British Pre-Raphaelites and the Question of Reincarnation
By Lynda Harris
Originally printed in the January-February 2004 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Harris, Lynda. “British Pre-Raphaelites and the Question of Reincarnation.” Quest 92.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2004):20-26.
Nineteenth-century British painters are not known for their belief in reincarnation, although, as Headand Cranston demonstrate, the idea was accepted by a surprising number of nineteenth-century Britishwriters. The extent to which painters held the same views is more difficult to decipher, as their means of expressing these ideas are much more subtle. Nevertheless, it can be done, as Kathleen Raine has shown in her analysis of the works of William Blake.(For an earlier period see also L. Harris, The Secret Heresy of Hieronymus Bosch.).
During the second half of the nineteenth century, the idea of reincarnation was still controversial, presumably due to the influence of the traditional doctrines of Christianity. Most of the Spiritualists still argued against it, and even after 1887, when H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society arrived in England, the subject remained a hot topic of debate. As Godwin demonstrates in The Theosophical Enlightenment, “feelings against the reincarnation theory ran amazingly high.” Some believers discussed their views in public, but others, including certain esoteric writers and painters, avoided attacks by keeping their opinions to themselves..
Some of the later nineteenth-century authors who were more open about their belief in reincarnation include Bulwer-Lytton, Tennyson, Browning, Ruskin, Swinburne, and Pater. These writers were known, often personally, to the esoteric painters of that period. This group of British artists can be classified as either late Pre-Raphaelites or as Symbolists, and the man who is often seen as their leader and inspiration is the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)..
Rossetti’s great enthusiasm and magnetism had a direct or indirect influence on the ideals, values, and views of his circle. Like the writers mentioned above, he was comparatively open about his beliefs. He participated in Spiritualist seances and expressed his ideas about reincarnation (or metempsychosis, as it was often called) clearly in some of his writings. Other artists in his orbit said less about their views in public, and it is difficult to know just what their opinions on reincarnation were. Nevertheless, some of their letters, notes, and recorded conversations reveal that they were at least thinking about the subject, and a few of their paintings appear to illustrate it. This article looks at four members of the circle whose works are particularly interesting in this respect: Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829–1908), and Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919)..
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti was a complex person: highly romantic and talented but disorganized and undisciplined. Hisreligious background was mixed. His father was an Italian political refugee, nominally Catholic but actually an antipapist who became more and more fascinated by his own theories about secret societies and Dante’s religious occultism. He settled in London in 1824, and in 1826 he married a devout Anglican of mixed Italian and English parentage. She took her children to church, but her son Dante Gabriel seems to have been more influenced by his father’s esotericism and romantic Catholic background. Dante Gabriel was later to refer to himself as an “Art Catholic”—not a traditional believer but interested in portraying religious themes, which often had an esoteric aspect.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s natural ability at drawing showed itself early. According to one record, the milkman was surprised to see him sketching his rocking horse at the age of four. His formal academic schooling went on for only five years, after which, at the age of thirteen, he began taking lessons in art. This phase of his education lasted for seven years, but although he was enrolled at two different art schools, his work was irregular and not very disciplined. He had technical difficulties with oil painting for many years afterward, and as a result, most of his works up to 1860 were watercolors. During this period his themes were medieval: scenes from Dante and Arthurian legend. He worked sporadically, but the beauty and originality of his watercolors attracted the admiration of Ruskin, the best-known art critic of the period..
According to Rossetti’s brother William Michael, “any writing about devils, spectres, or the supernatural generally, whether in poetry or in prose, had always a fascination for him.” This interest in the occult and the supernatural began early, along with an attraction to the idea of reincarnation. With his romanticism and idealism, Rossetti longed to find “the woman who was his soul,” whom he would have known and loved again and again, over a series of incarnations. When he was twenty, he started work on a story on this theme. Its title, St. Agnes of Intercession, sounds Catholic, but as his brother William Michael wrote, it is “essentially of metempsychosis.” Rossetti never completed this tale, but his lifelong interest in it is revealed by the fact that he tried to finish writing it only a short while before his death..
