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  • Ana Savković

EmphasiZiNg Books! Art and Poetry/Visual Revelations

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Proserpine, 1882. Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Image: Unsplash, downloaded (01.02.2020.)

The correlation between literature and art has been visible since ancient times. Greek and Roman mythology, legends, sacred books like the Bible inspired many painters to reproduce and reinterpret them on canvas. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is a perfect example of such a connection. The association of painters, founded in 1848, had a strong and profound influence on Victorian art. They themselves found inspiration in early Italian art and medieval literature and art. The Brotherhood's active life lasted only for a few years but they became one of the most influential British art movements and they successfully accomplished their goal of merging literature and art.

The founders of the Brotherhood were John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, and were joined by Thomas Woolner, Frederic George Stephens, James Collinson and William Michael Rossetti. They found inspiration in the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson and Keats, whose two poems, Isabella, or the Pot of Basil and The Eve of St. Agnes, "operirale kao katalizator utemeljenja Bratstva" [operated as a catalyst for the founding of the Brotherhood] (Zazor, nadzor, sviđanje: dodiri književnog i vizualnog u britanskom 19. stoljeću, transl. A. Savković), as Tatjana Jukić points out in her book Zazor, nadzor, sviđanje: dodiri književnog i vizualnog u britanskom 19. stoljeću. Jukić concentrates on the intersections of literature and visuals in the British 19th century, focusing on the Pre-Raphaelites, and we learn from her work that (according to Hunt) it was the fascination with Keats that united the three founders of the Brotherhood - Hunt, Millais and Rossetti. More precisely, Rossetti initiated the first meeting, delighted with Hunt's painting The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry (The Eve of St. Agnes) at the Royal Academy. The painting illustrates the end of Keats's poem and the canvas was exhibited accompanied by the text of verse 41:

They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall; Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide; Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl, With a huge empty flaggon by his side: The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide, But his sagacious eye an inmate owns: By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:— The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;— The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.

After the Brotherhood was founded, the first canvas exhibited with the initials PRB was Millais’s Lorenzo and Isabella inspired by an episode of Keats’s Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. Millais's painting illustrates the beginning of Keats's poem and the canvas was exhibited accompanied by the text of the first and 21st verse:

Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel! Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love's eye! They could not in the self-same mansion dwell Without some stir of heart, some malady; They could not sit at meals but feel how well It soothed each to be the other by; They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

These brethren having found by many signs What love Lorenzo for their sister had, And how she lov'd him too, each unconfines His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad That he, the servant of their trade designs, Should in their sister's love be blithe and glad, When 'twas their plan to coax her by degrees To some high noble and his olive-trees.

In addition to Keats, the Pre-Raphaelites also found inspiration in the Bible. John Everett Millais was inspired by the Christian holy book when he painted a work considered to be one of his greatest and a masterpiece of early Pre-Raphaeliteism. Christ in the House of His Parents (also known as The Carpenter’s Shop) depicts Joseph, Mary, Jesus, St. Anne, John the Baptist as a boy, and a man presumed to be Joseph's apprentance. The famous painting is full of symbolism, which was characteristic of the Pre-Raphaelites. Some of the symbols in the picture are details like Jesus's bleeding hand because he cut himself on a nail (future crucifixion) or John the Baptist carrying a bowl of water to wash the wound (future baptism).

The Brotherhood also founded The Germ (Rosetti’s idea), a periodical in which they presented their works and ideas on literature and art, and after two issues they changed the magazine's name to Art and Poetry: Being Thoughts towards Nature Conducted Principally by Artists. According to their statement, printed at the end of each issue (four issues in total), their mission was:

With a view to obtain the thoughts of Artists, upon Nature as evolved in Art […] this Periodical has been established. Thus, then, it is not open to the conflicting opinions of all who handle the brush and palette, nor is it restricted to actual practitioners; but is intended to enunciate the principles of those who, in the true spirit of Art, enforce a rigid adherence to the simplicity of Nature either in Art or Poetry […].

By the late 1850s, Pre-Raphaelite art had gained admirers and was appreciated. Then a "second generation" of Pre-Raphaelites appeared that included William Morris (read more about the English author, artist and designer in ZiNger: and Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones created a series of paintings The Legend of Briar Rose depicting a moment in the story of Sleeping Beauty and below each of the four original paintings, entitled The Briar Wood, The Council Chamber, The Garden Court and The Rose Bower, were the verses of Morris's poems:

"Here lies the hoarded love, the key To all the treasure that shall be; Come fated hand the gift to take And smite this sleeping world awake."

