Monday, November 5, 2007

Dreams No Longer Deferred

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). LadyLilith, 1866-68 (altered 1872-73). Oil on canvas, 38 x 33 1/2 inches. Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935.

After a long absence, the Delaware Art Museum welcomes back the renowned Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art after a long tour of the United States and England. In addition to a series of exhibitions and programs and a special website to celebrate the return, the Delaware Art Museum now reissues the 2004 catalogue, Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum. In addition to presenting beautiful reproductions of the art itself from the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art anywhere outside Britain, the catalogue analyzes the all-encompassing passion of Samuel Bancroft in his pursuit of the art and the stories and people behind it. Works such as Lady Lilith (above) fascinate Bancroft not only for their beauty and the artistry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but also for the history and life of the model, Fanny Cornforth, who evolved from model to mistress of Rossetti after the death of his wife, model, and fellow artist Elizabeth Siddal in 1862. Bancroft found Fanny and hounded her and others for the romantic, often lurid, and even macabre tales of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the most soap opera-esque of all art movements. Through these works, Bancroft relived the Pre-Raphaelite dream of pure imagination, a dream now returns to the Delaware Art Museum in its fullest sense.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (1828-1882). Found, begun c. 1869. Oil on canvas, 30 x 35 inches. Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935.

“It would be ‘Rossettianism’ that intrigued and seduced Samuel Bancroft from the moment he set eyes on Fiammetta in 1880,” writes Stephen Wildman in his essay, “A Vision Realized: Pre-Raphaelitism in the Bancroft Collection.” Rossetti rightfully takes center stage in the Bancroft Collection with works ranging from his early 1848 painting Bottles to the late Mnemosyne of the 1880s. In between, works such as Found (above), the only “modern moral subject” Rossetti painted, trace the trajectory of Rossetti’s amazing career. Rossetti’s lighter side appears in the drawings he sent to Fanny Cornforth, the model for the woman in Found, in which he draws her as an elephant in a play on the name “Fanny.” Bancroft collected letters and personal effects of Rossetti in his relentless drive to “penetrate the surface of Rossetti’s disarming and frustrating personality” and “vicariously enter the personal world of the Pre-Raphaelites.” Rossetti died in 1882, just as Bancroft began collecting the Pre-Raphaelites, and this near miss haunts all his efforts.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927). Love's Messenger, 1885. Watercolor, tempera, and gold paint on paper mounted on wood, 32 x 26 inches. Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935.

Although Bancroft had rough, sometimes condescending encounters with some of the female Pre-Raphaelites, his collection allows a glimpse into that forgotten aspect of the movement. Examples of Elizabeth Siddal’s work allow us to see her as not “purely in the role of an attendant figure to Rossetti, as his model and pupil, mistress and wife,” but also as “a significant poet and artist, and in her determination to lead a life independent from the circle into which she was drawn, a laudable rather than a tragic figure.” In “Dreaming Awake: Marie Spartali Stillman and Pre-Raphaelite Images of Women,” Deborah Cherry contrasts the women of Rossetti and the male Pre-Raphaelites, “enfolded in reverie or rapt in contemplation, … dreaming awake,” with the women painted by Marie Spartali Stillman and other female artists of the movement. Stillman modeled for and studied under Edward Burne-Jones, developing her conception of the ideal woman within that of the Pre-Raphaelite circle itself. In this essay, Cherry recovers the lost feminism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was a Sisterhood as well, going all the way back to Rossetti’s support for women’s suffrage and his “innovative” insistence on a balance of male and female artists in exhibitions of the 1850s. In works such as Love’s Messenger (above), Stillman takes the stereotypical “stunner” of the Pre-Raphaelite images and adds an introspective touch, a mind stirring beneath the idealized exterior.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Lancelot and Guinevere, 1873. Photograph, 13 3/4 x 11 1/4 inches. Acquired through the Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1979.

The Bancroft Collection at the Delaware Art Museum reveals the Pre-Raphaelite movement in all its variety and complexity. The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites on the nascent field of children’s book illustration rises in the works of Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, among others. Julia Margaret Cameron’s Pre-Raphaelite photography (such as Lancelot and Guinevere, above) opens up a whole new conception of the school as an early modern movement, something often forgotten in their fascination with medievalism. Stained glass, pottery, tiles, silverware, and even furniture (such as the chair painted by William Morris and Rossetti, titled The Arming of a Knight, below) display how Pre-Raphaelitism became an all-encompassing way of life for these artists and their patrons. Looking at the magnitude and variety of these artworks, one easily understands how Samuel Bancroft fell in love with this world and longed to join it in every way possible.

William Morris (1834-1898); Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). The Arming of a Knight, 1856-57. Painted deal, leather, and nails, 55 5/8 x 18 3/4 x 19 1/2 inches. Acquired through the bequest of Doris Wright Anderson and the F. V. du Pont Acquisition Fund, 1997.

The Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection at the Delaware Art Museum testifies not only to the passion and vision of one collector but also to the stewardship of an institution entrusted by heirs to keep that passion and vision alive. Waking Dreams brings the Pre-Raphaelite world to life in a way that Bancroft himself would have loved. Between the festivities of this homecoming and Tate Britain’s current exhibit Millias, the fires of Pre-Raphaelite passion are still burning strong.

[Many thanks to the Delaware Art Museum for providing me with a review copy of Waking Dreams and the images from the exhibition above.]

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