Reviewed by F. Scott

Rossetti: Painter and Poet by J. B. Bullen is an overview of the life and works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a nineteenth-century English painter, poet, and translator. The large-book format lends itself well to all three of its main elements: Bullen’s readable prose, prints of artwork by Rossetti and others, and excerpts of poetry, mostly by Rossetti himself.

Bullen takes us through the whole of the artist’s life in the exciting time of artistic and intellectual change that was mid-Victorian England. Rossetti was the son of the ex-patriot Italian Gabriele Rossetti and Frances Polidori, half-Italian herself, of a now London-based family. Born the first son in 1828, he is also brother to Christina, a poet in her own right.

Rossetti was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), which true to its name sought inspiration from the Middle Ages as opposed to the Renaissance. This is a term I had often heard but did not quite understand.

Dante Alighieri and Beatrice figured prominently in his whole career. He was a also a translator of Dante’s Vita Nuova, and the opposition of purity and sexuality haunted Rossetti for his whole life. But if Dante was his focus and inspiration from the start, another influence also emerged in mid-career—Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. It is thus that we learn that those Arthurian legends have been bowdlerized for our moral sanitation. All manner of adultery and even incest can be seen throughout the original versions of knights and damsels and round tables. Thus the attraction for Rossetti amid his triangular sexcapades.

Dante Gabriel was attracted to somewhat masculine-/androgynous-looking women, and—let’s say—obsessed with a certain type of female face. Christina Rossetti sums this up very well in her “In an Artist’s Studio”:

“One face looks from all his canvases/One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans.”

And that face can be described as a slightly prettier Eric Roberts or an uglier Drew Barrymore. It appears in just about every painting and drawing presented here in this book. It starts to get rather creepy, to speak the truth. Even when he uses three of his favorite models/paramours in the same painting, they all look similar—whether they did in life or not.

But I do have to say that my favorite paintings in the book are not by Rossetti.

In the end, however, Dante Gabriel seems in this treatment to be all about sex, whether Bullen intends it or not. Just about every work, at least according to Bullen, has something to do with sexual desire, practice, and/or expectation, even when the subject is overtly sacred, such as his Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation). Thus, for Bullen and most other art scholars and critics who write about art in general, anything long and pointing is a ——, and anything roundish and ovular (and red) is a ——. This is not for anyone under the age of thirty-five.

But we can thank Bullen for not being too full of academic jargon to be understood. A few flights of scholarese do appear, but not very often.

Artwork is presented very well and on almost every page. Only a couple times did I wish a certain print could have been bigger.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

F. Scott enjoys the work of the master artists, even if not sexual in nature.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Frances Lincoln. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.