Double Works

Jerome McGann

This critical introduction was originally published at the Rossetti Archive:

In the fall of 1848, while Rossetti was working on his first major painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, he wrote a sonnet to accompany the picture. He finished the painting in time to exhibit it at the Hyde Park Corner Free Exhibition in March 1849 and at that time wrote a second sonnet for the painting. When the painting was exhibited, the pair of sonnets was attached to the picture frame on a piece of gold-leaf paper as an accompanying textual component. So using the title The Girlhood of Mary Virgin may designate simultaneously the sonnets he wrote in 1847-1848, the painting he completed in the same period, and the composite set of all the textual and visual materials that bear upon the visionary project of that name. This composite set of textual and pictorial materials on the subject of “Mary's Girlhood” (which was the title he gave to the first sonnet) defines what has come to be known as Rossetti's “double work of art.”

The typical Rossettian double work develops in the manner of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. That is to say, Rossetti executes a picture and then writes a poem—typically a sonnet or a pair of sonnets—that comments and elaborates upon the pictorial work. Only once—in the famous case of The Blessed Damozel—did the textual work precede the pictorial work. In another case, the “Introductory Sonnet” to the 1881 edition of The House of Life, the textual and visual elements are inseparably bound to each other in the manner of a Blakean illuminated work. Of course in this case Rossetti, like Blake, must have drafted the poem before he executed the illuminated drawing. But insofar as the work is a double work, it was conceived as an illuminated text.

The special status of the “Introductory Sonnet” is useful for helping us to appreciate Rossetti's double works. Blake's “composite art”, as it has been aptly called, had a profound influence on everything Rossetti did, not least of all on his double works. But the gap that stands between the composite parts of the Rossettian double work is one of its essential features. Blake does not develop or exploit this kind of gap to anything like the extent that Rossetti does. We know that Blake's work continually shifts the reader's or viewer's perspective, and we can see how much Rossetti learned from studying Blake's methods. But we can also see the difference—for instance, through the telling case of Proserpine: Not only did Rossetti make and remake different pictorial versions of this work, he re-doubled it in two distinct sonnets, one Italian, one English. But all these works cultivate a severe dialectic of “doubled” construction whereby the integrity of the individual elements is scrupulously preserved. So, in the case of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, each sonnet can and should be read as a complete work, just as the picture has a free-standing identity. If there is more than one state of the picture—as happens in many of Rossetti's double works—each of the pictures tends to possess an independent status within the larger confederated set of imaginings. The Blessed Damozel, Lady Lilith, and Venus Verticordia, for example, descend to us in markedly variant versions. To think of the variations as “studies” or “copies” is largely to miss the point of these developing kinds of visionary arrays of material. All the works, textual and pictorial, illuminate each other exactly as they are states or forms of the subsuming visionary pursuit that is defined by the double work.

The situation is nicely defined in a notebook entry Rossetti wrote for a picture he projected but did not execute: “Venus surrounded by mirrors, reflecting her in different views.” (A sketch of this picture survives.) The idea defines what is involved in the Rossettian double work of art. Each part of the double work is a unique view of an ideal visionary reality whose existence is posited through the different incarnate forms. The whole of the double work becomes, then, a dynamic representation of the process by which the visionary imagination sustains and develops itself. 

There is a core set of about thirty double works, i.e., works that have original Rossettian textual and pictorial elements. For a number of these works, like Michael Scott's Wooing, Sister Helen, Dante at Verona, Aspecta Medusa, or Mnemosyne, some of the elements (textual or material or both) do not survive, or they come down to us only in incomplete forms. Then there is the key group of such works. Besides those already noted (like The Girlhood of Mary Virgin), other well-known works in this group are La Bella Mano, The Day Dream, Lady Lilith (or “Body's Beauty”), Fiammetta, The Question, Pandora, The Sea-Spell, Astarte Syriaca, Cassandra, Found, Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee, The Passover in the Holy Family, Proserpine, and Sibylla Palmifera ("Soul's Beauty"). 

Because the pictorial work is normally the determining element in the array of “doubled” materials, the textual elements typically organize themselves in relation to it both conceptually and physically. The commonest place for the doubled texts to appear is as inscriptions on the frames of the pictures (frames that Rossetti himself normally designed). But texts can also appear within the space of the picture itself. Often the texts do not appear at all, but are only alluded to in the picture's title. In rare instances the texts are put on the back of the picture.

In some cases the “doubling” of picture and text is only loosely or provisionally or temporarily maintained. Examples of these three less rigorous kinds of doubled work would be The Portrait (which Rossetti also imagined in another relation); Monna Vanna (which has a doubled relation to two of Rossetti's works, chapter XXIV of his translation of the Vita Nuova and "A New-Year's Burden"); and Fazio's Mistress, which from 1863-1869 was a double work with Rossetti's translation of Fazio degli Uberti's “Canzone” (“Io miro i crespi e gli biondi capegli”).

Rossetti's double works emerge from two established traditions, one textual and one pictorial, that he exploited and developed in important ways. The textual tradition is the “poem on the subject of a picture,” like Wordsworth's “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle.” This genre proliferated in the nineteenth-century through the wildly popular gift books and annuals, which featured engravings with “illustrative” poems or stories. Rossetti's contributions to this genre include some of his most important works. He called them, in general, Sonnets for Pictures, a rubric under which he would eventually gather some of his own double works. The first set of Sonnets for Pictures, however, comprised a group of six that appeared in the fourth number of The Germ in 1850. These sonnets developed interpretive responses to the works of four masters whose works he had seen during his trip to Belgium and France in late 1849: Memling (or rather Gerhard David—the picture he saw had been misattributed), Mantegna, Titian, and Ingres. Of his other Sonnets for Pictures, the most important respond to works by Leonardo, Botticelli, Burne-Jones, and an anonymous early German artist. Also notable is Rossetti's poem “The Card Dealer”, a brilliant interpretive exploration of Theodore von Holst's haunting picture The Wish.

The other tradition supplied Rossetti with models of pictorial doublings. The tradition has two lines, and both were important for his work. On one hand is history painting (including the literary picture), and on the other are book illustrations and miniatures. Many—indeed, most—of Rossetti's pictorial works are visual interpretations of textual scenes or events, commonly medieval or contemporary. What he said of his famous illustrations to Tennyson's poetry applies in general to all this kind of work. He called it “allegorizing on one's own hook,” by which he meant rethinking the significance of the original work in his own terms. The difference between the medium of the original and his interpretive response presented a crucial opportunity. It freed Rossetti from the translation model of response (so important to him in other respects), encouraging the brilliant pictorial fantasias of works like St. Cecilia, Monna Vanna, and Fazio's Mistress.

Rossetti is such a literary visual artist that nearly all of his work inclines to a doubled character. At the limits of the core set of such works, therefore, one also finds a great many others that test the adequacy of those limits. Some of these are unexecuted double works; others are works for which only minimal, fragmentary, or uncompleted parts survive.