St. Agnes of Intercession is the story of a nineteenth-century painter, who, like Rossetti, develops his talent early. At the age of nineteen, he falls in love with a beautiful young woman called Mary Arden. Within a year, the couple become engaged, and the artist paints her portrait. A critic who sees it in an exhibition points out that it bears a great resemblance to the face of a fifteenth-century painting of St. Agnes by a Florentine painter called Bucciuolo Angiolieri.
When he hears this, the young nineteenth-century painter is unable to resist an overwhelming impulse to visit Italy and see the St. Agnes for himself. When he finally locates it in a gallery in Perugia, he is struck by the exact match, “feature by feature,” between the face of St. Agnes and that of Mary, his present-day love. He then learns that the fifteenth-century sitter had died tragically during a portrait-painting session and that afterward, the artist had added the attributes of St. Agnes to commemorate her purity.
Finally, in the same Italian gallery, the artist finds the self-portrait of Bucciuolo Angiolieri, the fifteenth-century painter. To his amazement, he sees that the artist’s face is exactly the same as his own. He then realizes that he and Mary Arden are new incarnations of the same two people who had lived and loved four centuries earlier.
In 1850, two years after writing this story, Rossetti met Elizabeth Siddal, tall and slim with long, copper-gold hair and a white and rose complexion. He was overwhelmed by her appearance, particularly her beautiful hair, and was convinced that he had at last met “the woman who was his soul.” A fellow artist had discovered Lizzie working in a milliner’s shop, and she soon became the favorite model of the Pre-Raphaelite painters..
Rossetti and Lizzie began a relationship shortly after they met, and he was no doubt thinking of her when he wrote his poem “Sudden Light.” This idealized picture of love recalled from another life was written in 1854, when he and Lizzie were staying in the seaside town of Hastings:
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell;
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
You have been mine before—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall, — I knew it all of yore.
Rossetti’s relationship with Lizzie lasted for twelve years, but despite highly romantic periods of passion and love, it was often unhappy. Though he taught her to draw and paint watercolors in his own style and believed in her talent, the two really had few interests in common. They tended to fight, and Lizzie was also frequently ill, often at the brink of death. Anger and frustration over his refusal to marry her probably had something to do with this. Rossetti finally did agree to marriage in 1860, but in 1862, not long after the tragedy of a stillborn child, she took an overdose of the opiate laudanum and died..
In 1860, when Lizzie was seriously ill soon before their wedding, Rossetti (using the title Bonifazio’s Mistress) drew her as the dying fifteenth century model in his unfinished tale St. Agnes of Intercession. [ILLUSTRATION 1, CAPTION: Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Scene from the St. Agnes of Intercession story (1860), Oxford, Ashmolean Museum]. He must have been expecting Lizzie’s imminent death, and he clearly associated her with the beautiful girl in his story of love and reincarnation..
Edward Burne-Jones and John Spencer Stanhope
In 1855, during a period when Lizzie was living elsewhere, Rossetti became the mentor and, in a sense,the saviour of the younger painter Edward Burne-Jones. This was the time when Burne-Jones, the highlysensitive and well-educated son of a gilder and frame maker from Birmingham, was about to give upstudying for the clergy at Oxford. Burne-Jones had recently lost his faith in the Protestant religionand was feeling lost and depressed. He was already considering the possibility of becoming an artist, and Rossetti entered his life at a key moment. He helped Burne-Jones to develop his talent and had a strong effect on the younger painter’s views on art, beauty, and lifestyle. Without his help, Burne-Jones’s career might have taken a very different direction.
