Rossetti Archive Textual Transcription

Document Title: Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868
Author: W.M. Rossetti and A.C. Swinburne
Date of publication: 1868
Publisher: John Camden Hotten / [AMS Press]

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

Transcription Gap: pages [1]-30 (not related to DGR)
Transcription Gap: pages [31]-45 line 34 (to be added later)
page: 45
It is well known that the painter of whom I now propose to speak has never suffered exclusion of acceptance at the hand of any academy. To such acceptance or such rejection all other men of any note have been and may be liable. It is
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not less well known that his work must always hold its place as second in significance and value to no work done by any English painter of his time. Among the many great works of Mr. D. G. Rossetti, I know of none greater than his two latest. These are types of sensual beauty and spiritual, the siren and the sibyl. The one is a woman of the type of Adam's first wife; she is a living Lilith, with ample splendour of redundant hair;
  • She excels
  • All women in the magic of her locks;
  • And when she winds them round a young man's neck
  • She will not ever set him free again.
Clothed in soft white garments, she draws out through a comb the heavy mass of hair like thick spun gold to fullest length; her head leans back half sleepily, superb and satiate with its own beauty; the eyes are languid, without love in them or hate; the sweet luxurious mouth has the patience of pleasure fulfilled and complete, the warm repose of passion sure of its delight. Outside, as seen in the glimmering mirror, there is full summer; the deep and glowing leaves have drunk in the whole strength of the sun. The sleepy splendour of the picture is a fit raiment for the idea incarnate of faultless fleshly beauty and peril of pleasure unavoidable. For this serene and sublime sorceress there is no life but of the body; with spirit (if spirit there be) she can dispense. Were it worth her while for any word to divide those terrible tender lips, she too might say with the hero of the most perfect and exquisite book of modern times— Mademoiselle de Maupin—“Je trouve la terre aussi belle que le ciel, et je pense que la correction de la forme est la vertu.” Of evil desire or evil impulse she has nothing; and nothing of good. She is indifferent, equable, magnetic; she charms and draws down the souls of men by pure force of absorption, in no wise wilful or malignant; outside herself she cannot live, she cannot even see: and because of this she attracts and subdues all men at once in body and in spirit. Beyond the mirror she cares not to look, and could not.
  • “Ma mia suora Rahel mai non si smaga
  • Dal suo miraglio, e siede tutto 'l giorno.“
So, rapt in no spiritual contemplation, she will sit to all
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time, passive and perfect: the outer light of a sweet spring day flooding and filling the massive gold of her hair. By the reflection in a deep mirror of fervent foliage from without, the chief chord of stronger colour is touched in this picture; next in brilliance and force of relief is the heap of curling and tumbling hair on which the sunshine strikes; the face and head of the siren are withdrawn from the full stroke of the light.
After this faint essay at an exposition, the weighty and melodious words in which the painter has recast his thought (words inscribed on the frame of the picture) will be taken as full atonement for my shortcomings; I fear only that the presumption and insufficience of the commentator will now be but the more visible.
Note: Swinburne notes that his 1868 text is taken from the frame of the exhibited picture “ Lady Lilith.” The text, which was the first printing of the poem, varies from the later printings in lines 2, 9, and 11.
  • Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
  • (The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)
  • That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
  • And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
  • And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
  • And, subtly of herself contemplative,
  • Draws men to watch the bright net she can weave,
  • Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
  • Rose, foxglove, poppy are her flowers: for where
  • 10 Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
  • And soft-shed fingers and soft sleep shall snare?
  • Lo! as that youth's eyes burned at thine, so went
  • Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent,
  • And round his heart one strangling golden hair.
The other picture gives the type opposite to this; a head of serene and spiritual beauty, severe and tender, with full and heavy hair falling straight in grave sweet lines, not like Lilith's exuberant of curl and coil; with carven column of throat, solid and round and flawless as living ivory; with still and sacred eyes and pure calm lips; and imperial votaress truly, in maiden meditation: yet as true and tangible a woman of mortal mould, as ripe and firm of flesh as her softer and splendid sister. The mystical emblems behind her show her power upon love and death to make them loyal servants to the law of her lofty and solemn spirit. Here also the artist
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alone should first be heard; and I, having leave to act as his outrider, give him the due precedence.
  • Under the arch of life, where love and death,
  • Terror and mystery, guard her shrine, I saw
  • Beauty enthroned; and though her gaze struck awe,
  • I drew it in as simply as my breath.
  • Hers are the eyes which, over and beneath,
  • The sky and sea bend on thee,—which can draw,
  • By sea or sky or woman, to one law,
  • The allotted bondman of her palm and wreath.
  • This is that Lady Beauty, in whose praise
  • 10 Thy voice and hand shake still,—long known to thee
  • By flying hair and fluttering hem,—the beat
  • Following her daily of thy heart and feet,
  • How passionately and irretrievably,
  • In what fond flight, how many ways and days!
