I am writing this shortly after the sale of Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt via an auction done by Christie’s. The piece was put up by the Delaware Art Museum to help pay for a renovation bill. To say this makes me angry is a slight understatement. I am appalled, disgusted, horrified and find the whole situation an abomination. Kirsty Stonell Walker has written an eloquent post that sums up most of my feelings on the subject. The circumstances of this had me thinking about my feelings if this was my favorite painting. I realized that I haven’t ever fully expressed my thoughts on exactly why my favorite painting is my favorite so I thought I would discuss that today.
Last year during Pre-Raphaelite Day, the Pre-Raphaelite society held a vote on twitter to find what the most popular painting done by the brotherhood was. My vote was a painting I don’t really see mentioned:
This is A Sea-Spell by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and it is my favorite picture of all time.
As I’ve mentioned in the about page of this blog, my grandfather was the jazz musician Fats Waller. One of the perks of this growing up was my family was gifted with a lot of things, mostly music (my father’s vinyl collection was sort of insane) but sometimes we got bits and bobs of art or books. When I discovered the Pre-Raphaelites and was deep in my research phase, I decided to go through our book collection to see if we had anything about them. We did. I saw a small reproduction of this painting in one of the books (and I have no idea which one, I wish I did!) and I fell in love. While Prosperine was the first Rossetti I saw, A Sea-Spell was the painting that made me into such a huge fan. I suppose that’s why Alexa is my favorite model of the PRB.
The thing that stands out most to me about this painting is just how luxurious Alexa’s dress is. The gold just shimmers, the folds (which is one of my loves, when a painter gets the folds of a gown just right is one of my personal benchmarks for great art) make sense, the design is just exquisite. I told a former paramour once that if he wanted an idea of the type of wedding gown I wanted, he just needed to look to this work. Also of note is how vibrant the red in the hair is, even in the background when it sort of flows over the apple branch in the back. I am not sure what flowers surround the painting and her hair, perhaps apple blossoms? I know there have been books written on the flowers in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, however I wonder if there is a definitive guide to them. It would be a rather large book I suppose, but an invaluable resource!
Rossetti was also a poet and there is a poem that accompanies this painting:
Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,
While flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell
Between its chords; and as the wild notes swell,
The sea-bird for those branches leaves the sea.
But to what sound her listening ear stoops she?
What netherworld gulf-whispers doth she hear,
In answering echoes from what planisphere,
Along the wind, along the estuary?
She sinks into her spell: and when full soon
Her lips move and she soars into her song,
What creatures of the midmost main shall throng
In furrowed self-clouds to the summoning rune,
Till he, the fated mariner, hears her cry,
And up her rock, bare breasted, comes to die?
We can infer from the poem that the subject is actually a siren, the mythological (or is it dun dun dunnn) creature that has a beautiful voice which she uses to lure men to their death. I love sirens, they are some of my favorite beings of myth. What strikes me about this however is just how innocent Rossetti’s siren looks. Sirens are usually described as being seductive, sexy and this siren is…well she’s quite melancholy and pensive isn’t she? Not the bloodthirsty, come-hither types you normally associate it with sirens.
I found this painting at a time in my life where I honestly thought I wouldn’t survive. Looking at it makes me happy, it takes me out of my head and into someplace sweet. I think that’s one of the great things about finding an art piece that speaks to you, that feeling of something or someone just GETTING it. I’ve never seen this painting in person, even though it’s only in Boston at the Fogg Art Museum. I have been putting it off for various reasons, the main one being I might have a nervous breakdown in front of it. With the recent sale of Isabella though I feel like I really do need to take the time to do see it.
I’m not sure why this painting isn’t talked about more. Maybe the subject matter is too broad for some or the poem doesn’t move them. That’s fine, Rossetti isn’t for everyone. I do hope that those who do enjoy his work will take a closer look at A Sea-Spell and perhaps find something there that they hadn’t seen before.
A Sea Spell is on display at the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.