Palazzo Reale (Milan, Italy): Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
This is one of a series of pictures, commencing with Bocca Baciata (1859, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), that features voluptuous young women with long flaming tresses, absorbed in their own thoughts. An object of pure sensuality, Fazio's mistress is lost in reverie as she gazes at herself in the mirror and idly plaits her golden hair.
The subject is inspired by the poetry of Fazio degli Uberti (1326-1360), addressing his Lady, Agniola of Verona, which Rossetti had included in his Early Italian Poets in 1861. Fazio's description of his mistress's beauty (as translated by Rossetti) conforms extremely closely to Rossetti's image, for which he used his own mistress, Fanny Cornforth, as model:
I look at the amorous beautiful mouth,
The spacious forehead which her locks enclose,
The small white teeth, the straight and shapely nose,
And the clear brows of a sweet pencilling.
I look at her white easy neck, so well
From shoulders and from bosom lifted out;
And her round cleft chin, which beyond doubt
No fancy in the world could have design'd.
As can be gathered from these lines, the poem is specifically about the act of looking. The male poet declares himself ensnared by the woman's beauty, yet the woman can exert this power only as a result of his reciprocal observation. Aurelia (the name was presumably chosen for its classical connotations) exudes a powerful erotic appeal, emphasised in the picture by her red lips, flowing red hair and exposed shoulder and neck. Her dreamy expression and self-absorbtion render her entirely passive, the object of the artist's gaze.
Rossetti described the picture as 'chiefly a piece of colour' (quoted in Wilton, p.100), and certainly the painting displays a combination of warm colours, rich glazes and contrasting textures, clearly inspired by Venetian art. Rossetti greatly admired Titian, and much of his work of this period is said to have been influenced by Titian's Alphonse Ferrare and Laura de Dianti (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Comparisons can also be drawn with Whistler, since the subject, pose, mood and colouring of this work share much in common with Whistler's Symphony in White No.2: The Little White Girl of 1864 (Tate N03418).
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, p.200; reproduced p.200.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, pp.219-20, reproduced p.220, in colour.
Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols., Oxford 1971, pp.92-3, no.164, reproduced pl.231.
Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone (eds), The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.98-100 no.4, reproduced p.99, in colour.
7 December 2000
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