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.
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.