Monday, May 5, 2008

Beata Beatrix...Rossetti's "Tribute"??

Apologies again for the hiatus of updates here. My only excuse is that my mind was elsewhere (wedding planning, to be precise). But we're back!

Something has been continuously on my mind ever since I read Pale As The Dead. In the book, the main character comes across an "urban legend" that Rossetti actually painted Beata Beatrix from Lizzie Siddal's corpse, propped up. I had never heard of such a thing, and I was fascinated to find out if it was an actual legend, or if it was created for the book. I never did successfully discover whether or not this was a real legend, (have any of you heard this before?) but in searching the internet for an answer, I came across an interesting article. Sadly, the article (Dante Rossetti's Beata Beatrix and the New Life, by Ronald W. Johnson) was accessed via JStor, a scholarly journal, so I can't link it here, but the gist of it is that the author discovered a letter from Rossetti that disproves that Beata Beatrix was actually directly created as a posthumous tribute to Lizzie. The author states:

Rossetti, despairing and guilt-ridden, could not easily return to work, and it has been assumed that as a last commemorative to his love he painted Elizabeth as Beatrix.

This does not appear correct, however, in the light of a letter Rossetti wrote to Ellen Heaton on 22 December 1863: "I lately found commencement of a lifesize head of my wife in oil, begun many years ago as a picture of Beatrice. It is only laid in and the canvas is in a bad state, but it is possible I might be able to work it up successfully either on this or another canvas, and I should like to do so if possible, as it was carefully begun. The picture was to represent Beatrice falling asleep by a wall bearing a sundial; and I have pencil sketches for it as a half figure comprising the arms and hands..."

The papers of H.T. Dunn also indicate that the head and hands had been completed when Elizabeth Siddal was alive but that the canvas had suffered "all sorts of damages," and only through the encouragement of Charles Howell, who had the painting relined, did Rossetti complete it. It was then undertaken again in about 1864 but not finally completed until 1870.

Interesting. Now, granted, all of this is not to say that Rossetti may not have been colored by the loss of his wife and the guilt of her death while completing the painting. There is so much emotion in Beata Beatrix it's hard to imagine he wasn't full of emotion while painting it.
However, the idea of the artwork as a whole, from start to finish, being created as a posthumous tribute is apparently false! The basic concept, the sundial, the pose, the figures...were all planned before Lizzie had even died!

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