After these all weaker words must fall flat enough; but something of further description may yet be allowed. Behind this figure of the ideal and inaccessible beauty, an inlaid wall of alternate alabaster and black marble bears inwrought on its upper part the rival twin emblems of love and death; over the bare carven skull poppies impend, and roses over the sweet head with bound blind eyes: in her hand is the palm-branch, a sceptre of peace and of power. The cadence of colour is splendid and simple, a double trinity of green and red, the dim red robe, the deep red poppies, the soft red roses; and again the green veil wound about with wild flowers, the green down of poppy-leaves, the sharper green of rose-leaves.
An unfinished picture of Beatrice (the Beata Beatrix of the Vita Nuova), a little before death, is perhaps the noblest of Mr. Rossetti's many studies after Dante. This work is wholly symbolic and ideal; a strange bird flown earthward from heaven brings her in its beak a full-blown poppy, the funereal flower of sleep. Her beautiful head lies back, sad and sweet, with fast-shut eyes in a death-like trance that is not death; over it the shadow of death seems to impend, making sombre the splendour of her ample hair and tender faultless features. Beyond her the city and the bridged river
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Sig. E
are seen as from far, dim and veiled with misty lights as though already “sitting alone, made as a widow.” Love, one side, comes bearing in his hand a heart in flames, having his eyes bent upon Dante's; on the other side is Dante, looking sadly across the way towards Love. In this picture the light is subdued and soft, touching tenderly from behind the edges of Beatrice's hair and raiment; in the others there is a full fervour of daylight. The great picture of Venus Verticordia has now been in great measure recast; the head is of a diviner type of beauty; golden butterflies hover about the halo of her hair, alight upon the sweet supremacy of a beauty imperial and immortal; her glorious bosom seems to exult and expand as the roses on each side of it. The painting of leaf and fruit and flower in this picture is beyond my praise or any man's; but of one thing I will here take note; the flash of green brilliance from the upper leaves of the trellis against the sombre green of the trees behind. Once more it must appear that the painter alone can translate into words as perfect in music and colour the sense and spirit of his work.
  • She hath it in her hand to give it thee,
  • Yet almost in her heart would hold it back;
  • She muses, with her eyes upon the track
  • Of that which in thy spirit they can see.
  • Haply, “Behold, he is at peace,” saith she:
  • “Alas! the apple for his lips—the dart
  • That follows its brief sweetness to his heart—
  • The wandering of his feet perpetually!”
  • A little space her glance is still and coy;
  • 10 But if she give the fruit that works her spell,
  • Those eyes shall flame as for her Phrygian boy;
  • Then shall her bird's strained throat the woe foretell,
  • And her far seas moan as a single shell,
  • And through her dark grove strike the light of Troy.
Another work, as yet incomplete, is a study of La Pia; she is seen looking forth from the ramparts of her lord's castle, over the fatal lands without; her pallid splendid face hangs a little forward, wan and white against the mass of dark deep hair; under her
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unhands is a work of embroidery, hanging still on the frame finished; just touched by the weak weary hands, it trails forward across the lap of her pale green raiment, into the foreground of the picture. In her eyes is a strange look of wonder and sorrow and fatigue, without fear and without pain, as though she were even now looking beyond earth into the soft and sad air of purgatory: she presses the deadly marriage-ring into the flesh of her finger, so deep that the soft skin is bloodless and blanched from the intense imprint of it. Two other studies, as yet only sketched, give promise of no less beauty; the subject of one was long since handled by the artist in a slighter manner. It also is taken from the Vita Nuova; Dante in a dream beholding Beatrice dead, tended by handmaidens, and Love, with bow and dart in hand, in act to kiss her beautiful dead mouth. The other is a design of Perseus showing to Andromeda the severed head of Medusa, reflected in water; an old and well-worn subject, but renewed and reinformed with life by the vital genius of the artist. In the Pompeian picture we see the lovers at halt beside a stream, on their homeward way; here we see them in their house, bending over the central cistern or impluvium of the main court. The design is wonderful for grace and force; the picture will assuredly be one of the painter's greatest.
Wide and far apart as lie their provinces of work, their tones of thought and emotion, the two illustrious artists of whom I have just said a short and inadequate word have in common one supreme quality of spirit and work, coloured and moulded in each by his individual and inborn force of nature; the love of beauty for the very beauty's sake, the faith and trust in it as in a god indeed. This gift of love and faith, now rare enough, has been and should be ever the common apanage of artists. Rien n'est vrai que le beau; this should be the beginning and the ending of their belief, held in no small or narrow sense, but in the largest and most liberal scope of meaning. Beauty may be strange, quaint, terrible, may play with pain as with pleasure, handle a horror till she leave it a delight; she forsakes not such among her servants as Webster or as Goya. No good art is unbeautiful; but much able and effective work
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may be, and is. Mere skill, mere thought and trouble, mere feeling or dexterity, will never on earth make a man painter or poet or artist in any kind. Hundreds of English pictures just now have but these to boast of; and with these even studious and able men are often now content; forgetful that art is no more a matter of mere brain-work than of mere handicraft. The worship of beauty, though beauty be itself trans formed and incarnate in shapes diverse without end, must be simple and absolute: hence only must the believer expect profit or reward. Over every building made sacred to art of any sort, upon the hearts of all who strive after it to serve it, there should be written these words of the greatest master now living among us:—
  • La beauté est parfaite,
  • La beauté peut toute chose,
  • La beauté est la seule chose au monde qui n'existe pas à demi.
The End.
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Source File: n5054.r47.rad.xml
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