Rossetti Archive Textual Transcription

Document Title: Letter to Frederick Stephens, ca. 10 August 1875
Author: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Date of Composition: 1875 August 10
Type of Manuscript: letter
Scribe: DGR

The full Rossetti Archive record for this transcribed document is available.

page: [1]
16 Cheyne Walk


My dear Stephens,
I fancy these are as nearly as it is desirable to name at one go, but they might be described (truly) as "a few" of the pictures and designs I have lately made. Perhaps you would like to look again at the things. Would tomorrow (Wednesday) suit, any time after 2 o'clock? About 3 is the best time for the colour since later the sun strikes in.
Ever yours,

D. G. R.
The notes are of course only rough material for memory.
P.S. I shall be glad if you think it practicable to speak of the Question design, as it is a favorite with me and I should like attention directed to it in hope of a chance to paint it without loss. Of course if your plans did not suit with mine, you must elect the course suiting yourself. I thought it better on second thoughts not to include the sonnets . We might speak of this if I see you as I hope.
page: [2]
The picture is a study of greys culminating in the tint of the drapery —a warm but scarcely positive blue. Proserpine holds in her hand the pomegranate, by partaking of which in Hades she has precluded herself from return to earth. She is passing along a gloomy corridor of her palace, and a sharp light (as if an upper door opening suddenly flashed down for a moment the light of the outer world) strikes on the wall behind her, throwing her head and massive hair into strong relief, as she turns her eyes sadly towards the distant gleam. On the wall an ivy branch curves downward, and forms with the swaying lines of the drapery the pictorial motive of the design.
  • Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
  • Unto this wall,—one instant and no more
  • Admitted at my distant palace-door:
  • Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
  • Cold fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here:
  • Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
  • That chills me: and afar, how far away,
  • The nights that shall be from the days that were.
  • Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
  • 10 Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
  • And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
  • (Whose sounds mine inner sense is fain to bring,
  • Continually together murmuring,)
  • “Woe's me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!”
  • Lungiè la luce che in sù questo muro
  • Rifrange appena, un breve istante scorta
  • Del rio palazzo alla soprana porta:
  • Lungi quei fiori d'Enna, O lido oscuro,
  • Dal frutto tuo fatal che omai m'è duro.
  • Lungi quel cielo dal tartareo manto
  • Che quì mi cuopre: e lungi ahi lungi ahi quanto
  • Le notti che saràn dai dì che furo.
  • Lungi da me mi sento; e ognor sognando
  • 10 Cerco e ricerco, e resto ascoltatrice;
  • E qualche cuore a qualche anima dice,—
  • (Di cui mi giunge il suon da quando in quando,
  • Continuamente insieme sospirando,)—
  • “Oimè per te, Proserpina infelice!”
page: [3]
La Bella Mano
The title may remind Italian readers of the well-known Petrarchian series of sonnets so named by Giusto de Conti. The picture is however simply a painter's fancy and dependent on pictorial qualities almost entirely. It belongs to the class of toilet pictures where Venus or the lady has her attendant Loves. Here the lady is washing her hands at a cistern and basin of metal, while two white robed and red-winged Loves are in attendance, one holding the towel in readiness, the other bearing on a silver tray the bracelet and rings, the adornments destined for her “bella mano.” A mirror behind her head reflects the room and bed, deep-toned but with a fire burning in the chimney-nook. The pictorial object of the work has been to show the brilliancy of flesh tints and whites relieved on a ground everywhere subdued to the eye, yet everywhere replete with varied colour and material.
La Bella Mano
  • O lovely hand, that thy sweet self dost lave
  • In what thy pure and proper element,
  • Whence erst the Lady of Love's high advènt
  • Was born, and endless fires sprang from the wave;—
  • Even as her Loves to her their offerings gave,
  • For thee the jewelled gifts they bear; while each
  • Looks to those lips, of music-measured speech
  • The fount, and of more bliss than man may crave.
  • In royal wise ring-girt and bracelet-spann'd,
  • 10 A flower of Venus' own virginity,
  • Go shine among thy sisterly sweet band;
  • In maiden-minded converse delicately