But to what extent did Rossetti also influence the religious and esoteric views of Burne-Jones? It is difficult to tell. We do know that Burne-Jones never regained his conventional religious faith, for, as late as the 1890s, his studio assistant Thomas Rooke reported that he said, “Belong to the Church of England? Put your head in a bag!” He found Catholicism attractive, but he never converted to it. His remark to Rooke “I love Christmas Carol Christianity, I couldn’t do without Medieval Christianity” indicates that, like Rossetti, he had become something of an “Art Catholic.”.
Was Burne-Jones also affected by Rossetti’s ideas on reincarnation? The younger artist is known to have been very sensitive to criticism, and if he had been interested in a subject as controversial as this one was, he would not have been likely to write or speak about it in public. Nevertheless, we can be sure that he would have been exposed to discussions on reincarnation as well as Spiritualism. These two interests were important in the lives of a large number of his friends, including not only Rossetti, but also many of the writers in their circle..
A hint of Burne-Jones’s point of view during these discussions is given in a description of one of his dreams, sent in a letter to his friend Mary Gladstone Drew in October 1880. This particular dream is especially interesting from our point of view because it reveals that he considered reincarnation to be at least a possibility. He described the dream as follows:
I thought I was walking in a street of some dull town like a cathedral town, and went up some steps to the door of a house and suddenly remembered that I had lived a long life in the house, and saw in a moment all the dreadful misery and reeled back down the steps and then forgot everything, and then ascended them again and again remembered everything, and again recognised that it was all true and that really I had endured it all. And so woke—and wondered how often one has lived before and forgotten it all..
In 1873, about seven years before he had this dream, Burne-Jones began work on a painting that he finally finished in 1882. This picture, known as The Mill, was begun in 1873 when Burne-Jones was in Florence, staying in the villa of his friend and fellow painter John Spencer Stanhope. The Mill, which depicts figures in front of a millstream on a summer evening, is usually interpreted as a nostalgic and poetic image with no particular subject. But is it merely coincidence that this painting inspired two others that clearly do deal with the subject of reincarnation? One of these is by Stanhope, and the other is by Stanhope’s niece, Evelyn de Morgan..
Stanhope’s work, painted in 1879–80, has the title The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium..
Though Stanhope’s personal views on reincarnation are difficult to trace, the title, referring to the Greco-Roman paradise and the river in which souls bathe before reincarnating, makes his subject matter clear. Was he adapting Burne-Jones’s composition for his own use? Or, alternatively, did he know that Burne-Jones had also been thinking in terms of reincarnation and the river Lethe when he painted The Mill, even though he expressed it less explicitly?.
Whatever the answer may be, Stanhope’s painting is more complicated as well as more explicit than The Mill. It is based roughly on Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. As a member of the upper class, Stanhope would have read the works of this Roman poet at school. In his painting he depicts a line of troubled souls moving toward the river Lethe, whose reflective waters will bring forgetfulness of their previous lives on Earth. The souls bathe in the river and emerge cleansed, prior to their next physical incarnation. In the background, happier souls enjoy themselves in the paradise of Elysium. According to Virgil, these souls will also be reborn, but at a later date. This may be hinted at by the fact that some perform a round dance. Circular dances are ancient symbols of reincarnation and were particularly common in the Greek world.
Burne-Jones, whose education had also concentrated on the classics, would also have been well acquainted with Virgil’s Aeneid. His painting The Mill can be interpreted as a simplified version of the same theme. In the background four nude bathers, looking very much like some in Stanhope’s later version, are reflected in the still waters of a river or millpond. The mill wheel depicted on the right, though not included in Stanhope’s work, is a traditional symbol of the wheel of birth and death. It could indicate that the bathers, having been cleansed of their memories in the waters of Lethe, are waiting to be reborn on earth..
In the foreground of Burne-Jones’s painting, three young women perform a graceful circular dance. The head of the musician on their right is outlined in a halo of light from the sky, which shines through an arch. This may well hint at some sort of holiness—not literally Christian, but a pagan version. It could indicate that, as in Stanhope’s painting, these women are souls in Elysium. Their circular dance could also be a subtle suggestion that they too will eventually be reincarnated in the physical world..
