Dante Gabriel Rossetti has often been identified as the central, most influential member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Founded in 1847 by Rossetti and his contemporaries, William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), and John Everett Millais (1829-1896), the Brotherhood, which departed from popularly accepted artistic conventions of the time, based their art on principles of naturalism, simplicity, grace, and Romanticism. Rossetti, in particular, helped to launch the second romantic phase of the movement, which focused more on mood and tragic love. His idealistic passion for several particular women — including his wife Elizabeth ("Lizzie") Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, and Jane Morris — inspired a large number of his works.
The artist's fascination with and idealization of these women prompted critics and contemporaries to refer to many of his female studies as his "Fair Ladies." These Fair Lady depictions certainly reveal influence from the Italian poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri. However, whereas Dante devoted himself and dedicated many works to one upper class, elusive love — Beatrice — whom he met only once, Rossetti committed his work to several imperfect, more accessible women, who doubled as his artistic models and lovers. Far from adversely affecting Rossetti's work, the individual imperfections of these models and the dynamics of their relationships with the artist enriched his art and literary works. These real characteristics enabled the artist, whether intentionally or not, to present a more authentic portrait of life and love than was offered by the dreamer Dante. This realism, in turn, prompted his PRB contemporaries to paint and describe more natural portraits of life and romance.
The PRB Female Models
To attain models for their artwork, the Brotherhood typically approached beautiful women in public areas and requested them to pose as subjects in their paintings. Generally of a lower class, these women were, for the most part, flattered and accepted their offers. Ironically, these uneducated, unsophisticated women often represented wealthy, highly cultured females in PRB works, and frequently became mistresses or wives of Brotherhood members. In this respect, they experienced a medieval version of a Cinderella Story, or a rags to riches tale. although Rossetti painted many women, his primary models, Lizzie Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, and Jane Morris, represented dominant forces in his life and most vividly embodied this elevation in social status.
Rossetti truly began his Fair Lady pictures when he initiated his love affair with Lizzie, whom he met in 1850, a year after he found fame (or notoriety) with his religious pieces, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini. He immediately fell madly in love with her, despite her many imperfections. although the two became engaged in 1851, a year after meeting, they did not actually marry for another nine years, in 1861 — a mere twenty months before Lizzie, a chronic invalid, would take her own life by overdosing on morphia.
although Rossetti painted, admired, and engaged in romantic relationships with other women both during his marriage to Lizzie and after her death, his initial passion for Lizzie truly inspired a change in his art, enabling him to achieve unprecedented success. At the relatively young age of twenty-three, the painter desired her from the first moment that he saw her — a moment in which he believed that his "destiny was defined" (Doughty, 124). Daughter of a Sheffield cutler in London, Lizzie had received a minimal education, occupied a low social rank, and suffered from various ailments. However, her limited intellect and ill health did not bother Rossetti. Rather he appreciated that she, "spoke and behaved properly" (Doughty, 118). Relishing the idea of medieval chivalry, Rossetti immediately desired to take care of the pale young girl and immortalize her in his work. The artist's passion for Lizzie, in spite of her low social status and frequent sickness, attests to the strength of their bond — a real bond that Dante did not share with his distant obsession, Beatrice.
Both Rossetti and his contemporaries appreciated Lizzie's extraordinary beauty and desired to immortalize her in their artwork. They praised her captivating pale, "milk-rose" complexion, greenish-blue eyes, and red hair. Even before Rossetti painted Lizzie, his contemporaries, Walter Howell Deverell, Hunt and Millais used her as a model. Deverell painted her as Viola in his work, Twelfth Night, and Hunt depicted Lizzie in his paintings, Valentine rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, and, Christians Pursued by Druids. Millais later used Lizzie's visage in his famous painting, Ophelia. However, Rossetti, describing her as, "a truly beautiful girl, tall with a stately throat and a fine carriage, pink and white complexion, and massive straight, coppery-golden hair" (Doughty, A Victorian Romantic, 118) harbored perhaps the greatest fascination with her beauty. Due to his strong feelings, he soon forbade others from using Lizzie as a model.
Despite the PRB's praise, some found neither Lizzie's appearance nor her personality particularly remarkable. As an invalid, she possessed excessively pale skin; her eyelids were often half-closed, giving her a lethargic heir. In addition, Lizzie repelled some people with her aloof, distant personality. Almost everyone who came into contact with her noted her especially quiet nature; as Rossetti put it, "she was certainly distant. Her talk was, in my experience, scanty," offering "little clue to her real self or to anything determinate" (Doughty, 119). although Lizzie's "vague and shadowy" persona intrigued some people, particularly Brotherhood members, it did not appeal to others. Her friend, Bessie Parks remarked that she found Lizzie "strange" and could not see what so intrigued the Brotherhood about the girl.