  • Evermore white and soft; until thou be,
  • O hand, heart-handsel'd in a lover's hand.
La Bella Mano
  • O bella Mano, che ti lavi e piaci
  • In quel medesmo tuo puro elemento
  • Donde la Dea dell' amoroso avvento
  • Nacque, (e dall' onda s'infuocar le faci
  • Di mille inispegnibili fornaci):—
  • Come a Venere a te l'oro e l'argento
  • Offron gli Amori; e ognun riguarda attento
  • Quel labbro, sponda, ahime! di voce e baci.
  • Con dolce modo dove onor t'invii
  • 10 Vattene adorna, e porta insiem fra tante
  • Di Venere e di vergine sembiante;
  • Umilemente in luoghi onesti e pii
  • Bianca e soave ognora; infin che sii,
  • O Mano, mansueta in man d'amante.
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Dis Manibus
The title here suggests the subject —that of a Roman widow seated in the funeral vault beside her husband's cinerary urn, the inscription on which is headed with the invariable words as given above; and playing on two harps (as seen in some classical examples) an elegy “to the Divine Manes.” She is robed in white—the mourning of noble ladies in Rome. The antique form of the harps is rendered in tortoiseshell chiefly with fittings of ebony or dark horn embossed in silver. The harp on which her right hand plays is wound with wild roses; and beneath the urn, across the wall of green marble, is a large festoon of garden roses, repeating as it were the festoon to be almost universally found on such urns and which this one displays round its inscription. About the urn is wound the widow's wedding-girdle of silver, dedicated to the dead as to the living husband. The moment chosen must be supposed to belong to those special occasions on which the Romans solemnized mortuary rites, and which recurred at intervals during the year.
La Ghirlandata
The green-clad “Lady of the Garland” sits among the golden greens of thorn tree and myrtle copse; her hands drawing the music from the harp beside her, and her face absorbed in the sound. On either side, over her shoulders an angel looks through the glowing upper leaves, as if Heaven itself waited on her song. Round the summit of the harp is slung a garland of roses and honeysuckles, sweetest of earthly blooms, and the sky above, where the day of earth is dying, seems to speak of a sweetness still beyond. The evening breeze has just risen, and begins to lift the light drapery about her shoulders as she plays. In colour, the picture is a study of greens chiefly, interspersed with blues of various shades - the deep blue aconite which fills the base of the picture, the bright bird looking through the leaves, the wing-pattern painted on the instrument, and the blue fading from the sky. These hues are balanced by the golden browns of the hair, and dusky-hued harp - an instrument solid and strung on both sides.
Among works in hand, for which complete designs and studies are made, may be named the following.
Venus Astarte
The Syrian Venus is here represented in light drapery double-girt, with one hand resting on the girdle at her bosom and the other on that at her hips. Behind her are two ministering spirits, winged and bearing torches; and above all the star Venus shines between the setting Sun and rising moon.
page: [5]
The Question
In this design, the subject represents three Greek pilgrims - a youth, a full-grown man, and an old man, consulting the Sphinx as an Oracle. In the distance, between sharp rocks on either side, in a difficult creek of the sea, is seen the ship which has brought them from afar to the nearest navigable point; and thence they have clambered over the crags to the elevated rocky platform on which the Sphinx is enthroned in motionless mystery, her bosom jutting out between the gaunt limbs of a rifted laurel-tree, and her lion-claws planted against them. The youth, about to put his question, falls in sudden swoon from the toils of the journey and an overmastering emotion; the man leans forward over his falling body and peers into the eyes of the Sphinx to read her answer; but those eyes are turned upward and fixed without response on the unseen sky which is out of the picture and only shows in the locked bay of quivering sea a cold reflection of the moon. Meanwhile the old man is seen still labouring upwards and about in his turn to set foot on the platform, eager to the last for that secret which is never to be known. In the symbolism of the picture (which is clear and gives its title founded on Shakspere's great line
To be or not to be, that is the Question
the swoon of the youth may be taken to shadow forth the mystery of early death, one of the hardest of all impenetrable dooms.
Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: dgr.ltr.0545.rad.xml