Suzanne Mozes
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Dante's New Life, Forthcoming from W.W. Norton, 2015
Published October 2013

The artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was 42 when he finally completed this masterpiece, Beata Beatrix. At the height of his creative powers, as both a painter and a poet, he would eventually earn a place as one of the most admired and influential artists of the 19th century. At the moment, though, he was half-blind, penniless, depressed, and all but forgotten by the public. For years he attempted to paint a portrait of his first wife--dead for eight years from a massive self-inflicted laudanum overdose--that would do justice to her otherworldly beauty and revitalize his career.

Its rawness continues to enthrall and confuse audiences ever since it was first unveiled more than a century ago. Something about its arresting colors, redolent of woodsy air and fresh blood and flowing water, rouse us to stop and twist our focus. The image of the woman's parted lips--her last breath caught somewhere between orgasm and spiritual revelation and a heavy opiate high--marries together the divine and the sexual on a single blasphemous canvas. It is one of the most transcendent, erotically charged paintings the 19th  century had ever seen.

Today Beata Beatrix belongs to the Tate Britain's collection. As a dissident of all-things-Establishment, Rossetti had never exhibited Beata Beatrix--or almost any of his 300 paintings--during his lifetime. Today his work hangs in the collections of every major museum in the world. And yet the painting of his dead wife was an improbable success in the Victorian era--and the culmination of an outlandish, oversized life.

When Rossetti finally finished his painting, after an extra three years of fussing over the canvas's details, collectors clamored for replicas (a not uncommon practice in the 19th  century). Rossetti reluctantly completed at least another six versions of Beata Beatrix over the next decade, each slightly less inspired than the last. Contemporary art critics, who had long written off Rossetti's work as a painter, didn't see Beata Beatrix exhibited until the retrospective a year after Rossetti died. Then the critics changed their tune. The posthumous critical acclaim led John Ruskin, by then the pre-emminent literary heavyweight of Victorian London, to insist that Rossetti's "name should be placed first on the list of men who have raised and changed the spirit of Art." Through the frame of Beata Beatrix, Rossetti's complicated place in cultural history divulges itself: he is both a canonical painter and a canonical poet.  As a human being, he is renowned as a rebel, lover, sexual deviant, self-taught prodigy, and liar. Hundreds of myths enveloped his legend by the time he dropped dead at age 53, after years of his daily regimen of alcohol, chloral, and all around bad behavior.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's reputation--as a poet, a painter, and all around bon vivant--has soared and plummeted throughout the last century. Depending on the decade, Rossetti has been: the father of artistic movements who should have abandoned poetry for his real talent as a painter; a literary genius who should have folded up his easel and spent more time writing verse; the lowliest moral character London had ever seen; a talentless agoraphobe; a poser; and so on. He was accused, during his lifetime and thereafter, of squandering his range of artistic talents on screwing, swilling, and swindling. As with so many assessments of Rossetti, that is approximately half-right; the horror stories are largely true, but his artistic legacy is unimpeachable. Dante Gabriel Rossetti led a perverse, reckless, and deliberate lifeone of the great literary and artistic lives of the 19th  century. Rossetti may have died a poet, but he has been resurrected as a painter, and lives on as a godfather of iconoclasm.


 
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