It is difficult to find substantial collections of Pre-Raphaelite art outside the UK. The largest is at the Delaware Art Museum, which I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, and I’d long been aware that the Fogg Museum at Harvard University also has a brilliant collection of works by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Hunt. When I first visited Boston, last August, the Fogg was at the very end of its six-year, multi-million dollar redevelopment and so was closed — but last month I was able to return to Cambridge, MA, and finally see it for myself.
The above photos give an impression of the museum’s light, uncluttered galleries, and also of the large proportions of Rossetti’s masterwork The Blessed Damozel, of which the Fogg version of 1871-8 is the original (below). One of the few paintings Rossetti based on one of his own poems (he usually worked the other way round), it is a synthesis of his favourite themes: love, death, female beauty, ‘floral adjuncts’, a kind of sensual, even pagan spirituality. The aforementioned poem, also titled ‘The Blessed Damozel’, was one of his earliest — the first draft dates from 1847 — and was particularly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ in its exploration of a beautiful heavenly lady mourned by her earthly lover. The latter occupies the narrow predella below, reclining in a shadowy grove; the predella format, a common feature in medieval and Italian Renaissance altarpieces, heightens the viewer’s sense of participating in the worship or veneration of beauty. Certain details of Rossetti’s literary work — those featured in the stanzas inscribed along the bottom of the frame he designed himself (below) — correspond with the painting, such as the three lilies held by the Damozel, the (almost) seven stars haloing her head, and the ‘newly met’ lovers embracing around her in Paradise. An especially striking feature of the picture is its thick, fluid brushwork, characteristic of Rossetti’s ‘Venetian’-inspired style from the 1860s onward, and a glistening quality to the paint presumably caused by the glazing.
Also on display is Rossetti’s A Sea-Spell, another large, opulent oil from the 1870s (below). As became the artist’s standard practice, the picture is paired with a sonnet inscribed on the frame and first published in his collection Ballads and Sonnets (1881). It’s hardly surprising that the mythology of the siren appealed to Rossetti’s artistic and poetic imagination — a motif in which female beauty proves devastating, fatal, in luring mariners to their deaths on the rocks. The sonnet itself is a beautiful arrangement of hypnotic alliteration:
Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,
While flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell
Between its chords; […]
She sinks into her spell: and when full moon
Her lips move and she soars into her song.
In both poem and painting the siren is trapped in an endless cycle of becoming mesmerised by her own song. Her tensed hands and wistful expression (modelled, like The Blessed Damozel, by Alexa Wilding) betray a sadness and ennui, while her lavish tresses of coppery hair, entangled in the branch above her head, further entrap her and indicate the passage of time through their long length. The composition is flat, claustrophobic and airless despite the outdoor setting, with only a hint of the sea between the leaves on the far left — in fact, without this small section of water, the seagull and the accompanying poem, there is no indication that the lady’s bower is by the ocean.
Two rich, impressive paintings by Hunt are also on show on the second floor: a version of The Triumph of the Innocents (below), and The Miracle of the Holy Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While both works are deeply religious, they each express a different facet of Hunt’s artistic programme. The Triumph vividly depicts the supernatural moment from the New Testament when the souls of the infants slain during the Massacre of the Innocents frolic jubilantly round the Holy Family fleeing Bethlehem (an event commonly referred to as the Flight into Egypt). With its visionary atmosphere, and being essentially an imagined scene, it is in the same vein as Hunt’s The Light of the World.
On the other hand The Miracle of the Holy Fire (below) attempts to record, with a meticulous realism characteristic of the artist, a ceremony which still happens annually on Holy Saturday at Christ’s tomb in the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem — as observed by the Greek Orthodoxy. An Orthodox patriarch enters the tomb alone and prays, before emerging with what is believed to be the miraculous Holy Fire which is then disseminated to the gathering of candle-bearing worshippers. Contemporary photographs of the event illustrate how little the scene has changed since Hunt painted it. His composition is so panoramic and lively that the miraculous fire seems secondary to the many other figures and interactions within the crowd. Therefore, any sense of supernaturalism and religious awe evoked by the ceremony must also compete with Hunt’s microscopic interest in real people (each face could be an individual portrait), real lives and historical, anthropological authenticity. However, it could ultimately enforce the idea that without human belief, human worship and human interaction, miracles such as the Holy Fire could never take place — a meeting-point between man and the divine.
Prior to my visit I had asked to see specific works not on public display. This was actually easily done — Harvard Art Museums have made their collection as accessible as possible, allowing anyone (not just Harvard students) to view particular works on request in the new study rooms upstairs (though for practical purposes the really large paintings and sculptures can’t be brought up from storage). It just so happens that the Fogg holds an impressive number of Rossetti works on paper, which, for my MA dissertation on his watercolours, were fascinating to examine up-close in a well-lit and quiet surrounding. I’d expected the works to be simply mounted in the usual archival fashion — instead, they were hung along the wall in their distinctive original frames. Among them were a large watercolour replica of DGR’s famed Beata Beatrix (the first version, painted in oils from 1864-70, is at Tate Britain), and the watercolour Lucrezia Borgia, a replica of an earlier watercolour of 1860-1 now also in the Tate. It was encouraging to see one of the driving points of my thesis — that Rossetti continued producing watercolours long into the 1860s and ’70s — so much in evidence, and it would be great to see the Fogg make more of their superb collection in future.
The above works ensure that the Fogg is one of the best places to see Pre-Raphaelite art outside the UK. No P.R.B. or general Victorian art pilgrimage in Boston is complete without a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, home to Rossetti’s pivotal painting Bocca Baciata (below), Burne-Jones’s Hope, Leighton’s The Painter’s Honeymoon and William J. Webbe’s charming Rabbit amid Ferns (below); then to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an enchanting poem of a house containing a Rossetti panel, Love’s Greeting, as well as Whistlers, Sargents and art objects from throughout history.