The subject of this painting, the power of woman's beauty, is inspired by the biblical Song of Solomon. The bride pulls back her veil to reveal her beauty and engages the viewer with her blue eyes and full red lips. The rich colours and exotic fabrics in which she is clothed heighten her sensuality: her intricate leather headdress is Peruvian, while her dress is made from Japanese kimono fabric.
In order to clarify the theme of the picture, originally intended to represent Dante's Beatrice, Rossetti inscribed the frame with lines from The Song of Solomon and Psalm 45:
My beloved is mine and I am his. (The Song of Solomon 2:16). Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. (The Song of 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)
The picture was commissioned in 1863 by George Rae, for £300, but was not finished until the winter of 1865-6. Rossetti also made further alterations in 1873 when he idealised the Bride's head and left hand and the head of the attendant on the right. The model for the bride was Marie Ford, whose beauty Rossetti greatly admired. The virgin bridesmaid in the left foreground was modelled by Ellen Smith, the woman on the right by the artist Frederick Sandys's gypsy mistress Keomi. The young black boy was intended to add a note of exoticism, but his dark face also provides an effective contrast with the pale complexion and auburn hair of the bride. Rossetti encountered the boy by chance at the door of a hotel and added him as an afterthought, replacing a mulatto girl. He may also have been inspired by the figure of the black servant in Manet's Olympia, which he saw during a visit to Manet's studio in November 1864.
The painting has a number of symbolic readings: the boy offers up roses, a symbol of love, but also a Christian image indicating someone who is matchless or without peer. The virgins hold lilies, normally a symbol of purity, but their red colour suggests passion and physical love. The composition is extremely shallow, and the attendants crowd around the bride, providing a rich and sumptuous setting for her jewel-like beauty.
Leslie Parris (ed), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.210-211, reproduced p.211, in colour.
Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols., Oxford 1971, pp.104-5, no.182, reproduced pl.263.
Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone (eds), The Age of Rosssetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.100-1, no.5, reproduced p.100, in colour.