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Books: Rossetti’s fascination with women’s bodies and Dadd’s madness are investigated

Libido and lunacy — the obsessions of two artists

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the founding member of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, has attracted much attention since Evelyn Waugh wrote his sardonic and anecdotal biography in 1928. With a catalogue raisonné, biographies and exhibitions, Rossetti’s life and work have been minutely scrutinised. His entertaining correspondence has been published in nine volumes, the last just completed (The Art Newspaper, September 2011, p51). J.B. Bullen himself is in familiar territory, having written on Rossetti and his associates and specifically, in The pre-Raphaelite Body, 1998, on the topic central to his new book—the obsession among these artists with the female form. Bullen, who taught art history and English literature at Reading University for more than 25 years, uses the conventional large-format illustrated art book for a biographical and literary analysis, even psycho-social in its speculations.

Rossetti’s talents are deeply bound up with one another. Poet and painter, with a strong inclination to make the former his main avocation, he managed so to entwine them that it is impossible to ignore either when discussing his visual art. Writing was what the Rossetti family did; all four siblings were published authors. Not only is Rossetti’s poetry—and that of his sister Christina—implicated in his visual subject-matter and its treatment, but he also wrote extensively on the meanings himself. This is not a biography as such—hardly necessary since Jan Marsh’s exhaustive study (1999) of his art and poetry—but an analysis of these interlocking strands, proposed by Bullen as proto-symbolist. Did Rossetti’s erotic imaginings in poetry and painting translate into libidinous behaviour, as a number of his contemporaries believed? The allure of his female models, with whom he was often involved romantically, is an important aspect of his art, but Rossetti was not above setting out to “puzzle fools”.

The book’s narrative proceeds chronologically, analysing sexual implications in the selected works, their connection with the poems and the significance of the models, Christina Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, Alexa Wilding, Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali and Jane Morris. Eroticism in pre-Raphaelite painting is rarely expressed through nude subjects. Glances and gestures and their attributes and accessories codify the figures in the succession of pictures of beautiful women. It was William Holman Hunt who deplored the “gross sensuality of a revolting kind” designed for “mere gratification of the eye” in Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata, 1859. Rossetti, attempting the sensual quality of the Venetian Renaissance, found his new way with flesh and the successful likeness to the sitter, Fanny Cornforth, more worthy of notice. Incidentally, the “ivy” noted in Rossetti’s The Blue Silk Dress, 1868, appears to be hops (“injustice”) or vine (“repentance”), although the carefully delineated tendrils may stand for “clinging”.

Rossetti’s confidence was undermined in 1871 by the savage response to The House of Life, his poems spanning 20 years. Damned by his association with the decadent Algernon Swinburne and on the evidence of his paintings, in 1880 he told one of his later companions, Hall Caine, that he had been “hunted and hounded to the grave” for ten years. However, during that decade, his obsession with Jane Morris produced work of stature both literally and metaphorically. His last major works, The Day Dream, 1880, and La Donna della Finestra, 1880, combine his artistic talents.

Tate Publishing has given Nicholas Tromans’s new study of Richard Dadd a similarly generous format—recognition, presumably, that the teeming detail in the paintings is meaningless on a small scale. To its great advantage, the close analysis of Dadd’s most intricate and enigmatic work, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, 1855-64, is supported by full-page enlargements of the strange world he created. The title of the book admirably informs the reader of its purpose—to look at the interaction between art and the treatment of mental illness in the 19th century. Tromans does not claim to have solved the enigma of Dadd’s condition. Nor does he over-simplify Dadd’s legacy as either the proto-outsider artist or banner-carrying insane genius.

The title of “mad” artist is defining but there is no way out with Dadd; he was undeniably mad—and an artist of great talent and imaginative power. However, his career was established before the act that confined him for the rest of his life as a criminal lunatic. The book begins with an account of Dadd’s family and early life. The father whom he murdered was a man of many interests, scientific and curious, traces of which were to appear in the asylum paintings of his son. Madness ran in the Dadd family. The trigger in Dadd’s case is not established, but his Near Eastern journey with the Welsh lawyer and writer Thomas Phillips is often proposed.

Before he entered the asylum Dadd had already built a reputation as a Shakespearean fairy painter and Orientalist, and his work continued even after his incarceration to feature in exhibitions—six loans to the 1857 “Manchester Art Treasures” show, for instance. These themes are obsessively explored in the asylum paintings. This is not a full survey of those works; as Tromans remarks, it is a case study, placing Dadd’s life in Bethlem and Broadmoor within the culture of the period and the state of medical knowledge of Dadd’s condition. Because he had no access to models or imagery other than in books, Dadd’s memory of artistic experiences in the outside world had to feed his imagination. It is the more remarkable how much Tromans is able to demonstrate connections in Dadd’s asylum works with the topics of the day.

In the 1870s, his paintings were acquired by public institutions, including the British Museum. His two finest examples of fairy fantasy, Contradiction: Oberon and Titania, 1854-58, and The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, were owned by the millionaire collector Alfred Morrison. The book concludes with Dadd’s case notes from the three institutions where he was held, those from Broadmoor published for the first time. Tromans charts the fate of Dadd’s work: many paintings are still untraced. They exert a powerful interest because of the life story of their creator, and this examination of how they were made in his exceptional circumstances is very interesting. The book is, of course, about Dadd, but the examination of asylum culture and practices has wider implications for our understanding of Victorian art and literature.

o J.B. Bullen, Rossetti: Painter and Poet, Frances Lincoln, 270 pp, £35 (hb)

o Nicholas Tromans, Richard Dadd: the Artist and the Asylum, Tate Publishing, 208 pp, £24.99 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Libido and lunacy: the obsessions of two artists'