode of aestheticism … the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylisation”.[1] Outré, however, with its sense of being “beyond the bounds of what is usual or considered correct and proper; unusual, peculiar; eccentric, unorthodox; extreme”, more accurately captures the aesthetic positions and strange undercurrents of the drawing.[2]

Take, for example, the narrative and setting. Rossetti’s drawing is enmeshed in the long history of casting Mary as the unnamed “sinful woman” in Luke 7:36–50 who anoints Jesus’s feet at Simon the Pharisee’s house following the latter’s failure of hospitality. And yet Rossetti’s drawing, idiosyncratically, seems to transport the biblical narrative to quattrocento Florence. The external walls—rendered in a straight course that creates a strong, sharp line that darts from foreground to background—have more than a passing resemblance to the highly finished ashlar masonry that was used widely during the Italian Renaissance. More specifically the intricate bird pattern on the male lover’s cloak is, Alastair Grieve suggests, taken directly from a quattrocento North Italian outfit recorded in Camille Bonnard’s Costumes Historiques (1830).[3] The external walls—rendered in a straight course that creates a strong, sharp line that darts from foreground to background—have more than a passing resemblance to the highly finished ashlar masonry of the Italian Renaissance and underscore the effect.[4] Both details are, in short, outré in their specificity, and already part of a somewhat peculiar tradition—despite Luke presenting the woman as nameless and without identifying features beyond sin—that insists on locating Mary in this particular scene.[5] These elements are more than a simple case of artistic anachronism. It is the eccentricity of the double movement—the act of placing Mary in the scene and on a precise threshold and then the decision to transport the action to the Italian Renaissance—that makes this so outré.

The title hints at its unconventional nature. It spatially and temporally locates Mary outside of the structural elements of Luke: the house (in practice) and the concept of hospitality (in theory). While Luke 7:37 contains a gesture to the nameless woman moving into the scene, shifting from a public to private sphere, it is Rossetti who configures Mary on the threshold of those spheres: rising from the street yet not inside the house. Rossetti’s Mary is saturated with liminality.  This is doubly true when we consider her metaphysical status. Despite her resolution—the fixed gaze, upheld head, calm demeanour, and determined stride interrupted by the bodies of the female friend and male lover—she is yet to be absolved of her sins. We know it will happen, and our appreciation of the importance of this pre-narrative image relies on us recognising the narrative it precedes, but her absolution is like the central narrative of Luke in this scene—yet to be. That boundary between sin and salvation, like the open doorway or portico itself, is about to show itself to be porous and to be a boundary that can be exceeded or overcome in the outré scene.

There is, of course, one strikingly outré element I have yet to address directly: the deer in the immediate foreground. Positioned with its back to the fulcrum of the narrative—Mary’s movement across the literal and metaphorical threshold—unbothered by the significance of Christ (above) or Mary (behind). This is an original element introduced by Rossetti; while casting Mary as the ‘sinful woman’ of the story has a pictorial tradition to it, the deer is an art-historical oddity. Indeed, it feels like one the most outré aspects of the picture precisely because it sits both inside and outside the scene—occupying the same kind of liminality that the figure of Mary represents in this moment. The deer is, unlike the donkey and chickens, not integrated with or enmeshed in the scene: it is within the picture and yet outside of the narrative. In a small way, this distance from the rest of the picture brings about a kind of reading that might illuminate the metaphorical narrative at work. Unmoved by the party, the deer begins to feel like a kind of cipher or surrogate for Mary’s new life, far removed from the earthly pleasures of the scene.

The throngs of revelrous bodies, too, have a defamiliarising peculiarity to them under close inspection. The pair that blocks Mary’s path has an uncanny doubleness—note the round jutting chins, garlands, unsightly tin lips, the disproportionately small clenched teeth on both, and that both gaze at Mary in unison. This double is doubled again with the couple behind Mary who share those same attributes but also have a facial smoothness and doubled grimace-like expressions—outré flourishes hidden in plain sight by Rossetti. The pair of pairs serve, in short, to throw into relief the singularity of Mary who looks so unlike any other figure in the scene. Her body signals none of the repentance and humility that structure the biblical narrative; her act of tearing off the garland with both hands and her oversized forearms, for instance, should be read as a kind of strength and power from faith.