Rossetti's artistic renderings of Lizzie glossed over these imperfections. Beginning in 1853, with his watercolor, The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice, Rossetti painted her in many works. In this piece, Lizzie portrays a regal woman, who visits the distinguished Dante as he writes his autobiography. Too absorbed with his overwhelming passion for Beatrice, Dante initially fails to notice the other people present in the room. Wearing a long, tailored blue gown and a teal headdress, Lizzie clearly occupies a position of considerable rank and beauty. Following this work, Rossetti used Lizzie in other Dante-related pieces, including Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leigh (1955) and Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies him her Salutation (1851). In the latter painting, Lizzie represented Dante's obsession, Beatrice, and again wore a distinguished, long green dress and possessed exquisite beauty. Surrounded by throngs of supporters, she confronts Dante with a defiance that attests to her authority.
Rossetti again represented Lizzie as Dante's Beatrice in one of his most famous works, Beata Beatrix, (1864-1870) which he painted as a memorial to Lizzie after her death. This piece also mimicked the death of Dante's love in his autobiographical work, Vita Nuova. In the work, amidst a yellow haze of relatively indistinct shapes, including Florence's Ponte Vecchio and the figures of Dante and Love, Lizzie sits, representing Dante's Beatrice. With an upturned chin and closed eyes, Lizzie appears keenly aware of her impending fate, death. A bird, which serves as the messenger of death, places a poppy in her hands. Critics have praised the piece for its emotional resonance, which can be felt simply through the work's moving coloring and composition. The true history of Rossetti and his beloved wife further deepens its meaning. although their love had waned at that point, Lizzie still exerted a powerful influence on the artist.
Perhaps the artist's most abundant and personal works, however, included his pencil sketches of his wife at home. He began these sketches in 1852, when he moved into a home, Chatham Place, with Lizzie, and the two became increasingly anti-social, absorbing each other's affections. The lovers even coined affectionate nicknames for one another, which included "Guggums" or "Gug" and "Dove" - one of Rossetti's names for Lizzie. Rossetti taught Lizzie to paint and write. although Lizzie produced mediocre work, due to his complete adoration of her, Rossetti labeled her a creative genius. Rossetti manifested this same idealization of Lizzie in his sketches (most of which he entitled simply, "Elizabeth Siddal"), in which he portrayed her as a woman of leisure, class, and beauty, often situated in comfortable settings.
In both his art and writings, Rossetti exalted Lizzie. In fact, his period of great poetic production began when he met her and ended around the time of her death. (Douchy, 155) His poem, "A Last Confession," in particular, exemplifies his love for Lizzie, whom he personifies as the heroine with eyes, "as of the sea and sky on a grey day." In this piece, a man's affections for a young girl progress from parental to romantic as the girl ages. In addition, Lizzie has traditionally been viewed as the idealized, golden-haired woman who observes her beloved from heaven in his acclaimed poem, "The Blessed Damozel":
The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary's gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.
Herseemed she scarce had been a day
One of God's choristers;
This idealized vision of the golden-haired beauty looking down from Heaven truly displays the high regard with which Rossetti viewed Lizzie.
Lizzie's prominence in Rossetti's works decreased as their love faded and she became increasingly ill. As Beata Beatrix shows, however, Rossetti never forgot his love for Lizzie, even after her death. Another famous work that he produced toward the end of their marriage was his, Regina Cordium or The Queen of Hearts (1860). Painted as a marriage portrait, this picture features a close-up, vibrantly colored depiction of Lizzie. Her shiny, golden hair complements the light orange hue of her heart necklace, and, with an upturned chin, she embodies the regal heir implied by the title. Such flattering portraits truly reflected Rossetti's undying affection for his wife.
Fanny Cornforth was yet another of Rossetti's female subjects, whom he portrayed in numerous Fair Lady portraits. Fanny exhibited numerous traits similar to Lizzie, particularly physical ones, and also engaged in romantic relations with Rossetti. However, she possessed a more aggressive demeanor and did not exert the same powerful affect on the artist. Nonetheless, Rossetti regarded her with affection and idealized her in portraiture, even after their affair faded.
Similar to other PRB models, Fanny came from a modest upbringing and educational background, but she did not display the typical, reserved feminine deportment. In contrast to Rossetti's aloof, quiet first-love, Fanny exhibited an extroverted, at times vulgar personality. Prior to meeting Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Fanny's real name was "Sarah Cox" (a name that she had to change for work-related reasons) and she lived with an alcoholic husband. Perhaps this turbulent background inspired her unstable, possessive personality. As Gale MacDonald observes in her book, Life With Rossetti, Harry Dunn, Rossetti's artistic assistant, and other household staff members found Fanny insufferable. Dunn often had to pacify Fanny when she threw jealous fits about the other women in Rossetti's life — especially Lizzie and Alice Wilding, another of Rossetti's models, whom many perceived as the artist's most beautiful subject. Described as a "pre-eminently fine woman," with a pale complexion, reddish-golden hair, and sensuous curves, Fanny possessed beauty in her own right.
