Hidden Sentiment in "Regina Cordium"

Dante Gabriel Rossetti drew a red and black chalk drawing entitled Regina Cordium in 1860 as a study for an oil painting. This small drawing of 7 3/4 by 7 1/2 inches features the head, neck and shoulders of Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddal. Lizzie's face is turned slightly to the right, highlighting her left cheekbone and her long and pronounced neck. Her lips are closed and slightly puckered up, indicating neither a smile nor a frown. Her eyelids fall half closed with her pupils looking down to the left yet her chin tilts up towards the right, creating a indecisive gaze and a line of vision that is difficult to interpret. Her eyebrows and forehead are relaxed and neutral, further indicating that she neither interacts with nor reacts to anything in her space, but rather that she is in a world of her own.

Lizzie's bright red hair is parted in the middle of her forehead, triangularly framing her pale face, neck and shoulders. Distinct lines of red chalk are highlighted with patches of white chalk, making Lizzie's curly flowing locks incredibly tangible to the viewer. Around her neck drapes two strings of rich gold beads with the higher of the two strands holding a gold heart pennant in the nap of Lizzie's neck. Lizzie's right hand is visible as she raises a small white flower towards her chin. Her thumb and pointer finger delicately pinch the short stem of the flower while her other three fingers are tightly clinched together creating a half fist. Her shoulders are either bare or covered in light fabric that blends in with her skin color. The lack of visible clothing brings a sexual aspect to the portrait by hinting at the possibility that this figure could be completely naked.

Rossetti blends the rough medium of chalk into the rough pulp of the paper so as to create smooth sensual facial features and subtle shadows around Lizzie's face. The shadow under Lizzie's chin and jaw-line is just as dark as the shadows around her eyes, drawing attention towards her dark and mysterious eyes. One is drawn in to wondering what deep concealed conscience lies behind her puffy dazed eyes. The background is filled with dark black chalk interrupted only by the artist's signature that appears almost to be carved into the black background with white chalk. Rossetti elaborately signs the work with his initials and the year 1860 surrounded by a heart. The blank blackness brings the work right up to the foreground. Both this black chalk (and the patterned background in the final painting) allow for no recession into space and pursue no narrative readings. With no indications as to space, time or story, the viewer is left face to face, uncomfortably close to raw feminine beauty and mysterious undisclosed emotion.

Questions

1. Rossetti draws studies of women's heads in which her outward expressions show more passion and sentiment with an open mouth. Why would Rossetti choose to draw his struggling wife with a closed and calm mouth? Does the tension between the outward tranquility of Lizzie and the inner distress effect the viewer's interpretation of the work?

2. Elizabeth Siddal was the first of the PRB's stunners or beautiful women that would be come icons of the movement. Lizzie posed for other paintings by members of the PRB including Millais' dramatic rendition of Shakespeare's Orphelia, in 1851-1852. Millais had Lizzie lying in a bath of water to get the realistic likeness of the mad Orphelia as she drifts down the river singing. Spending so much time in the bath of water led Lizzie to contract a sickness that would plague her all the way to her death. Despite the immortalized images created by PRB members in 1850's, Lizzie's physical and mental health deteriorated quickly until she overdosed and died in 1862. Rossetti believed the sensational image of Lizzie as Orphelia to be the best likeness ever painted of her (Wood). Millais' choice of tragic theme, Ruskinian detailed beauty and dramatic facial expressions link Orphelia and Lizzie's psychological agony. Why does Rossetti choose to portray Lizzie in Regina Cordium with a blank expression and little narrative connection? How does Rossetti's rendition of Lizzie lend itself to it's own unique interpretation of tragedy and dying love?

3. Rossetti entitled other subsequent paintings Regina Cordium. These followers are very similar in format and style. The title which is Latin for The Queen of Hearts evokes a playing card. Perhaps this title explains the 2-dimensionality of the paintings because of the flat compositions of playing cards. However, is there any other symbolical significance to entitling these works The Queen of Hearts? Does this painting lose any of its dramatic value in knowing that he named other paintings of other women the same thing?

4. Rossetti's relationship with Lizzie is one of the factors that leads Rossetti in a new direction in his art towards the second phase of the PRB movement (Wood). What moves this work in a new direction away from works such as The Girlhood of Mary Virgin ? Both works seem to some romantic medieval connections and intensity of color and subject yet Regina Cordium moves towards the second phase of PRB painting. Do size and style initiate this change?

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Victorian Web Overview Visual Arts Dante Gabriel Rossetti Rossetti's paintings Discussion questions for Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Last modified 7 October 2004