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Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Venus Verticordia

24 Oct

“‘Alas! the apple for his lips,—the dart

That follows its brief sweetness to his heart,—”

(Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia, 1864-68

Painting “Venus Verticordia” is a gorgeous example of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s style of portraits from the 1860s. The original model for the goddess of love was an exceptionally beautiful cook that Rossetti had met in the street. We don’t know what she looked like; perhaps she fit Rossetti’s ideal of a woman perfectly, or perhaps with his imagination and with his brush he transformed her into his feminine ideal. Regardless,in 1867 he had altered the face on the portrait to fit the features of his favourite model Alexa Wilding who sat for many of his paintings. The goddess of Love was portrayed in so many ways and so many times throughout history, but here she takes on the typical features of Rossetti’s feminine ideal; her hair is long, lush and auburn, her eyelids heavy and langorous, her lips thick and pouty, her neck strong. This is a far cry from the weak, frail and melancholy beauty exemplified by his lover and muse Elizabeth Siddal whose face and figure domineered his art of the previous decade.

“Venus Verticordia” means “Venus, changer of the heart” and was said to change the hearts of men from lust to love, but the mood and symbolism in Rossetti’s portrait tell a different story. The eroticism isn’t subtle and subdued here, but rather the goddess’ breasts are lavishly exposed. The space around her is filled with lush, vibrant flowers, roses and honesuckles, whose symbolic connotations of passion and female sexuality would have been known to the Victorian audience. She is holding a golden arrow in her hand, a motif we usually see with her son Cupid, the god of desire erotic love. A contrasting motif to all this is a golden halo and butterflies around her head, both are symbolically connected with spiritual, not earthly or sensual matters. The halo typically graces the heads of saints and butterflies are sometimes seen as symbolic of the soul, so perhaps a soulful love and not just a carnal one.

The painting left no one speechless when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Art critic and writer John Ruskin found the painting tasteless to put it lightly while others such as the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote: “The great picture of Venus Verticordia has now been in great measure recast; the head is of a diviner type of beauty; golden butterflies hover about the halo of her hair; alight upon the apple or the arrow in her hands; her face has the sweet supremacy of a beauty imperial and immortal; her glorious bosom seems to exult and expand as the roses on each side of it. The painting of leaf and fruit and flower in this picture is beyond my praise or any man’s; but of one thing I will here take note; the flash of green brilliance from the upper leaves of the trellis against the sombre green of the trees behind. Once more it must appear that the painter alone can translate into words as perfect in music and colour the sense and spirit of his work.”

Stills from the film “Love Witch” (2016)

When I look into the eyes of this redhead Venus conjured in the imagination of the Victorian artist, poet and an aesthete, the image of Elaine Parks from the film “Love Witch” (2016) comes to mind; both have that look of indifference and power in their eyes, a certain awareness of their beauty and dominance, and they are confident about their inevitable success in love matters. It is a gaze that brings doom to a man who gazes back at it.