This is one of a series of decorative pictures of beautiful and sensual women, which Rossetti produced in the mid 1860s. The model is Alexa Wilding, who sat for some of Rossetti's best-known works, including La Ghirlandata (1873, Guildhall Art Gallery, Corporation of London) and The Blessed Damozel (1875-8, Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts). The spiral pearl clasp in her flowing auburn hair and the red coral necklace appear frequently in Rossetti's pictures of women. Along with the sweeping movement of her arms, the green rosettes on her shoulder and the floral earrings, they serve to accentuate the picture's circular composition. The heavily embroidered white and gold drapery is used in other pictures of this date, including Monna Rosa (untraced). The enormous sleeve recalls Raphael's portrait of Giovanna of Aragon in the Louvre.
Rossetti originally called the picture Venus Veneta, and intended it to represent 'a Venetian lady in a rich dress of white and gold, - in short the Venetian ideal of female beauty' (quoted in a letter dated 27 September 1866, Doughty & Wahl, II, p.606). After the picture was finished he changed the title to Monna Vanna, denoting a 'vain woman', a name taken from Dante's Vita Nuova, which Rossetti had translated in October 1848. Rossetti considered the painting to be one of his best works and declared it 'probably the most effective as a room decoration that I have ever painted'.
In 1873 Rossetti retouched the picture, lightening the hair and altering the rings, which had been criticised for their clashing colours. He also changed the title to Belcolore, believing that the subject looked too modern for its previous title. Despite this, the painting continued to be known as Monna Vanna. It was first owned by the Cheshire collector W. Blackmore, who also owned Fazio's Mistress (Tate N03055), and later passed into the hands of George Rae of Birkenhead, one of Rossetti's most important patrons.
Oswald Doughty and J.R.Wahl (eds), Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 4 vols., Oxford 1965-7.
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.214-5, reproduced p.214, in colour.
Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols., Oxford 1971, p.111, no.191, reproduced pl.281.