DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI by Alicia Craig Faxon, New York: Abbeville Press, 255 pp., $85
EVERY generation finds a way to tell itself the story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). That short-lived fellowship of English Victorian artists contrived paintings - and antics - that still convey the utopian longings of modern society. At the center of the group, like a sun to its satellites, was the poet-painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Rossetti's looks and charisma were Byronic - and he knew it. While he longed for the chivalric world of chaste courtly love, he was nonetheless willing to live fully and passionately in this one.
In a familiar line, Rossetti wrote that a ``sonnet is a moment's monument,'' but his own monument is not his poetry or his painting, but the Rossetti legend, which like all legends enlarges in the retelling.
The wonder of Alicia Craig Faxon's book is that it manages to debunk many aspects of the legend while leaving intact the extravagant character of a man whose London home boasted a menagerie, inhabited at various times by kangaroos, a wallaby, a chameleon, a jackass, peacocks, parakeets, Chinese horned owls, a raven, a deer, a raccoon, and a Brahmin bull whose eyes reminded him of his mistress. But for the London climate, he would have had a lion.
Baptized Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti in 1828, he later changed and rearranged his name, uniting Italy's renowned poet with the angel of the Annunciation. The Rossetti household swelled with earnest, if undisciplined, intellectual activity. Dante Gabriel, who spoke fluent Italian and English, passable French and German, a bit of Latin and some Greek, was immersed in literary studies from an early age. His father, an Italian expatriate, and his mother, a first-generation Englishwoman of Italian extraction, tutored their children at home and encouraged an interest in philosophy and the arts.
Dante Gabriel's early achievement as a painter pales beside his literary accomplishment. He wrote medieval-style romances at 12 and penned the first versions of his well-known poems, ``The Blessed Damozel'' and ``Jenny,'' when he was 18. Nevertheless, he made up his mind to become a painter and entered the Antique School of the Royal Academy late in 1845. Restless with his lack of progress and deeply bored with tiresome copying, he cut classes to write poetry and to study manuscripts in the British Museum.
Rather than remain in the Antique School, he eventually apprenticed himself to William Holman Hunt, a proficient student-painter only one year older than he was. In 1848, with Hunt and John Everett Millais, a precocious painter who later became one of England's most popular artists, Rossetti founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They were joined by several others.
The aims of the brotherhood were intoxicatingly vague: They wanted only ``genuine ideas to express,'' and would ``study Nature ... so as to know how to express them.'' They pledged ``to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.'' Today, it is difficult to see how this platitudinous list could have been self-consciously avant-garde and antiestablishment. Still, the first paintings produced by the PRB articulated moral and social crises beyond the reach of academicism.
The year of the PRB's founding, 1848, witnessed revolutions in most European countries. At home, the urban landscape was smeared with poverty, pollution, prostitution, unemployment, and forced emigration. Some in the brotherhood dealt with these problems directly, but many of Rossetti's early works took up Biblical subjects to demonstrate a path to spiritual renewal.
Not surprisingly, Rossetti also looked to Dante for subject matter, and he took up the poet's love lyrics, which he had translated as a young man. The conjunction of Dante's verse and Rossetti's paintings was probably occasioned by his relationship with Elizabeth Siddal, a milliner's assistant, whose flowing auburn hair, blue-gray eyes, and bee-stung lips set off her disturbing pallor. Lizzie became ``Guggums'' to the PRB, but she was Beatrice, the beloved of Dante, to Rossetti. And she was Guinevere, Francesca da Rimini, the Lady of Shalott, Mariana in the noted grange, Princess Sabra, and a host of swooning medieval ladies who died for love, or looked as if they might. When Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti passed on in 1862 (they married after what the Victorians decorously called a long engagement), Rossetti buried the only complete copy of his poems with her.
Lizzie was gone, but the love-haunted ladies of Rossetti's imagination found new embodiments, principally in Jane Morris, wife of William Morris, the writer, and in Fanny Cornforth.
Over time, Rossetti's palette darkened into the winey colors of the late Venetian Renaissance and many of his spellbinding women acquired a feral energy. For every maiden whose tranquil, unseeing eyes contemplated an overpowering tragedy, there was now a Lilith whose pout suggested the emergence of a fang.
But the change hardly mattered. Rossetti's paintings remained so popular that he was often coaxed into making replicas. Dreamy damsels and sinewy Loreleis paraded through the homes of Rossetti's patrons, who were mostly newly rich businessmen and industrialists. So powerful was Rossetti's concoction of the feminine mystique, that many a fashionable Victorian woman let down her hair, shed her corset, and had her dressmaker fashion a shapeless green-gold or plum-colored tunic.
Despite decades of insightful criticism by feminist historians, who have located an advanced case of misogyny in these images, virtually every modern fashion magazine portrays an updated version of the languid Guggums.
What explains the lingering hold of Rossetti's paintings?
Escapism, surely. There is no poverty or unemployment in the sweet torpid air of these works, nor is love ever complicated by day care or car payments. Alicia Craig Faxon does not take up this question, but her splendidly illustrated book, and patient, scholarly text, will let everyone in on its continuing currency.