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

Monna Vanna was painted by Dante Gabriel Rosetti in 1866. From 1866 to 1873 he changed its title three times. First Venus Veneta, then Monna Vanna (this character appeared in Rossetti’s 1861 translation of a sonnet by Dante Alighieri). And lastly Belcolore-fair colour, because he felt she looked too modern for the previous name and probably to emphasise the paintings more abstract qualities. Rossetti thought  it one of his best paintings- ‘probably the most effective as a room decoration that I have ever painted’. This seems a truer reckoning of Monna Vanna than Rossetti’s driving intention of finding his own soul in the reflection of a woman’s face.

My first impression was of a Charolais calf or cow. Something about the colour, expression and passive beauty. I think the repeating and reflecting circles in the composition is quite satisfying and I like her probably impossible neck! But I’m not sure I like the painting. 

The model is Alice or Alexa Wilding. Although he painted and drew her far more than his more well-known models, very little is known about her and what has been written is often very contradictory. This is probably because she wasn’t a wife, a friend’s wife or a mistress ( as far as anyone knows). It may be for that reason that these many works using her as a model are much less shown, as there is less ‘interest’ in her. 

But to me most interesting is to see photographs of the real women who were the models for these paintings, and in what way the painter altered them for his purposes. 

Alexa Wilding
Alexa Wilding

Making her youth and beauty less her own and more an idealised everywoman’s, was supposed to have the effect of not detracting from the meaning of the picture. But this seems to make no sense as it’s very clear what model is used from picture to picture – but maybe if they have been idealised enough, and any real character glossed out enough, ‘she’ will still be able to play her part in the picture?

Rather than illustrating others stories many of these paintings of Alexa Wilding  were accompanied by his own sonnets – they were more completely his creations ( he called them double works of art – poetry and painting ). Where before he seems to fairly rigidly typecast his models into certain roles, Alexa Wilding enabled his freedom, she could be anything from femme fatale to heavenly lady – full of virtue or vice, and all in between. Whether this was because he found her ‘so very dull he wished he could shut her in the cupboard when she wasn’t modelling’, and so was a suitably blank canvas, or because he had found the face that he had been searching for, is not clear. Having ‘discovered’ her is also  probably why from her photograph it looks as if he altered her a lot less than his other models. She has a calm stillness, and a softness and strength. How much this new freedom was because of her face or because of his emotions concerning her is not known.

Monna Vanna was painted only four years after his wife, Elizabeth Siddal’s  death. He had buried his poems with her in her coffin, within her red hair. Later when he wanted them back his agent retrieved them. Relating to Rossetti that her hair had continued to grow and now filled the coffin, and that she was still beautiful seven years on! The book of poems however, had wormholes through it. Understandably these images haunted him, though he never actually saw them.

And although probably far-fetched I could see overflowing hair in the tones and softness of her feathered fan and the velvety fronds and tresses around her body. Also curled woodlice and iridescent beetles and the wormlike necklaces around her pale neck!

But this is where not doing your research gets you as this could  not have been the case at all as the exhumation took place three years after the painting was started!

Ending on the little known of Alexa Wilding, he kept her on a weekly retainer so only he could paint her. She did fairly well as she had her own house, she also had two children and it’s not clear who the father was, (or who the mother was).  She made visits to Rossetti’s grave, and sadly like a lot of his other models, she died young.

Sarah Young combines 3D works and prints.