Sonnets for Pictures

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1850
Genre: poem group


◦ Ainsworth, ed., Double Work of Art

◦ Barolsky, Walter Pater's Renaissance, 130-137

◦ Bass, DGR. Poet and Painter, chapter 8

◦ Fredeman, ‘Pre-Raphaelite Literary-Art’, 55-74

◦ Gregory, The Life and Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, II. 108-110

◦ Hardinge, “The Louvre Sonnets of Rossetti” (1891), 433-443

◦ Landow, “Rossetti's Typological Structures”, 247-265

◦ Masefield, Thanks Before Going, 64-66

◦ McGann, DGR and the Game that Must be Lost, Chapter 2

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study., 394-399

◦ Stein, Ritual of Interpretation, 19-23, 130-143, 159-169 )

◦ Wagner, A Moment's Monument, 144-149

Scholarly Commentary


This is the heading Rossetti gave to a body of sonnets he first grouped together in The Germ (1850). The group was augmented and next printed in the 1870 Poems, and in the various proofs and trial books that preceded its publication. The sonnets included in the grouping, as well as their order, shifted continually in 1869-1870 as Rossetti was putting his volume together; and when he came to reprint the 1870 Poems in his two 1881 volumes, the heading itself disappeared and the sonnets were dispersed into two sections of Sonnets [Sonnets, The House of Life], one in each volume. These later groupings included a large number of new sonnets, most of them not “for Pictures”.

The six sonnets that comprise this group in The Germ text (No. 4) are presented in order and numbered 1-6: A Virgin and Child, by Hans Memmeling; in the Academy of Bruges; A Marriage of St. Katherine, by the same; in the Hospital of St. John at Bruges; For an Allegorical Dance of Women, by Andrea Mantegna (In the Louvre)—here titled “A Dance of Nymphs, by Andrea Mantegna; in the Louvre”; For a Venetian Pastoral, by Giorgione (in the Louvre)—here titled “A Venetian Pastoral, by Giorgione; in the Louvre”; For Ruggiero and Angelica I—here titled “Angelica rescued from the Sea-monster, by Ingres; in the Luxembourg”; For Ruggiero and Angelica II;—here titled “The Same”. The last two were published together in the 1870 Poems as For Ruggiero and Angelica, by Ingres; in the Luxembourg. When DGR came to re-gather the group for his 1870 volume, he dropped the first two and added a number of others.

In Rossetti's oeuvre the group is particularly important since it focuses directly on the connection between Rossetti's multiple artistic media. Several of the sonnets illustrate or comment upon Rossetti's own pictures and many comment directly on the connection between poetry and painting as Rossetti understood their relation. But the sonnets also raise the issue of “translation” in a number of important ways: all of the sonnets are acts of “translation”, but many deal explicitly with the morphologies of text and image. Most important here is the sonnet For an Allegorical Dance of Women by Andrea Mantegna. Also important—though they are not “Sonnets for Pictures” as such (and though they were included among the “Other Sonnets” associated with the former in the 1870 Poems)—are On the Vita Nuova of Dante, and Dantis Tenebrae. (In Memory of My Father).

More recent commentators have taken up this important Rossettian form under the comprehensive rubric of “The Double Work of Art”.

In the “Sonnets for Pictures” it is notable that DGR's point of view is always outside the actions depicted in the pictures. On the other hand, the texts themselves possess a distinctly centripetal inertia, as if an external contemplation of the pictures had yielded an experience of textual engulphment.

Textual History: Composition

The earliest of the sonnets date from 1847-1848, the latest, 1881. DGR wrote them in three general periods: first, a group of early ones that came out in the Germ; second, a group from the mid to the late 1860s; and finally, a group that were written in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Textual History: Revision

DGR revised these works when he came to prepare them for their publication (in 1850, 1870, and 1881).

Printing History

First published as a group in the Germ no. 4 (30 April 1850). In the 1870 Poems DGR gathered that earlier group together and augmented it with new sonnets “for pictures” as well as some other sonnets, and published the group as Sonnets for Pictures and Other Sonnets. In this volume The House of Life contains a number of “sonnets for pictures”, though none of these is from the Germ group. Nevertheless, DGR's decision to locate some sonnets for pictures in other locales began a process that would eventually disperse the integrity of the group altogether. In 1881 this integrity finally disappeared. The two 1881 volumes have their Sonnets for Pictures scattered throughout, with many incorporated into The House of Life.


In his own pictures—the “double works” properly so called— DGR called attention to their textualities from the very earliest period of his work. When he exhibited The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) he fixed one of its accompanying sonnets to the frame and printed the other in the Catalogue. His pictures regularly incorporate texts, even their correspondent texts, into the picture, or even more frequently on the frame of the picture. DGR's admiration for the work of medieval artists and miniaturists locates the source of his passion for textualizing pictures in various ways, and for pictorializing texts.


The “Sonnet for a Picture”, or poem for a picture, is a peculiarly Rossettian genre. Although he did not invent it, the form in his hands had an incalculable influence on its later proliferation. DGR's work comes directly out of the Gift Book and Annuals tradition which so dominated Victorian writing, especially short fiction and poetry, from 1820 to 1870. In those venues writers were continually called upon to produce poems or stories “for pictures” (in the most literal sense). DGR's work is a critical reflection upon that tradition, and a serious effort to develop a more than perfunctory relation between picture and its correspondent textual reimagination.


The preparation of a poem “for” a picture is in DGR's mind an action quite like translating a poem from one language to another. Ultimately the effort of producing such works of translation is a gnostic or neoplatonic project to produce signs that human discourse is One—a Monochord, as DGR called it in the sonnet of that title.

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