Mary at the Door of Simon with (left) the study, and (right) the finished drawing, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). Work in pencil, reproduced in T. Martin Wood, as frontispiece and Plate xvii respectively. Despite the radiance of the head of Jesus, modelled for Rossetti by Edward Burne-Jones (not George Meredith, as used to be thought — see Ellis 109), the emphasis here is on the yearning of Mary Magdalene, which is so passionate that others' eyes are fixed on her rather than on the apparition of the effulgent face within. Wood discusses the two versions as follows:

In comparing the study for Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee with the completed drawing, the question arises whether, with the elaboration that has come into the latter, some of the intensity of the study has escaped; or whether, on the other hand, the subject has gained. The simplicity of the first undoubtedly possesses something which is subsequently lost in elaboration, and yet taking the completed picture and looking into it one finds a lesson in Rossetti's methods. We find that by dwelling upon his subject he has emphasised certain notes, has repeated as it were a refrain, and made more spirited and poetic in rendering the figure of the lover in the foreground. After-thoughts have given every touch that could possibly enrich, and, at the same time concentrate, dramatic motif in this figure. The embroidery on his coat, the flowers in his hair, the hair itself, and the face so mocking and fascinating and sure of itself, is more in the spirit of the subject than the gentler face as it appears in the sketch.

The figure of the Magdalene gains in many ways as completed, and though the distressed loving face and the flowing hair of the sketch are changed, the alteration of the expression on the face from one of intense distress to one of proud determination is very interest- ing as showing how his subjects grew and changed under his hand. It is wholly to the gain of the picture the different gesture which he has arrived at in the second drawing, where the Magdalene with both hands throws the flowers from her hair. The dramatic quality upon which we have insisted as part of Rossetti's art is nowhere better shown than in the deer quietly eating leaves from the wall, all unconscious that there is acted out beside it the most pathetically beautiful drama of the world. One misses in the finished picture some of the sensitive drawing given in the sketch to the Magdalene's dress. Here, instead, her clothes are as if she were perfectly still; they give no indication of her movements and the stormy action round her. That is the fault of Pre-Raphaelitism — to fritter away the spirit for the sake of the embroidery upon the body's clothes ; to lose emphasis in elaboration, to sacrifice a greater beauty for a meaner one. [15]

This is an interesting comment, and the sort of criticism made about sculptural work too: that with superficial elaboration the spirit of a work is lost. Perhaps the study is more appealing now, because of the fluidity and naturalness of the robes. Their flow is entirely obscured in the finished work — Mary's by the extra figure in front of her, in a much more crowded composition; and the man's by his heavily embroidered cloak, which hangs more or less straight to his calf. Somehow, too, Mary arms have become rather beefy in this new arrangement, and, in their pallor, as much of a focus as her face.

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Image scans and text by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images to enlarge them.


Ellis, S. M. George Meredith: His Life and Friends in Relation to his Work. London: Grant Richards, 1920. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 12 December 2015.

Wood, T. Martin. Drawings of Rossetti. London: George Newnes Ltd; New York: Scribners, c.1910. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 12 December 2015.

Last modified 27 June 2020