Head of a Woman, called "Ruth Herbert"
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Red and black chalk on buff paper
15 1/2 x 12 3/8 inches
Signed with a monogram and dated lower right
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (acc. no. B1975.4.1580)
Paul Mellon Collection
Provenance: Mrs. I. Montlake; Christie's, 22 February 1966, lot 66; P. and D. Colnaghi; Yale Center for British Art.
Commentary by Elizabeth Neuringer
Rossetti's favorite subject during his later years consisted of portraits of beautiful, mysterious women in which he treats the rich and abundant hair, comparatively small eyes, and full mouths as symbolic embodiments of women's sensuality. Ruth Herbert, renowned for her beauty, possessed the sensual, indolent, inscrutable qualities found in the beautiful women who attracted Rossetti throughout his life. The portraits he made of her are the prototypes for the narcissistic, selfcontained female figures in his later work.Louisa Ruth Herbert, an actress also known as Mrs. Crabbe, made her hrst appearance in London on 15 October 1855 at the rough-and-tumble Strand Theatre where she first came to Rossetri's attention, but he did not meet her until 1858. His delight in her agreeing to sit for him shows in his letter to William Bell Scott where he tells his friend, "I am in the stunning position this morning of expecting the actual visit, at 1/2 past 11, of a model whom I have been longing to paint for years — Miss Herbert of the Olympic Theatre — who has the most varied and highest expression I ever saw in a woman's face, besides abundant beauty, golden hair etc" (Surtees."Beauty andf th eBuird," 85).
Except for a single dinner meeting in 1872, Rossetti and Ruth Herbert did not maintain contact after 1860; and as Patrick Noon has pointed out, Rossetti therefore based the Yale drawing, which dates from 1876, upon an earlier pencil drawing known from a photograph and an oil replica (English Portrait Drawings, 117). Although the poses and accessories are identical, the removed, idealized face in the Yale portrait does not resemble the earlier drawing.
In 1890 Frederic Shields wrote an article for the Century Guild Hobby Horse explaining Rossetri's technique of "drawing in crayon." Shields states that about the year 1864, he became acquainted with a "compressed charcoal" of French manufacture that he gave to Rossetti "and thus was initiated that beautiful series of Crayon heads" (70-73). According to Shields, Rossetti was in the habit of using handmade colored paper to enhance the effect of white chalk, and his "procedure was to draw in the head and draperies in broadly-defined light and shade." Once
the forms were well assured, he would ... skim the whole flesh-surface with a pale red tint, working evenly and rapidly in one direction. This done ... he tenderly rubbed the whole space, so as to marry the particles of red chalk with the charcoal; keeping the shadows gray .. . and deepening the hair with more red or black, as his subject demanded. This accomplished, he proceeded to restore with the charcoal, so much of the form, as had become obscured in these processes, refining and defining all; 'finding out more' to quote his own expressive phrase.... Lastly he would fortify the lips with more red.
Highlights were added with pipe clay or erased by "breading out." Shields further explains that by 1875 Rossetti had attained his "culminating method" which was "influenced by ... a chalk, known as Bistre; in tint, nearly equivalent to that obtained by the blending of the red chalk and compressed charcoal" which he used "to the exclusion of the red chalk." He also discarded the pipe clay in favor of breading out the lights. The Yale drawing exemplifies Rossetri's delicate, subtle blending of red and gray chalk and his restoration of the form with charcoal. Highlights have been breaded out. — Ladies of Shalott (1985), pp. 143.
Doughty, Oswald, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic. London, 1960. Plate 12.
English Portrait Drawings and Miniatures. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 1979.
Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and Its Contexts. Ed. George P. Landow. Providence: Brown University, 1985.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. The Poetical Works. 2vols. [Ed. William Michael Rossetti.] Boston: Little, Brown, 1913.
Rossetti, Michael Rossetti. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1895. 2:238, 253, 256 — 79
Shields, Frederic. "A Note upon Rossetti's Method of Drawing in Crayons." Century Guild Hobby Horse 5 (1890): 70-73.
Surtees, Virginia. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. Catalogue no. 328.
Surtees, Virginia. "'Beauty and the Bird': A New Rossetti Drawing." Burlington Magazine. 115 (1973): 85.
Last modified 26 May 2007