That Dante Gabriel Rossetti adored women is apparent when you look at almost any of his paintings. Whatever the title, the main subject is almost always his full-lipped, doe-eyed models. The subjects of Rossetti’s paintings were often indicative of the way he envisioned the women in his life. When he was in love with Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal, he painted her as Beatrice, the beautiful and unattainable woman loved by the medieval poet Dante Alighieri (after whom Rossetti was named). When Rossetti began an affair with Jane Morris, wife of his friend William Morris, he attempted to assuage his guilt by convincing himself William was a cruel husband who kept Jane imprisoned (the reality was very different). This resulted in paintings such as Proserpine (1874) and La Pia de Tolomei (1868-1880) – telling stories of women in impossible situations.

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  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Proserpine' 1874

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti
    Proserpine 1874
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1251 x 610 mm frame: 1605 x 930 x 85 mm
    Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1940

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  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra' 1857

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti
    The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra 1857
    Watercolour on paper
    support: 365 x 365 mm
    Purchased with assistance from Sir Arthur Du Cros Bt and Sir Otto Beit KCMG through the Art Fund 1916

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  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Beata Beatrix' circa 1864-70

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti
    Beata Beatrix circa 1864-70
    Oil on canvas
    support: 864 x 660 mm frame: 1212 x 1015 x 104 mm
    Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple 1889

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  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin' 1848-9

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti
    The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9
    Oil on canvas
    support: 832 x 654 mm frame: 1080 x 905 x 75 mm
    Bequeathed by Lady Jekyll 1937

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  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Monna Vanna' 1866

    Dante Gabriel Rossetti
    Monna Vanna 1866
    Oil on canvas
    support: 889 x 864 mm frame: 1290 x 1168 x 92 mm
    Purchased with assistance from Sir Arthur Du Cros Bt and Sir Otto Beit KCMG through the Art Fund 1916

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Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal were in a relationship for ten years before they finally married. As the years grew, so did Lizzie’s laudanum addiction, and references to the habit that would kill her become apparent in Rossetti’s paintings – look at The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra (1857). This is the one painting in which Lizzie, as the Turkish princess, is depicted with dark hair, instead of her own stunning red locks. Look closely and you will see a vial in her hand, indicative of the laudanum Lizzie kept with her at all times. In the posthumous painting Beata Beatrix (c.1864-1870), a dove brings the ecstatic Beatrice / Lizzie a papery fine opium poppy, dropping it into her open palms.

Other models favoured by Rossetti included his sister, the poet Christina Rossetti, who sat for his earliest works, including The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49). He painted Christina’s brunette hair as auburn, indicative of what would become Rossetti’s obsession with red hair – leading him to meet and fall in love with Lizzie. Another of his most constant models was the beautiful Alexa Wilding, who inspired some of his most sexually provocative paintings, including Monna Vanna (1866), Sancta Lilias (1874) and Venus Verticordia (1864-68) – notable for being Rossetti’s only famous painting to depict a naked woman. Alexa, unlike the majority of Rossetti’s models, seemed to be able to resist the artist’s advances.

Perhaps the most faithful of Rossetti’s models was Fanny Cornforth, who modelled for, amongst others, Found (begun 1859; unfinished) and The Blue Bower (1865). At the end of Rossetti’s life, after the suicide of Lizzie Siddal and the end of his affair with Jane Morris, Fanny his lover-turned-housekeeper took care of the increasingly ill and insane Rossetti. This gentle, compassionate side to Fanny’s personality is perhaps seen most clearly in her expression in Bocca Baciata (1859).

Text  © Lucinda Hawksley

Lucinda Hawksley’s book, Lizzie Siddal, The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel published by Andre Deutsch, is available in the Tate Bookshop.

Comments

My Fashion Break

Long time ago, when I lived in London I went to the Tate Gallery and I discovered Rossetti´s paintings. I remenber coming back home I wrote in my diary: " Today I fell in love with Rosseti´s women". Since then I have been fascinated by them, there is something special and the best thing is that you can feel it.