Born in London in 1810 to Latvian parents who had recently emigrated from Riga, Theodor von Holst came to occupy a unique position in British art, providing the link between earlier Romantic artists and the Pre-Raphaelites. After studying with Henry Fuseli at the Royal Academy, and encouraged by Thomas Lawrence, von Holst went on to produce illustrations to Goethe’s Faust, Fouquet’s Undine and Dante’s Inferno. Working mainly in isolation, the artist only achieved recognition towards the end of his short career with his large prize-winning biblical composition The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter 1841 (now lost), and a series of female heads that included The Bride, his most popular painting.
The Bride takes its subject from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Ginevra’ (1821) in which a Florentine girl is forced to marry an elderly nobleman. After saying farewell to her young lover for the last time following the wedding ceremony, she is later found dead on her bridal bed. The illustrated lines (9–12) appear in the opening stanza of the poem:
Ginevra from the nuptial altar went;
The vows to which her lips had sworn assent
Rung in her brain still with a jarring din,
Deafening the lost intelligence within.
Against a brilliant gold background reminiscent of religious icons, the forlorn bride is shown idly toying with a lock of hair as she leans dejectedly against the ledge of a window. A bas-relief Cupid with bat wings points his arrow in her direction as if mocking her tragic predicament, as does the jasmine that decorates the edge of the composition. The ruby gem which doubles up as the eye of a serpent on the bracelet around her wrist strikes a grotesque note, hinting at temptations and dangers that lie ahead. The casement format recalls early Italian and Netherlandish painting as well as the revivalist portraiture of the Nazarenes. In terms of the woman’s attitude and rather sulky expression, the picture has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait Ginevra de’ Benci 1474–8 (National Gallery of Art, Washington). Like the Ginevra in von Holst’s painting, this sitter was known to have married an older man and was also the focus of poems composed in her honour.
The subject of The Bride seems to have been one of personal significance to von Holst, perhaps due to of his own unhappy relationship with the model Amelia Thomasina Symmes Villard, whom he had married in August 1841. This may help explain why the artist made three versions of the image: an earlier experimental picture; the present painting exhibited at the British Institution in 1842 and purchased for the Stafford collection by the Duchess of Sutherland; and a larger copy commissioned by Lord Lansdowne which was known to have hung in the breakfast room of his house in Berkeley Square, London.
Following the artist’s premature death in 1844, a younger generation of artists took up some of the themes and stylistic elements of his work, attracted by von Holst’s gothic imagination and penchant for scenes of erotic fantasy. Art historian Max Browne has unravelled the different routes through which Alexander Munro, William Bell Scott, John Everett Millais, Arthur Hughes and Dante Gabriel Rossetti discovered von Holst’s paintings and drawings. Rossetti shared von Holst’s passion for writers such as Goethe, Dante and Meinhold. He also possessed a sketchbook by the artist, which would help explain why Rossetti’s early pen and ink drawings are strikingly similar in style and in the way that they avoid natural elements in favour of imaginative motifs. A watercolour sketch of The Bride in a reverse pose discovered in one of Munro’s notebooks has recently been attributed to Rossetti and was probably a sketch from memory of the original he first saw in Stafford House, London, then a quasi-public collection. In his supplementary chapter to Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake (published in 1863), Rossetti described seeing the painting hanging there: ‘a most beautiful work by him – a female head or half figure’ (Rossetti in Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, volume 1, London 1863, p.379). The deep impression this work made on Rossetti came to influence his own half-figure portraits of sensuous women posed in decorative interiors, from Bocca Baciata 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) onwards.
Millais would have seen von Holst’s work in the collection of his first patron, the barrister, collector and dealer Ralph Thomas, who owned the finest collection of drawings by von Holst. Millais was also acquainted with the Lansdowne household and presumably familiar with the copy that hung in Berkeley Square. It is likely that this version inspired Millais’s painting The Bridesmaid 1851 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), and may have also influenced his enigmatic female portraits of the mid-1850s.
Max Browne, Theodor von Holst: His Art and the Pre-Raphaelites 1810–2010, exhibition catalogue, Holst Birthplace Museum, Cheltenham 2010, pp.50–1.
Max Browne, ‘New Evidence of Rossetti’s Admiration for Theodor von Holst (1810–44)’, British Art Journal, vol.12, no.2, Autumn 2011, pp.3–8.
Tim Barringer, Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2012, p.28.
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