Fanny's gregarious character brought life to the more exotic, elaborate, and overtly sexual compositions in which Rossetti depicted her. In Found, the first Rossetti picture for which Fanny modeled, she played the role of a prostitute, with bright red hair and rather flashy attire. In this portrayal, a countryman grasps the arm of his lost love, who has become a prostitute in the city. She pulls away from him, falling toward the ground. Indeed, the last line of the accompanying poem, also entitled "Found," in which the girl screams, "Leave me — I do not know you — go away!", reflects this resistance. In the background, a calf, which symbolizes the resisting woman, struggles against a constricting rope on its ankle. Rossetti never quite finished this painting. Nonetheless, he effectively conveyed his messages of the virtues of country life over city life and expressed a traditional Victorian ideal to save those in need. although Fanny was by no means a prostitute, this poem and image clearly parallel her life, for Rossetti and Burne-Jones literally rescued her from an alcoholic husband. Perhaps this fact prompted Rossetti's choice to represent her as the girl in Found.
A variant of Lady Lilith with the face of Alexa Wilding replacing Fanny's. Thanks to Sarah Hutchison for pointing out that in this this version Rossetti painted over Fanny. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a version, which might be largely a copy by the artist's studio assistant, with Fanny's face.
In other paintings, Rossetti represented Fanny in more sensual roles, including as a seductress in his 1859 work, Bocca Baciata (which literally means "kissed mouth"), and as a self-absorbed femme fatale in his Lady Lilith (1868-1873). The Bocca Baciata painting represented a sensual depiction of acclaimed Italian author Boccaccio's sonnet. The work accompanied Rossetti's poem, "The Song of the Bower" (alternatively titled, "Bocca Baciata"). The poem centered on the recovery of a lost love, embodied by the voluptuous Fanny in the artist's painting. In the picture, Fanny's pale complexion stands out against the background, which is comparably dark, with the exception of interspersed marigolds. She wears a flower in her hair and a thick necklace. In the foreground of the piece, Fanny's hands are crossed on the left-hand side of the canvas, and an apple sits on the right. With her voluminous, curly mass of red hair pulled halfway up, Fanny sits and gazes slightly to the left of the viewer, with a seductress's indifference. Fanny's firey personality likely prompted Rossetti to depict her countenance in this work, with her presence enhancing the painting's meaning.
Rossetti based Lady Lilith on "Body's Beauty," a sonnet from his famous "House of Life Series." This work formed a pair with another painting based on yet another Rossetti sonnet, "Soul's Beauty." According to ancient myth, Lady Lilith represented Adam's first wife. Thus she was a femme fatale, or seductress of sorts. In Rossetti's work, his model reclines in a chair as she combs her long, blonde hair and relishes her reflection in a hand-held mirror. To reinforce her overtly sexual aura, she wears a loose-fitting gown, with no corset beneath it. although Rossetti later replaced the face in the picture with that of Alice Wilding (an act that infuriated Fanny), he undoubtedly derived inspiration for the work from Fanny's self-important character and sexual nature.
Jane Morris, wife of the poet and designer William Morris, represented Rossetti's second most prominently featured female muse. Jane, also known as Janey, possessed a modest background similar to that of Lizzie and Fanny. A quiet woman, she exuded Lizzie's same elusive demeanor. However, with a lean, pale face and a mass of long, dark brown hair, Jane represented an alternative beauty to the more traditional, rosy-cheeked, golden-haired "stunners" of the time. Nonetheless, as the skillful Pre-Raphaelites continually captured her attractiveness in well-known artwork, Jane's looks set a new standard of beauty. Rossetti captured not only Jane's unique beauty, but also her more reserved character through his written and artistic work.
Upon meeting Jane, many people remarked on either her beauty or her especially reserved personality. In his first encounter with Jane, famous author, Henry James, likened her to, "a figure cut out of a missal — out of one of Rossetti's or Hunt's pictures" (Doughty, 371). Another author, Graham Robertson, described Jane in his book, "Time Was," as, "a Delphic Sibyl, an ensorcelled Princess, a Blessed Damozel" (Doughty, 374). Indeed, Rossetti and other PRB members admired her visage and sought to immortalize her in their work. Others possessed a greater preoccupation with her excessively quiet behavior. When Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw met Jane, he labeled her, "the silentest woman [he had] ever met" (Doughty, 75).