The perspective, too, is unorthodox, and by working against the grain of rules of established and supposedly-rationalised perspective. Rossetti empowers pictorial areas with agency and independence. The recessive area containing the donkey, driver, guard, sack-bearer, and terrace wall, for instance, functions as a distinct space with its own narrative (Fig. 2). More an aperture to a concurrent episode and less a background to the Mary Magdalene narrative: this is life happening and the drawing is insistent that the earthly and heavenly coexist—the latter not merely accessories for the former nor something to be idealised and standardised via artistic practice.

Figure 2. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (detail) Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee, 1858, pen and Indian ink on paper mounted on fine linen on a stretcher, 50.8 x 45.7 cm. Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum. © The Fitzwilliam Museum.

The image of Christ in the top right of the picture looms over this all. As Jerome McGann carefully parses: the image can be seen triply as a “form … at the level of the picture plane itself”, “more realistically, as a head in a window”, and “as if it were hung there like a picture”.[6] This is the most outré aspect of the drawing and the detail with which to draw this thought to a close. The position that Rossetti wishes the viewer to take is entirely unclear: none of these three readings can be improper or incorrect because that would require the picture to delineate the “right” reading here. The multivalent representation of Christ is striking in its peculiarity and in doing so encapsulates Rossetti’s programmatic approach: it is entirely in keeping with the outré world of the drawing.




When Tate first began advertising The Rossettis, it was marketed as a “relational” exhibition. The novelty of the exhibition, which supposedly set it apart from all previous looks at Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, was the way in which it foregrounded a group rather than an individual. The conference hosted by Tate and the Paul Mellon Centre on the occasion of the exhibition, which has already been mentioned throughout this conversation piece, was titled “Rossettis: In Relation.” The Call for Papers claims that the concept of the exhibition “suggests a different model for thinking about how artists’ careers and lives are shaped – not as the singular and self-contained subjects often presented by a monographic approach – but one that is relational, collaborative and part of familial and professional networks.” This is a vastly exciting and disruptive claim which points to a new methodology for scholarship and curating.

Yet the exhibition has proved to be a very traditional retrospective of a single artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The promise of an innovative “relational methodology” seems to have been a hollow one. Not only was the exhibition dominated almost entirely by the work of one artist, it was hardly reappraised in the context of his relationships–his relationship with Elizabeth Siddall, whose work is featured, is presented as a traditional artist-muse dynamic. Other members of the wider Rossetti family are mentioned biographically, but their work is not included. The artist Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti, for example, was just the subject of an exhibition in 2021 at the Watts Gallery & Artists’ Village, yet Tate only mentions her as a wife and mother. 

The challenges of rethinking such a deeply ingrained exhibition structure as the monograph are significant, but the opportunities that follow such a rethink are boundless. Continuing to build narratives of art history around “great” names, mostly the names of men, is profoundly limiting. The essays included in this conversation piece, as well as many of the papers and conversations held at the aforementioned conference, have begun to dismantle or question this hegemony. Each of the authors featured here have pointed out context or interpretation that is missing from Tate’s exhibition. The tapestry of deeper analysis they have woven through their relational thinking points to the potential of this kind of methodology to truly broaden our understanding of the Rossettis in future scholarship.


Article Information
Melissa Gustin, Eduardo De Maio, Robyn Valentine, Marte Stinis, and Nicholas Dunn-McAfee, "The Rossettis: In Conversation," ed. Susie Beckham and Eliza Goodpasture, Aspectus, no. 5 (Fall 2023): 4867. DOI: 10.15124/yao-n1n2-bv73