Millais’s famous painting Ophelia is inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet and depicts Ophelia singing before drowning in a river. Ophelia influenced the work of painter John William Waterhouse, who visited Millais's exhibition in 1886 and became aware of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The subject of many of Waterhouse's paintings was the tragic fate of a young woman, including his masterpiece The Lady of Shalott, inspired by Tennyson's poem of the same name based on a legend from the time of King Arthur.

"And down the river's dim expanse / Like some bold seer in a trance... / With a glassy countenance / Did she look to Camelot."

The painting depicts a young woman entering the boat and sailing down the river towards Camelot and her death. Waterhouse’s painting is full of symbols; the chain that the young woman holds in her hand symbolizes her fear, or extinguished candles that hint that she is at the end of the road and her life. The painter was also, like other Pre-Raphaelites, inspired by historical stories, medieval ballads and romances, Shakespeare (Miranda - The Tempest) and the myths of classical antiquity (paintings The Naiad and Hylas and the Nymphs).

But of all the members of the Brotherhood, it was the "father of the Pre-Raphaelites", Dante Gabriel Rossetti (you can read more about the poet and painter in ZiNger: who, through his work, sought to emphasize the inextricable link between literature and art. For Rossetti, the two were inseparable, he even wrote sonnets on his canvases, and Proserpine is just one such painting accompanied by a sonnet. The model for the painting was Rosetti’s muse, inspiration and main theme of his works; Jane Morris, wife of William Morris. The picture came at a time when Rossetti’s mental health was in poor condition, and his obsession with Jane was at its peak. In the upper right corner of the canvas is a sonnet:

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 Dire 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 become the days that were. Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign: And still some heart unto some soul doth pine, (Whose sounds mine inner sense in fain to bring, Continually together murmuring) — 'Woe me for thee, unhappy Proserpine'.

Rossetti's Proserpine in its essence encompasses and summarizes the entire Pre-Raphaelite movement and what its members sought to achieve. Painted in the classical Pre-Raphaelite style, Proserpine draws her roots from mythology and depicts the mythical goddess of the same name. The painting has autobiographical elements because the model for depicting the mythical co-ruler of the underworld was Jane Morris; Rossetti's muse and greatest inspiration. From Rossetti’s perspective, Jane was in captivity of her marriage to Morris from which she broke free occasionally when he was on trips, which is parallel to the fate of Proserpine who was forced to live part of the year underground and spend the rest on earth. Apparently Rossetti and Jane were in a romantic relationship and the accompanying sonnet that speaks of longing is a classic motif of the pre-Raphaelite tragic love that Rossetti felt and then subliminally expressed on the canvas. Accordingly, the image abounds in symbolism; the pomegranate in Proserpine's hand represents captivity, the ivy behind her represents memory and the flow of time, the shadow on the wall her time spent in Hades, and the ray of light her time on earth. One painting covers almost all the essential elements of Pre-Raphaeliteism - a literary / mythological source, autobiographical elements, tragic love and an abundance of symbolism.

The Pre-Raphaelites successfully linked literature and art and used their intersection to show that the two were interdependent and that in certain cases it was necessary to understand both in order to get a "complete picture" of a work. Their goal was to unite art and literature, and that is exactly what they achieved. A detailed study of the workings of the Brotherhood sheds light on the strong link between the textual and the visual; it is an aspect of creativity that must not be overlooked when observing a work. It is interesting how the Pre-Raphaelites, finding inspiration in medieval literature and the ideals of chivalry, heroism, love and honor, retroactively embraced and realized a period and segment of art that had previously been visually insufficiently accompanied. It could be said that literature was a kind of initiator, the originator of the idea and art its visual revelation.


1. Zazor, nadzor, sviđanje: dodiri književnog i vizualnog u britanskom 19. stoljeću (Jukić,T. (2002.) Zazor, nadzor, sviđanje: dodiri književnog i vizualnog u britanskom 19. stoljeću, Zagreb: Zavod za znanost o književnosti Filozofskog fakulteta Sveučilišta u Zagrebu).

2. Umjetnost: vodič kroz povijest i djela (Farthing, S. (2015.) Umjetnost: vodič kroz povijest i djela, prev. D. Kalođera, Zagreb: Školska knjiga).


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