A couple in medieval dress walk through a gloomy wood at twilight. Suddenly they encounter their doubles, exactly alike in dress and face, outlined in the gloaming by some unearthly light. The man draws his sword in astonishment; his lover collapses in a deathly swoon, her arms outstretched mournfully towards her onlooking twin. Traditionally, seeing one’s double is an omen of death: perhaps the swooning lady shall die soon after. This wholly Gothic, supernatural subject by D. G. Rossetti merges Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics with another subject I find deeply, personally fascinating: the doppelgänger, mirrors, reflections, duality, and such like. I have been interested in the idea of the double for a long time now, and what was my delight to discover a Pre-Raphaelite work depicting just that!
Several versions of How They Met Themselves exist. The earliest version, a wonderfully atmospheric pen and ink drawing (below), was executed in 1851 when Rossetti was 23, clearly suggesting that he was interested in the idea of doppelgängers from early on in his artistic career. The 1860 watercolour version (above) was actually painted on Rossetti’s honeymoon with Elizabeth Siddal — a strange, even macabre thing indeed to paint on one’s honeymoon, particularly since Lucinda Hawksley notes that the couple in the picture are clear portraits of Rossetti and Siddal themselves, which surely doesn’t bode well! Rossetti called it his ‘Bogie Drawing’ — a bogie being an evil spirit — and was clearly fixated by the haunting, doom-laden quality of the image. A third was painted in watercolours in 1864.
The subject of the double has a long history, particularly in literature. In Greek mythology Narcissus falls in love with his reflection, and in Gothic tales such as Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson (1839), James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Poor Clare (1856) and even Hans Christian Andersen’s lesser-read fairy-tale The Shadow, characters are haunted and followed by their often malevolent likenesses. The doppelgänger theme — doppelgänger literally means ‘double walker’ in German — is also found in films such as the recent Black Swan, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and, less sinisterly and with a more ethereal and metaphysical tone, in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s breathtakingly beautiful The Double Life of Véronique (1991). So Rossetti was hardly the first or last to show an interest in doubles, but he was certainly one of the few in the history of art to actually depict doppelgängers. I wonder if his obsession with the subject would have seemed eccentric even for the Victorian period: the double is a truly folkloric, superstitious and arcane motif, not the stuff of serious, conventional religion or morality. Besides this, his decision to dress up his figures in slightly odd medieval clothing (the man seems to like sporting wind and brass instruments round his neck in the various versions, while the woman’s headdress looks a bit like a Star Wars helmet) makes How They Met Themselves all the weirder.
Apparently, in later life, Rossetti filled his Chelsea home and studio with mirrors, giving visitors the eerie feeling of encountering their own reflections in many misty glasses. Mirrors crop up in a surprising number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings: William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853) and Il Dolce Far Niente (1866), most pictures portraying Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott at her loom, and Ford Madox Brown’s unfinished ‘Take Your Son, Sir!’ (1851-92), all feature looking-glasses. Meanwhile, a host of Rossettis, such as Lady Lilith (begun 1868, detail below), Lucrezia Borgia (1860-61), the drawing Love’s Mirror (1850-52), La Bella Mano (1875) and Woman Combing Her Hair (1864), have mirrors and reflections lurking in their backgrounds. The mirror in Lady Lilith is particularly intriguing: we are looking at Lilith indoors in her boudoir, and yet the mirror on the wall reflects an outdoor space, specifically the leafy upper branches of trees. Perhaps the implication is that it is a magic ‘scrying’ mirror for seeing into another world?
How They Met Themselves represents the more nightmarish, Gothic aspect of Rossetti’s work. It could be a scene from some obscure medieval ghost story, or an unconscious portent of death — Elizabeth Siddal, who is supposedly portrayed in the painting, died from a laudanum overdose only two years after the 1860 watercolour, and she would have seen and met her own image countless times in the many portraits Rossetti obsessively drew and painted of her. In a poem first composed in 1869, entitled The Portrait, he writes elegiacally and refers to a strange reflection:
This is her picture as she was:It seems a thing to wonder on,As though mine image in the glassShould tarry when myself am gone.