Certainly, Rossetti also developed a fascination with Jane's entire persona. As in his relationship with Lizzie, he strongly desired Jane from the moment that he met her. However, because Jane had married his good friend, William Morris, their relationship was more forbidden and secret. although Rossetti had met Jane before, he began spending larger periods of time with her due to the initiation of "The Firm" (Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co.) — an alliance of Rossetti and other PRB artists who created visually pleasing, functional furnishings. Rossetti's work with William Morris necessitated a close association with Jane as well. When apart, the two secret lovers communicated through letters. John Bryson, who assembled these letters in Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris: Their Correspondence, found that the two lovers wrote about a vast array of topics, including literature, Rossetti's portraits of Jane, his other models, weather, and stories about acquaintances. The distant nature of Rossetti and Jane's relationship is paralleled by that of Dante's passion for Beatrice.
Thus, Rossetti's depictions of Jane as Dante's Beatrice possessed greater meaning and resonance than his portrayals of Lizzie in the role. Dated 1879, Rossetti's Beatrice, A Portrait of Jane Morris presents Jane in an especially dignified light. With full lips, greenish-blue eyes, a long neck, and accentuated jaw-line, Jane gazes casually to the right. Jane's finely detailed, pale facial features contrast the painting's grayish-green backdrop and offset her luxurious brown hair, which is tucked back and adorned with a circular, jewel-studded pin. The work's muted colors and Jane's plaintive, almost indifferent gaze imply an element of longing and melancholy, that might have been prompted by Rossetti's real discontent at not fully possessing his love.
Similarly, Rossetti used a limited color scheme and infused a contemplative heir in his pictorial representation of Jane as Proserpine, the goddess of the Underworld, in his 1874 chalk rendering, Proserpine. According to Greek and Roman mythology, Pluto, the God of the Underworld, kidnapped the beautiful Proserpine, in hopes of making her his wife. While in Pluto's dark and mysterious world, Proserpine unknowingly ate pomegranate seeds, which permanently bound her to her situation. Fortunately, her mother made a deal with Pluto that Proserpine would spend six months of the year in the Underworld, and the other half on earth. Constructing a dark, sensual atmosphere through Proserpine's muted surroundings and incense smoke in the background, Rossetti's painting truly conveys the goddess's unlucky circumstance. Again, he aptly portrayed her striking visage, embodied by her full head of brown hair and fair complexion, appropriately endowing her blank, longing upward stare with a sense of sadness. In many ways, Proserpine's restrictive situation mimicked that of Jane, trapped in an unhappy marriage and longing for a more fulfilling relationship with her true love, Rossetti.
Rossetti also conveyed his affections for Jane in written verse. In a sonnet entitled, "The Portrait," he expressed a particular desire to literally possess her, in much the same way he had wished to possess Lizzie: "Her face is made her shrine. Let all men note/ That in all years (O Love, thy gift is this!)/ They that would look on her must come to me" (Doughty, 377). As evidenced in this excerpt, Rossetti desired complete control over Jane, and wanted to require men to request his permission to behold her. His reference to her face as a "shrine" implies a type of religious devotion to her. These strong feelings explain Jane's predominance in both Rossetti's artistic and literary works.
Rossetti's preoccupation with women and romantic love truly launched the second phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Through his depictions of Lizzie, Fanny, and Jane, the artist inspired contemporaries like William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones to produce more sensual works and to seek love in their own lives. They too, often had romantic feelings for female models — for example, Morris married Jane, and Burne-Jones harbored a fondness for Maria Zambaco, who modeled for his work, Venus Epithatamia. As the Victorian Web affirms, "the whole of Burne-Jones's work is concerned with the psychology of love." In addition, although Morris did not literally paint Jane, she may well have inspired his famous poem, "The Defence of Guenevere". Such emotionally themed, female-dominated pieces often became the artists' most famous and successful works.
Some may argue that the PRB's coarse models were unfit to portray idealized, even aristocratic, women. In fact, the poor status and individual characteristics of these women actually enlivened PRB work. Indeed, Rossetti's efforts exemplify this trend, for, through their unique personalities and relationships with Rossetti, Lizzie, Fanny, and Jane exerted indelible influence on his literary and artistic work. These women enabled Rossetti to present a brighter and more realistic depiction of love and human emotions.
Bryson, John. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris: Their Correspondence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.
Doughty, Oswald. A Victorian Romantic. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.
Grylls, Rosalie Glynn. Portrait of Rossetti. London: Macdonald & Co., 1964.
MacDonald, Gale Pedrick. Life With Rossetti. London: Macdonald & Co., 1966.
Sonstroem, David. Rossetti and the Fair Lady. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1970.
The Rossetti Archive. University of Virgina.
The Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/courses/poetry/151.2004.html.
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Sterling Publishing, 1981.
Last modified 27 June 2020