Wharton & Rossetti’s Inter-Art Discourse

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Roman Widow" (1874)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Roman Widow" (1874)

The Harleth Journal published the following article on July 25, 2014. 


Interrogating 19th Century Sexual Politics

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Roman Widow" (1874)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Roman Widow” (1874)

Edith Wharton possessed a vast knowledge of art history and was well versed in the writings of major art critics such as Anna Jameson and John Ruskin. Emily Orlando writes that the author wanted her readers to “recognize the allusions that she was tucking away in her literary art” (6). Wharton expressed a particular interest in the visual arts of her cultural moment, engaging throughout her literary career with “what she understood to be the decidedly antifeminist” works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) (Orlando 6). This article explores the manner in which Wharton’s suspicion of Rossetti’s artistic “rhetoric and repertoire” forms an important subtext 1 in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence (1920). Further, it examines how she invoked and parodied Pre-Raphaelite art to critique the Brotherhood’s over-sexualized imaging of women’s bodies and identities.

The novel’s protagonist Newland Archer is fascinated with “brilliant and fanciful tales” of romance (Age 87) 2 and thus drawn to the works of Italian Renaissance poets the Romantics, and Rossetti in particular. Wharton creates a significant intertextual and parodic relationship between Archer and Rossetti, which comments on the latter’s overt objectification and misrepresentation of women in reflexive fashion. In her book, Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-modern, Margaret Rose writes:

In the parody, the complex function of the dual meaning of the irony is matched by that of the dual text or code […] The parody contains at least two distinct codes with two distinct sets of messages from more than the one author. (87-88)

Here, the dual textual codes comprise Rossetti’s vexed misrepresentations of femininity, and Wharton’s critique of the former’s limited-and-limiting notions on women. Wharton juxtaposes these two sets of messages in The Age of Innocence by offering a cautionary tale in Archer; his fate represents the ramification for reducing women to sexual entities devoid of intellect, resolve and ability. Therefore, in parodying Rossetti’s art, Wharton holds up a mirror to the painter/ poet and uncovers the controversial “premises of value” that constitute his artistic identity (Kent and Ewen 18).

Further, Wharton ironically mocks Archer’s naïve and misguided attempt to model his life on his readings through May Welland’s exasperated remark, “We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?” (Age 53). Rose explains that irony is frequently used as an important tool in parodies to “meta-linguistically or metafictionally” comment on the target text and “its place in the parodist’s work” (Parody: Ancient 87). Thus the Archer- Rossetti subtext serves as a literary conduit through which Wharton articulates her “commitment to interrogating and intervening in the sexual politics” of nineteenth century visual and literary culture (Orlando 19).

Wharton’s Inter-Art Discourse with Rossetti

William Vaughan describes Rossetti as an eternal romantic free spirit whose infatuation with the female form found expression in his paintings and poems (“Rossetti”). Critics had condemned his anthology Poems By D.G. Rossetti (1870) for its intense eroticism. Notably, Robert Buchanan (Thomas Maitland) denounced Rossetti as being “fleshly all over, from the roots of his hair to the tip of his toes” (Maitland 344). It is in Rossetti’s erotic poetry that Archer discovers a new and hauntingly beautiful “atmosphere unlike any he had ever breathed in books” (Age 87). Indeed, he finds the artist’s conception of the unattainable, ideal Pre-Raphaelite woman so persuasive that he reproduces the fantasy in his life through his romantic pursuit of Ellen Olenska. He conceptualizes Ellen as his imaginary beloved – the flower of his life (Age 208)3 – and views her “not as an individual woman but as an icon onto whose body [his] male desire is superimposed” (Orlando 13).

Proserpine (1874)

Proserpine (1874)

Further, Rossetti produced several portraits of the Pre-Raphaelite woman dressed in exotic garb with dark luscious hair, and elegant but convoluted fingers. Alison Yarrington explains that he repeatedly painted “fingers as wrung […] not still and peaceful” as an allusion to his perception of women as beautiful but twisted beings (“Rossetti”). Archer adopts Rossetti’s idiosyncrasy and develops a fetish for his ‘muse’ Ellen’s hands. Upon a visit to her residence, he fixes his eyes on her hand and “watches to see if he had the power to make her drop them [her gloves]” (Age 104) in a strange metaphorical act of seduction. Further, in a moment of desperate want, he decides that he should have to follow” Ellen to Europe, “if it were only to see her hand again” (Age 200).

As a consequence of his naïve emulation of Rossetti’s troubling notions of femininity, Archer eroticizes Ellen and cannot appreciate her as a creative, bold and independent woman. In addition, he reduces his wife, May Welland, to a cold and artless image of snow without the power to hold his romantic attention. His inability to respect Ellen and May reveals his impotency (and that of Rossetti’s ideas), as he fails to realize a relationship with the former and finds himself trapped in a passionless marriage with the latter. Archer’s plight (though serious) entails an incongruous culmination of Rossetti’s artistic philosophy, and thus produces an implicit comic effect.

Wharton’s novel incorporates its treatment of Rossetti’s text into its own aesthetic form. In making “its target a part of its own structure,” her narrative “recreates it [the referenced text] within itself” (Rose Parody: Ancient 90). The Age of Innocence thus “reinstates a dialogue [with Pre-Raphaelite art] and the social and ideological context in which the work was produced and lived” (Hutcheon Politics 180-1). The ensuing discourse establishes inter-art continuity, which contributes to the progression of cultural perspectives and transformation of literature.

Literary Reform Through Parody

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton constructs a parodic subtext (through Newland Archer’s subversive imitation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti) that is “resolutely historical and inescapably political” (Hutcheon Politics 180). Her intertextual engagement with Dante Gabriel Rossetti embeds the novel in the sexuopolitical discourse of the late-nineteenth century, as she critiques the era’s problematic visual cultures of femininity. In this manner, her novel evokes the Russian formalist Yuri Tynjanov’s assertion that “parody is a lever for literary change,” as it employs self-reflexive parody to reform the literary/ visual tradition that it mocks (Erlich Russian Formalism 194).



Works Cited

Erlich, Victor. Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1980. Print.

Hilton, Timothy. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Thames & Hudson, 1970. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988. Print.

Maitland, Thomas (Robert Buchanan).”The Fleshly School of Poetry: MR. D. G. Rossetti.” Contemporary Review Aug.- Nov. 1871: 334-50. Rossetti Archive. Web. 9 July 2014. 

Orlando, Emily J. Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2007. Print.

Rose, Margaret A. Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-modern. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence: Authoritative Text, Background and Contexts, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Candace Waid. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. Print. 

Show 3 footnotes

  1. The novel is titled after Sir Joshua Reynolds’ famous painting The Age of Innocence (1788). The PRB detested Reynolds and his school of art, nicknaming him: “Sir Sloshua.” William Michael Rossetti (Pre-Raphaelite chronicler) wrote that “sloshy” meant “anything lax or scamped in the process of painting, hence any person of a commonplace or conventional kind” (Hilton 46).
  2. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence: Authoritative Text, Background and Contexts, Sources, Criticism, Ed. Candace Waid, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003). All subsequent references are to this edition.
  3. From Rossetti’s poem True Woman: “That is the flower of life: – how strange a thing! (qtd. in Orlando 191; emphasis added).

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