Spooky Art: How They Met Themselves by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

How They Met Themselves
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Freud’s theory of the uncanny explains the aversion or fear that humans experience when they encounter something that is familiar, yet somehow eerie. A familiar thing becoming unfamiliar produces deep anxiety and fear. Although I’m simplifying things quite a bit (I am in no way a psychologist), the basic idea is that the known produces more horror than the unknown.

Although Freud didn’t write about the uncanny until 1919, the idea behind his theory is on full display in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1864 watercolor entitled How They Met Themselves.

Rossetti-who was one of the most prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement-brings Medieval imagery and psychological drama to this fascinating painting. The piece depicts two lovers walking through the woods; the pair have just encountered identical versions of themselves, swathed in a phantasmagorical glow. The original couple stare at their doubles in mute horror.

The idea of the doppelgänger (which is basically a double of the self that is not the self) was a major theme of horror in the nineteenth century. The idea of encountering a double is-and remains-a major source of psychological distress for many people. Traditionally, seeing a doppelgänger is understood to be a sign of impending death, giving How They Met Themselves an even more ominous tone.

Clearly, Rossetti was obsessed with this idea of malevolent doubles, returning to it several times throughout the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, he produced the first version of How They Met Themselves when he was just twenty-three years old. Several art historians have also noted that the two figures in the painting seem to be modeled on Rossetti and his wife, Elizabeth Siddal. These portraits had an extra layer of doubling; the painted figures forming doppelgängers with the living couple.

Rossetti’s reasons for producing this painting are unclear, but what is clear is that he was fueled by spooky motives known only to himself. A sense of profound psychological gloom pervades the painting, making it a truly frightening masterpiece.

Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on October 26, 2020.

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