Tag Archives: 1868

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.

Souvenir of Velázquez: John Everett Millais, James Jebusa Shannon and Joaquín Sorolla

13 Sep

Today let’s take a look at three gorgeous portraits of little girls by John Everett Millais, James Jebusa Shannon and Joaquín Sorolla inspired by the paintings of Diego Velázquez’s, mainly the painting “Las Meninas” from 1656 but also some of his other portraits of Infanta Maria Teresa.

John Everett Millais, Souvenir of Velázquez, 1868

Just like Infanta Margaret Theresa from Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas” (1656), the girl in Millais’ painting is a serious young lady. Two centuries divide the lives of these two moody girls, yet I am sure they would understand each other and could gleefully spend many idle hours giggling and chatting. Millais’ sweet, round faced girl has a pale skin and masses of strawberry blonde hair that are a stark contrast to the darkness of the background. Unlike Infanta Margaret Theresa, this girl is all alone on the canvas. Her face looks like many other from Millais’ canvases, yet her attire is noticeably different from that of any other Victorian girl. This was Millais’ homage to a very famous Baroque painting made by Diego Velázquez, the court painter of Philip IV, in 1656. But Millais used a Pre-Raphaelite colour palette and the brush strokes on the hair and details of the dress are particularly loose, unrestrained and confident. Millais was apparently so skillful a painter that he was able to paint a leaf in a few brushstrokes and achieve the liveliness and accuracy. I think these strokes are a proof of that.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, detail

Velázquez’s position as a court painter clearly placed him in a subservient position to the members of the royal family. In his time, he was just a painter and they were the grand and powerful Habsburgs and yet, looking back in time, it is Velázquez who is famous and praised now for his art and little Infanta is just one in a row of royal princesses who would scarcely be remembered today if she wasn’t captured on canvas so many times and in such beautiful and memorable paintings. It is a good thing that Velázquez painted so many beautiful portraits of her as a child because those were her glory days in a way; she married at the age of fifteen to Leopold I, and she was both his niece and his first cousin, and died at the age of twenty-one, after giving birth to four children and being pregnant with the fifth. So, if it wasn’t for these glorious portraits and especially the very much loved and enigmatic “Las Meninas” where she is the central figure, she would have been forgotten in history, she would have been just another pale sickly girl who died very young from this illness or another, childbirth or smallpox, nothing special. But because of art, she is eternal. Even now, four centuries later, she is the blue eyed girl looking back at us, with her hair combed on the side and adorned with a bow, in her wide dress, so large for her small fragile body.

Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Infanta Margarita Teresa in silver dress, 1656

James Jebusa Shannon, Portrait of a Little Girl Holding a Toy (Kitty in a fancy dress), 1895

Next example is James Jebusa Shannon’s lovely portrait of his daughter Katherine Marjorie known as Kitty who was eight years old at the time this was painted. The portrait is beautifully cropped and focuses on the little girl in the moment of childlike playfulness; she is holding a doll in each hand. Still in the world of dreams and make-beliefs, her dolls are her friends. Loose brushstrokes and a colour palette of subtle colours such as white and grey, with touches of pink and red perfectly fit the at once playful and dreamy mood of the painting. Maybe Kitty is lost in the dreamland playing with her dolls and she can scarcely notice that her father is painting her once again, for she was his dear model, but her cheeks are rosy and she is smiling and we can tell she is a happier girl than Velázquez’s Infanta Margaret Theresa was in her constricted dress and constricting environment of the Spanish court. The dress Kitty is wearing resembles the one Velázquez painted, but it is only a fancy dress and life is still a game for Kitty as well.

Joaquín Sorolla, María Figuero dressed as a menina, 1901

And the last example I will be talking about in this post is an unfinished work by a Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla which shows a girl dressed in an attire of the Infanta Margaret Theresa and the kind of dress that would be worn by other noble girls at the court. Just like Kitty in the previous picture, María was eight years old when this was painted and she was not just any child; she was the daughter of Sorolla’s friend Rodrigo de Figueroa y Torres, Marquis of Gauna and later a Duke of Tovar also. Inspiration for this painting was not Velázquez himself, but his pupil Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo’s portrait of Infanta Margaret Theresa in a pink dress from 1660. Just like in the portrait of Infanta, María Figuero is wearing a very wide dress which fills the canvas horizontally, the sleeves are equally puffy and there is a pink decoration on the bodice. Her hair also resembles the hairstyle Infanta Margarita wore in some of her other portraits, for example the portrait in blue by Velázquez painted in 1659.

Juan Bautista del Mazo, Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Pink Dress, 1660