I’m naming this one part two, as I have previously posted on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s work in this post. Now the reason I have decided to do another art post on them is because frankly I’ve been kind of obsessed lately. I recently read a biography on Lizzie Siddal, who modeled for the Brotherhood and eventually married Rossetti. I enjoyed the book so much that I’m currently reading another book entitled Pre-Raphaelites in Love, which is a crappy title for a well-researched book on the relationships of the Brotherhood. Today I was trying to find a substitute cover image for my Facebook page as Banned Books Week ended Saturday, and thought I would like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. As I was browsing, I discovered that Tate Britain, the art gallery where I originally saw the Brotherhood’s paintings all those years ago, was doing an exhibition on the paintings that is running from now until mid January 2013 (am definitely jealous that I can’t go and check it out).
I ended up settling on an Edward Burne-Jones painting called Laus Veneris. I had never heard of it, but I thought the colors were gorgeous. Apparently the painting is based off a poem by Algeron Charles Swinburne (a friend of the PRB). The title translates as “the praise of Venus or love,” and is the story of a young knight who falls in love with the goddess Venus and stays with her until he feels guilty and wants to repent, so he asks the Pope for forgiveness. According to this website, “The Pope declares it impossible, just as impossible as his papal staff blossoming. Three days after the knight returns to Vienna, the Pope’s staff supposedly bloomed with flowers, but he never learns of this divine miracle and spends his life in damnation.” The weird thing about this painting is that we see it from the point of view of a woman, Venus in this case, and not from the man, as in Swinburne’s poem. Burne-Jones was no stranger to having strong women his paintings, especially in depicting Venus, which he did in several of his paintings. According to the above website, Burne-Jones’s painting is described with “the same mood of sadness, particularly in the eyes and the languid gesture of the love-sick queen. The painter depicts her beautifully attired in flame colored robes with a golden crown on her lap, yet her sad and pale expression contrasts her splendor. She reclines wearily in her bower, the “palace in the mountain,” hung with an elaborate tapestry embroidered with love tales of olden times, featuring Venus on a chariot. Four maidens sit by her side with open scrolls of music, singing praises of love to cheer her up. Behind the figures and through the open window, there are five knights who seem to pause and listen, intruigued by the scene.” So it is the tapestry within the painting that tells us of the Laus Veneris story and not the actual figures themselves.
Edward Burne-Jones Laus Veneris, 1873-78
One of the things I always found fascinating about the Pre-Raphaelites was that despite the fact that their subject matter was primarily medieval or classical in nature and usually had some sort of religious or moralistic theme, the members themselves were far from chaste. The Brotherhood called the women who sat for them as models, “Stunners,” and they were always on the look out for the next one. Several of the artists married their models, such as Rossetti to Lizzie Siddal (though he begrudgingly did it after waiting 8 years and having many affairs with other women and models in the meantime, like Jane Burden who was married to William Morris and they carried out an affair in the same house while living together). Ford Madox Brown, who was not officially a member of the PRB, but was a close friend of many of the members including Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal, married his model Emma after fathering a child with her. Rossetti also had an affair with his model Fanny Cornforth. John Everett Millais married Effie Gray, who had previously been married to art critic and supporter of the PRB, John Ruskin, but had a big public messy annulment after it was acknowledged that he never consummated the marriage. William Holman Hunt “rescued” the barmaid Annie Miller with a view to eventually turning him into his wife after using her as his model. Several other members in the Brotherhood used her as a model as well. Hunt’s master plan didn’t work out as he kept leaving on trips to the Middle East to get better lighting for his paintings. He left her at home where she slept around with Rossetti and possibly more artists. I found this article awhile back on Annie Miller, which explains a bit more about what happened and features paintings that she was featured in.
Another model of Rosetti was Alexa Wilding, who may be, according to the Kissed Mouth blog: “the most important models in Rossetti’s artist career. According to the research of Jennifer Lee (I urge you to seek out her thesis on line), Alexa sat for more completed works than any other model, he painted over the features of Fanny Cornforth with Alexa’s more commercial face, and she managed to embody all things for the artist, from goddess to demon and all points in between.” According to the blog post, there is no evidence to suggest that they may have been lovers. One of my favorite paintings featuring Ms. Wilding is La Ghirlandata, or The Lady of the Wreath. The centralized figure playing a harp is Alexa Wilding, but the top two figures, which are angels listening in, were modeled off Jane & William Morris’s 10 year old daughter, May. According to the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood blog:
“La Ghirlandata was painted at Kelmscott Manor after a period of great difficulty for Rossetti — he had attempted suicide earlier that year (1872). Morris stayed away, but his wife Jane – with whom Rossetti was in love – was there. The honeysuckle and roses around the top of the harp in this picture indicate sexual attraction, while the harp itself represents music – a common metaphor for love and lovemaking. His intense use of colour creates a brooding, melancholy mood, while the picture’s symbolism – though unclear – may reflect his emotional condition at this time. Rossetti’s brother later claimed that he had intended ‘a fateful or deathly purport’ by painting the dark blue poisonous monkshood in the foreground, but by mistake he had painted its harmless relative the larkspur instead.”
Dante Gabriel Rossetti – La Ghirlandata, 1873