Exhibition catalogue text

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


5 The Beloved ('The Bride') 1865-6

Oil on canvas 82.5 x 76.2 (32 1/2 x 30)
Inscribed with Rossetti's monogram and '1865-6' b.l.
Prov: George Rae; bt by NACF and presented to the Tate Gallery 1916
Exh: Arundel Club 21 Feb. 1866; RA Winter 1883 (297); Liverpool 1886 (843); Manchester 1887 (700); RA Winter 1906 (117); RA 1973 (319); Tate Gallery 1984 (133, repr.); Tokyo 1990 (35, repr. in col.); Barbican 1991 (79, repr. in col.); Tate Gallery 1995 (12); Washington 1997 (36, repr. in col.)
Lit: Hueffer 1896, pp.215-17; Marillier 1899, no.177; Bate 1899, p.46, repr. opp. p.41; Rossetti Angeli 1954, p.101; Doughty and Wahl 1965-8, pp.1149, 1150, 1152, 1467; Surtees 1971, no.182, pl.263; Surtees 1980, pp.41-2

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

Rossetti's theme is once again the overwhelming beauty of woman, and man's weakness and fascination in the face of it. The subject was inspired by the biblical Song of Solomon. It shows the bride pulling back her veil; looking straight out of the picture, she places the viewer in the role of her lover, gazing at her revealed beauty.

The picture started life as a portrait of Dante's beloved Beatrice for Ellen Heaton. However, Rossetti wrote to her on 2 July 1863:

I have painted the whole of the face and much to my liking as a piece of painting - it is certainly one of my best things, but the model does not turn out to make a perfect Beatrice, and at the same time I do not like to risk spoiling the colour by altering it from any other model. I have got the model's bright complexion, which was irresistible, and Beatrice was pale, we are told, nor is the face altogether just what it ought to be. In fact, I reckoned on adapting, but the attraction of nature was too much & I have copied instead.

Now if you have no objection, I propose to find another subject to suit the figure - the Bride from Solomon's Song is specially in my head, though I have not yet looked into the matter.
(quoted in Surtees 1971, no.182)

Rossetti subsequently described 'Solomon's Bride' to her as a 'subject I myself delight in and have always had an eye to' (quoted ibid.). His development of the subject raised its price from the one he quoted Ellen Heaton for a Beatrice subject, and she subsequently ceded the picture to George Rae.

The Song of Solomon was certainly a natural subject for Rossetti; its praise of physical attraction and pleasure fitted his own temperament and its sensuous language and rich imagery are similar to that used in much of his own poetry. Inscribed on the frame are lines taken from the Song of Solomon and the 45th Psalm:

My Beloved is mine and I am his. (Song of Solomon, 2:16). Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. (Solomon 1:2). She shall be brought unto the King in raiment of needlework: the virgins her companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee. (Psalms 45:14)
Rossetti clothed the Bride in exotic fabrics and trappings to increase her sensuality. Her intricate leather headdress is Peruvian (see Marillier 1899, p.132) while her dress is a Japanese kimono. Rossetti wrote 'I mean the colour of my picture to be like jewels and the jet would be invaluable' (quoted in Rossetti 1894, p.51). Marie Ford, whose beauty Rossetti much admired, sat for the principal figure. The Virgin Bridesmaid in the foreground on the left was Ellen Smith. The one on the right was Frederick Sandys's gypsy mistress Keomi. The black boy was a model Rossetti chose from a chance meeting, 'at the door of an hotel' (Rossetti 1903, p.175). The boy was added to the picture in 1865, replacing a mulatto girl. Rossetti's inspiration for this element may have been seeing Olympia 1863 (Mus?e d'Orsay, Paris) in Manet's studio on his visit to Paris in November 1864 (see Tate Gallery 1984, no.133). Rossetti's inclusion of a black figure in The Beloved was intended, along with other items in the composition, to add to its exoticism.

The boy holds up roses, which in Christian imagery indicate someone who is without peer, but in this context they also symbolise love. The Virgins hold lilies, emblems of purity, but their red colour suggests they are intended to represent the sanctity of passion and physical love. They may well be an allusion to the passage in Christ's Sermon on the Mount in which He says 'And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the Weld, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these' (Matthew 6:28-9).

Grieve has noted how the composition is deliberately arranged so that the Bride's face is at the centre of a sumptuous setting (Tate Gallery 1984, no.133).

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.100-1 no.5, reproduced in colour p.100