Portrait obsessions

A unique show at the Holburne Museum – the first ever exhibition dedicated to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portraits – features some of Rossetti’s most iconic artworks. Assistant curator Sylvie Broussine explains the background

Artist, poet and founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) is one of the most influential figures from 19th-century British art. Known for his medievalist watercolours that inspired a new generation of Pre-Raphaelites including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, as well as his sensual visions of female beauty marking the start of the Aesthetic Movement in Britain, Rossetti also spent his career producing portraits of those closest to him.

Starting in 1846 with drawings of his siblings, William Michael and Christina, Rossetti went on to record the likenesses of around 90 people, including family, artists, models, friends in the wider art world and the three women – Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris – who dominated his art and life. Each of these portraits records an irrecoverable moment in the life of the sitter and their relationship with Rossetti, while simultaneously telling us much about the artist and how he viewed those closest to him.

The act of drawing each others’ likenesses was central to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), which was formed in 1848 by Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. This group of young artists shared a dissatisfaction with the formal education on offer at the Royal Academy, particularly in the institution’s veneration of the classical ideal in art, influenced by the founding president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and represented through the work of Raphael. Instead they looked to the Italian and Flemish painters that preceded Raphael, and began producing paintings characterised by religious and medieval subjects, highly detailed representation, vibrant tones and a direct observation of nature.

Drawing each other became an important form of artistic training, as well as a way of recording the friendships that they shared. Rossetti’s sketch of William Holman Hunt was drawn on the morning of 12 April 1853, when members of the PRB met at Millais’ studio to draw portraits as gifts to the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, who had emigrated to Australia. While Rossetti drew this portrait, Holman Hunt was himself recording Rossetti’s likeness in coloured pastels, which may explain the intensity of the sitter’s piercing gaze.

Of all Rossetti’s works as a portraitist, possibly the most intimate and poignant are his drawings of the artist and model Elizabeth Siddal, with whom he formed an attachment in the early 1850s. Over the following decade and up until her tragic death in 1862, Rossetti produced around 70 portrait drawings of the model, the series offering an obsessive, intimate, yet one-sided, insight into their daily life. These were Rossetti’s private portrayals of Siddal, which only a select few were allowed to see or even knew existed, including Ford Madox Brown who recorded a night-time visit to Rossetti’s home in 1855 when “he showed me a drawer full of ‘Guggums’, [one of Rossetti’s nicknames for Siddal] God knows how many […] it is like a monomania with him.’ She suffered from ill-health throughout adulthood, and many of these works capture the frailness and grace that Rossetti saw in her. A sketch from Birmingham Museums, for example, presents Siddal in a private moment of rest, with her eyes closed and face raised as she supports her head with her left arm. Notably, the quiet peacefulness of the scene contrasts with Rossetti’s use of energetic, sketchy lines which form the shadows, chair and folds in her dress.

By 1859 Fanny Cornforth had become Rossetti’s principal model (and possible mistress), marking a dramatic transition in his technical and stylistic approach as he embarked on a series of idealised and symbolic oil paintings of female beauty. Inspired by the Venetian Old Masters and painted through the lens of Rossetti’s deeply rooted relationship with literature, this series has an ambiguous relationship with the genre of portraiture and many of these works can be understood to simultaneously represent Cornforth, a literary or mythological figure, and Rossetti’s idealised vision of womanhood.

Each of these portraits records an irrecoverable moment in the life of the sitter and their relationship with Rossetti

This ambiguity is brought to the fore in Aurelia (Fazio’s Mistress). The title derives from a 14th-century canzone by Fazio degli Uberti that is dedicated to his mistress’s beauty, though Rossetti described the painting as ‘chiefly a piece of colour’, positioning it firmly in the Aesthetic Movement, and pays homage to Titian through the rich Venetian colours and the motif of a woman before a mirror. The timeless act of contemplating beauty is thus emphasised through the merging of three figures from different historical periods: the painting equally represents Fazio’s mistress, a Renaissance Venetian beauty and Cornforth.

In the mid-1860s Rossetti entered upon an all-consuming obsession with Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris, that continued until his death in 1882. Having first met in 1857, it wasn’t until 1865 that the relationship between artist and model deepened with a series of photographs of Jane commissioned and choreographed by Rossetti, followed in 1868 with one of his only formal oil portraits of his career, Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris). Here, artist and model defied the rigid conventions of Victorian portraiture to portray Morris leaning forward with a curved back as she turns toward the viewer as if in momentary distraction from the open book that rests on the table. A display of cut flowers represents a tour de force of still-life painting, but the composition’s most striking motif is that of Morris’s hands – characteristically twisted inward and clasped together. Blue Silk Dress represents one of the high points in Rossetti’s career as a portraitist and sealed Jane Morris’ fate as one of the most iconic figures in Pre-Raphaelite art, as indeed the Latin inscription on this painting reads: ’Famous for her poet husband, and most famous for her face, finally let her be famous for my picture!’

Rossetti’s Portraits is at the Holburne Museum from 24 September to 9 January; holburne.org