Rossetti and his It Girls

By Jo Phillips

The talk of many a Gen-Z’er is the latest ‘face’ on Instagram, Tic Tok or whatever is the newest place to view other Gen-Z’ers ‘showing out’. But go back a few hundred years and see another way to view the ‘it girls’ of the day. Long before Kylie Jenner, Gigi Hadid, or even Lee Miller (a photographer and socialite in the 1920’s), there were many women painted for their beauty, their fame and their connections. One such painter who did just this was Dante Gabriel Rossetti who was famous for painting the women in his life, shown at a new exhibition this autumn. Meet Rossetti and his It Girls Here. Image left hand side Portrait of the Artist
Accession number 683 The Fitzwilliam Museum Pen and Indian ink and brown ink on paper

Bath’s Holburne Museum is showing this autumn for the first time an exhibition dedicated to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portraits. The exhibition explores the artist’s intimate relationship with his muses and their influence on his depiction of beauty. These women as ‘influences’ long before the term was ever coined.

Rossetti’s Portraits features some of his most iconic artworks, including The Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris), 1868, which reveals the artist at the height of his creative powers, alongside his less well-known, but equally compelling early drawings of friends, family and fellow Pre-Raphaelite artists. Most striking of all in the exhibition are the rich and opulent paintings of three women.

Striking in the hues rich, adamant and unrestrained, the images are almost modern in approach because of the levels of intimacy present and the angles in which the subject sits or even lean into frame, or even, the informality of pose, the sense of space and ease as if chatting with the painter as he worked. Not stuffy formal and divorced of emotion, the collection of images on show are mainly a collection of three key women in his life, which by that very fact, lend themselves to striking personal paintings. Meet Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris.

Drawing Elizabeth Siddal; 1854 Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Pen and ink 238  x  112  © The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The opening section features a selection of intimate and poignant drawings from the 1850s of the artist’s wife and pupil, Elizabeth Siddal (1829–1862), showing the many facets of their relationship as a couple, as artistic peers, and as an artist and model. More restrained than other paintings in the collection there is less outward emotional intensity in these first few images, yet they are intimate in a different way. Rossetti made a series of beautiful studies of his wife carrying out everyday tasks highlighting the daily life that ‘Lizzie’ and Rossetti shared together.

As an ‘it girl’ in her day she posed for other artists as well as her husband. Known for sitting in John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-52, Tate), Siddal also modelled for several other Pre-Raphaelite artists before sitting exclusively for Rossetti from 1852 onwards.

Siddal sadly suffered from ill-health and a drawing he made of her during a stay in Hastings where they had gone for her to recuperate from the latest bout of illness features in the show. Siddal died tragically in 1862 aged only 32 and was buried with a batch of Rossetti’s poems. Her body was later exhumed so he could retrieve these unpublished works, further adding to his darkly romantic mythology.

Three years before his wife’s death, 1859 had seen a dramatic transition in Rossetti’s technical and stylistic approach, as he embarked on a series of idealised and symbolic female oil portraits inspired by the Venetian Old Masters. Painted through the lens of his deeply-rooted relationship with literature and art, these pictures are visions of female beauty and sensuality, embodied in the form of his next principal model, Fanny Cornforth (1835–1909). Cornforth was the focus of one of Rossetti’s masterpieces, The Blue Bower (1865, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts), a painting infused with symbolism relating to the sitter.

This dynamic strong faced model does not shy away from the painter’s gaze instead looks forthright almost confrontationally from the canvas. As she plays her music the viewer is almost lead to believe she hardly wished to engage with the artist so informal is the set-up. Commanding the spectator’s gaze as if to challenge their observation of her strong beauty. The blue cornflowers refer to her surname, while the passion flowers on the wallpaper behind her suggest her fiery nature.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blue Bower, 1865,oil on canvas, 84 x 70.9 cm © The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham 

The last of Rossetti’s It Girls featured here is yet another strong face, and another image informal in pose and full of a sort of soft power in her face, The Blue Silk Dress Jane Morris 1868. Look closer and notice all the three women featured seem to have a stylised version of the same face a little akin to a greek stone statue. Rossetti’s obsessively portrayals William Morris’s wife, and she had become Rossetti’s primary muse and model from the mid-1860s and remained so until his death in 1882. They often collaborated to create works such as Blue Silk Dress, with Morris adopting a slightly awkward pose that broke away from the conventions of Victorian portraiture to show the sitter with a curved back and sinuous posture familiar in many of her portraits and photographs.

Mrs William Morris Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1868 © Society of Antiquaries of London: Kelmscott Manor

Exhibition curator Sylvie Broussine says: We’re thrilled to be able to share with the public this fresh look at one of the leading figures of 19th-century British art. Though a lesser-known aspect of his body of work, nonetheless portraiture is present throughout Rossetti’s career, from his informal, private drawings of his family and friends to his celebrated oil paintings of the women who inspired him. Rossetti is at his best when capturing the likenesses of those closest to him, and we hope that this exhibition draws attention to this important part of the artist’s work.”

The Holburne Museum’s mission statement is ‘Changing Lives Through Art’, signalling its commitment to opening up the enjoyment of art to people of all ages and from every walk of life. The Holburne was founded in 1882 with the gift of Sir William Holburne’s collection of 16th and 17th century Italian and Dutch paintings, silver, sculpture, furniture, porcelain and diverse objets d’art of national and international significance.

In the 139 years since his death, Rossetti’s appeal as a great artist has continued to increase, although the last major UK exhibition devoted to his work was staged almost two decades ago. From 24 September, Rossetti will once again return to the public’s attention with an exhibition that surveys his distinctive use of portraiture, which blurred the boundaries between literary, mythological and symbolic subjects and the models whose likenesses are represented, especially the women closest to him. Enjoy close up and personal the women who shaped his work and went on to be eternally known through oil on canvas, and potentially will have far longer-lasting fame than those on a phone screen.

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If you enjoyed Rossetti and his It Girls, why not read The Power of Nature Here