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Women in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Arthurian Renditions (1854–1867)

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José María Mesa Villar

This scholarly but accessible volume traces the impact of the enduring themes and key women characters from Arthurian tradition in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s artistic corpus. Combining literary and visual analysis, the author opens a double perspective upon the past to emphasize that the painter-poet’s renditions on the legend of Camelot should not be read only as merely illustrative of pre-existing textual sources. Quite on the contrary, his personal take stands out as an eclectic exercise of revaluation providing additional insight into his professional preoccupations and view of the self.
Unfolding in three sections, the book first focuses on the tragic love triangles in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, and so on Rossetti’s portrayal of Guinevere and La Belle Yseult. Next, it considers the value of female mediating presences and inter-gender unity in the Grail Quest. The third set of chapters addresses Rossetti’s view of chivalric paternalism and romantic rescue. For reasons of complementation and contrast, this last section also includes an analysis of the painter-poet’s contribution to the stained glass series on the legend of Saint George and the dragon.
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III. Female Dependence within the Context of Chivalric Paternalism

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III.Female Dependence within the Context of Chivalric Paternalism

III.1Helplessness and Heroism in Rossetti’s The Death of Breuze sans Pitié

Although quite different from each other, the mystified and the sexualized female types in the Rossettian corpus stood out as the two main referents in the visual representation of the enduring conflict between ‘body’ and ‘spirit’. These also proved essential to the assessment of the contrastive relations and sense of continuity between ‘Heaven’ and ‘Earth’, despite the wide gulf separating both spheres of existence. Of course, such matters received expanded treatment in the dialectics of beauty expressed through Rossetti’s double works (1860–1882), but this should not prevent us from noticing that the painter-poet had previously relied on Arthurianism and chivalric modes to explore those same topics. His vision of knighthood, on the one hand, adopted a more literal orientation which bore strong ties with Romantic escapism, a trend where ‘prowess in arms’ was often closely linked to ‘magic’, ‘adventure’ and ‘relentless action’. On the other hand, his approach to the Golden Age of Camelot sometimes – but not always – walked side by side with an eminently Victorian proclivity to evoke and capitalize on the past to serve the present or, in more precise terms, to re-appropriate old time to underpin the construction of a set of modern concepts, such as ‘gentleman’.1

Along the various visual renditions analyzed up to this point, woman has proved indispensable to reassert and reward male performance, while also offering a...

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