Evelyn De Morgan
Evelyn Pickering De Morgan was Spencer Stanhope’s niece and the wife of Burne-Jones’s friendWilliam De Morgan. About twenty years younger than Burne-Jones, she was one of the first women trained at the Slade School of Art in London. She also lived for long periods in Florence, often in her uncle’s villa. Her style was influenced by Burne-Jones and Stanhope as well as by fifteenth-century Florentine painting..
Evelyn De Morgan’s mature works are particularly esoteric, and many of them reflect her undoubted interest in Spiritualism. Also, although her personal views on reincarnation are not backed up by her letters or recorded conversations, there is one publication that reveals her interest in the subject: a book entitled The Result of an Experiment, which was published anonymously by Evelyn and William in 1909. The couple had been practicing automatic writing in private from about 1887, and the book records some of the messages they received, which purport to be from spirits of various levels of development. Many of Evelyn De Morgan’s paintings show a clear influence of their content..
Spiritual evolution and the various states of souls in the afterworld are the main subjects discussed in messages, but in a few of them the spirits also join in the reincarnation debate. They make comments such as “there is no reincarnation; the book you read is false, and the spirits who taught the doctrine were lying” and “India is a great land and her sages are full of wisdom but the doctrine of reincarnation is false.The man you have listened to is highly developed and his learning is great, but he lacks humility.” These quotations (especially the second one) indicate that the De Morgans had some contact with the Theosophical Society, even though there is no other record of this..
Whatever the source of the automatic scripts may have been, their criticisms of Evelyn De Morgan’s investigation of reincarnation reveal her interest in the subject. And this interest is reflected in several of her paintings, including one executed in 1905 called The Cadence of Autumn. Like Burne-Jones and Stanhope, she had a good grounding in the classics, and this work looks very much like a third version of the Lethe and reincarnation theme..
The Cadence of Autumn, however, contains a more eclectic set of symbols. Following the tradition of medieval Last Judgments, the left half of this painting represents the side of salvation and the right half depicts the side of hell. But here, as in the Gnostic and Neoplatonic traditions, damnation is thought of as rebirth on earth. This is symbolized in the right background by a mill with a turning wheel and a river in front of it. In the right foreground, two women, surrounded by a whirling circle of autumn leaves, walk toward the edge of the picture. The leaves are another image of the eternal round of birth and death. The women’s bent and troubled positions are reminiscent of Spencer Stanhope’s figures, which suffer on their way to the river Lethe..
The trees on the right side of The Cadence of Autumn, with their barren, leafless branches, contrast with the abundant leaves and fruits of the trees on the left. This is another medieval symbol of salvation versus damnation, emphasized by the figures in the left foreground of the picture. Here, two women stand with raised arms, holding a net with fruit in it. Various other autumn fruits and gourds are piled around their feet, and a youth on their left carries a basket of grapes. These images of an abundant harvest tell us that the figures on the left have led a fruitful life. They will reap their rewards in the afterworld. Their salvation could be permanent, but a hint of eventual reincarnation after a period in paradise may be revealed by the pose of the two women with the net. Perhaps—though the viewer cannot be sure—it is reminiscent of a circle dance.
Reincarnation is not an easy subject to paint literally, but as we have seen, it can be depicted through symbols. The lively debates of the late nineteenth century are likely to have been referred to in more drawings, paintings, letters, and diaries than we are aware of. Many have no doubt been destroyed, but others are still waiting to be examined. Those appearing here are probably the tip of a much larger iceberg.
Lynda Harris is an art historian and lecturer with degree from Bryn Mawr College, Boston University,and the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has a special interest in paintings with esoteric symbolism andis the author of the book The Secret Heresy of Hieronymus Bosch. Another of Lynda’s contributions, JeanDelville: Painting, Spirituality, and the Esoteric can be found in the May/June 2002 issue of Quest.