Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910


4 Fazio's Mistress (Aurelia) 1863

Oil on panel 43.2 x 36.8 (17 x 14 1/2)
Prov: W. Blackmore; George Rae; bt by NACF and presented to the Tate Gallery 1916
Exh: Liverpool Academy 1864 (149a); RA 1883 (300); Liverpool 1886 (857); Guildhall 1892 (157); Bournemouth 1951 (19); Tate Gallery 1984 (123, repr.)
Lit: Rossetti 1889, p.49; Rossetti 1895, I, pp.238, 241; Marillier 1899, no.144, pp.103, 132; Surtees 1971, no.164, pl.234

Tate Gallery. Purchased with assistance from Sir Arthur Du Cros Bt and Sir Otto Beit KCMG through the National Art Collections Fund 1916

This is one of a group of pictures by Rossetti that began with Bocca Baciata (no.2) and feature buxom, sensual, flame-haired women. In an act of narcissism or deep self-contemplation, Fazio's mistress gazes into a mirror, lost in reverie. The subject was taken from the verses of Fazio degli Uberti (1326-1360) to his Lady, Agniola of Verona, which Rossetti had translated and included in his Early Italian Poets in 1861. Grieve has noted the poem's suggestion of female beauty being used to ensnare men (Tate Gallery 1984, no.123):

I look at the crisp golden-threaded hair
Whereof, to thrall my heart, Love twists a net,
Using at times a string of pearls for bait,
And sometimes with a single rose therein
Rossetti's recurrent theme of male weakness in the face of the power of beauty is echoed by Fazio:
Song, thou canst surely say, without pretence,
That since the first fair woman ever made,
Not one can have display'd
More power upon all hearts than this one doth;
Because in her are both
Loveliness and the soul's true excellence
The picture seems to illustrate many of the physical attributes of his mistress that so enchant Fazio:
I look at the amorous beautiful mouth,
The spacious forehead which her locks enclose,
The small white teeth, the straight and shapely nose,
And the clear brows of a sweet pencilling

I look at her white easy neck, so well
From shoulders and from bosom lifted out;
And at her round cleft chin, which beyond doubt
No fancy in the world could have design'd

I look at the large arms, so lithe and round, -
At the hands, which are white and rosy too, -
At the long fingers ...

So similar are the subject and style of the poem to Rossetti's that it is possible he might have written it himself (see Rossetti 1911, p.488).

Working on the picture in October 1863, Rossetti wrote to Ellen Heaton 'I am now painting a lady plaiting her golden hair. This is an oil and chiefly a piece of colour' (quoted in Surtees 1971, no.164). The combination of self-consciously rich colour with rich glazes suggests that Rossetti probably had Titian in mind while working on it. He greatly admired the Venetian colourist, and the debt of much of his work in this period to Titian's Alphonse Ferrare and Laura de Diante (Musée du Louvre, Paris) has been noted by Grieve (loc. cit.), who also draws comparisons of colour, pose and mood between Fazio's Mistress and Whistler's Little White Girl: Symphony in White No.2 (no.15).

The model for the picture was Rossetti's own mistress, Fanny Cornforth. When in 1873 he retouched the picture for its second owner, George Rae, Rossetti wrote to her: 'I have got an old picture here which I painted many years ago. It is the one where you are seated doing your hair before a glass. Rae, to whom it belongs, has sent it to me as it wants some glazing, but I am not working at all on the head, which is exactly like the funny old elephant, as like as any I ever did. Your affectionate R.' (Baum 1940, p.61)

Robert Upstone

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.98-100 no.4, reproduced in colour p.99