Tag Archives: Fanny Cornforth

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Bocca Baciata

4 Aug

Dante Gabriel Rossetti spent 1850s in a mood of indolence and love; he was infatuated with Elizabeth Siddal, the beautiful red-haired Pre-Raphaelite model who famously posed for Millais’ Ophelia, and he mainly painted pencil drawings of Siddal and watercolours of idealised Medieval scenes. He wasn’t as productive in the early years of Pre-Raphaelite as he was in his later years when he filled his canvases with seductive, dreamy women with luscious full lips and voluminous hair; “Bocca Baciata” is the painting that started it all.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859

The half-length portrait shows a woman dressed in an unbuttoned black garment with gold details, while the white undergarments coyly peek through. Her neck is long and strong, her head slightly tilted, lips full and closed, eyes heavy-lidded and gazing in the distance. On her left is an apple, and she’s holding a small pot marigold in her hand. She is full, voluptuous, strong, possessing none of Siddal’s delicate, melancholic, laudanum-chic beauty, but one thing they have in common: beautiful hair. Model for the painting was Fanny Cornforth who was described as having “harvest yellow” hair colour, but here Rossetti painted it as a warm, rich coppery colour which goes beautifully with the orange marigolds and gold jewellery around her neck and in her hair. Rossetti must have borrowed the brush of Veronese himself when he painted those masses of lascivious wild hair that flows and flows, seemingly endless, ready to wrap itself around the neck of its victims. Gazing at Pre-Raphaelite paintings has taught me that the famous Victorian saying which goes: “hair is the crown of woman’s beauty” is wrong. Hair is not the crown, but the weapon, ready to seduce a man, ready to suffocate him in a matter of seconds.

What lures me about this painting are the beautiful autumnal colours and pot marigolds that grace the background; they are the flowers which fascinate me the most at the moment. They are the birth flowers for October, appropriate because their orange colour matched that of the falling leaves, and in the Victorian language of flowers they are seen as the symbols of love and jealousy, pain and grief, but this symbolism saddens me. Why bestow such a negative meaning to such an innocent, bright, whimsical flower? Marigolds are known as “summer brides” because they love the sun and I love them; they are so modest and unassuming, you’d fail to notice them in the company of extroverted roses and overwhelming sunflowers, but they hide so much beauty in their small orange petals.

The white rose in her hair symbolises innocence, and this portrait, although sensual, is indeed innocent compared to those which followed. As if the long, flowing fiery hair wasn’t enough, the title, Bocca Baciata, meaning “the mouth that has been kissed”, gives off a sensual mood. The beautiful expression comes from an Italian proverb from Boccaccio’s Decameron which Rossetti wrote on the back of the painting: “The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its savour, indeed it renews itself just as the moon does.” The line is a reference to a story from Decameron told on the second day, about a Saracen princess who, despite having numerous lovers, managed to persuade the King of Algarve that she was a virgin bride.

“Bocca Baciata” is both stylistically and technically a transitional work. It is Rossetti’s first oil painting in years, the previous one being “Ecce Ancilla Domini” from 1850. The luxurious, sensuous mood is a reference to High Italian Renaissance, more specifically, the art of Titian and Veronese and their long-haired women. The main characteristic of Venetian art is the beautiful colour; space, volume is built with colour, not with line, and Rossetti used this principle hear, using soft shadings on the skin of her neck and in building the hair, stroke by stroke. Also, inspired by Titian, he used red colour as a base of his canvas, not the usual white. “Bocca Baciata” is not just a beautiful harmony of warm colours, but it also set a pattern of a style of painting typical for the art of late Pre-Raphaelite Movement and Symbolism, where a beautiful woman occupies a canvas, exuding sensuality, vanity and indolence, dressed in luxurious fabrics and surrounded by other objects of beauty such as flowers, mirrors, fans and jewellery. These types of paintings are not portraits with individual characteristics of a person, but a never ending series of visual representations of female sexual allure.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Lady Lilith

24 Dec

Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.

1866. Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti1872-73. Lady Lilith, with Alice Wilding as model.

Alexa Wilding (born Alice), a beautiful young girl with auburn hair captivated Dante Gabriel Rossetti with her elegance and charms ever since he first sat eyes on her in 1865. At the time they met, Alice, approximately twenty years old at the time, was working as a dressmaker but dreamed of becoming an actress. Dante spotted her one evening in the Strand in 1865. and he was immediately struck by her beauty. Naturally, he proposed her to sit for him, which she accepted but failed to arrive at his studio the following day. The reason for her absence may have been the moral dilemma of being a model in the Victorian era.

Rossetti was devastated for he had been looking for a model with distinct looks for so long; the beauty he found in the face of young Alice. Weeks later, he spotted her again and jumped from the cab he was in and convinced her to follow him to his studio the very instant. She finally accepted and Dante began paying her a weekly fee to sit for him as he was so afraid that some other painter might want to hire her as a model. Alice eventually modeled for more of his finished paintings than any other of his models, but still she is less known due to the lack of romantic connection with Rossetti. Nevertheless, the two shared a deep bond and Alice is said to have visited Rossetti’s grave and placed a wreath on it.

Rossetti first painted ‘Lady Lilith‘ in 1866-68. using Fanny Cornforth as a model, but in 1872-73. he altered it to show the beautiful face of Alice Wilding. Alice’s features were considered more refined compared to Fanny’s which were considered too earthy. In addition, Rossetti saw in Alice’s features the ability to express both virtue and vice. Who could be a better model for Lilith, beautiful yet evil woman, than Alice with her lovely face and massive golden auburn hair? Alice was described as having ”a lovely face, beautifully moulded in every feature, full of quiescent, soft, mystical repose that suited some of his conceptions admirably…” Her features are easily recognised in Rossetti’s art; red hair, long neck, Cupid-bow lips and soft, dreamy eyes.

1867. Lady Lilith, watercolour replica, showing the face of Fanny Cornforth.

Lilith was the first wife of Adam, according to Judaic myth, and is a symbol of power, temptation and seduction. Rossetti’s version of Lilith was however a modern interpretation rather than a mythical figure. It represented ‘body’s beauty‘ according to Rossetti’s sonnet. This ‘Modern Lilith‘ contemplates her own beauty in a hand-mirror. Although Rossetti painted many ‘mirror scenes’; a trend which other artists accepted, ‘Lady Lilith‘ stays the epitome of the type.

Even though the focus is the beautiful Lilith, the painting is filled with overt flower symbolism and the cluttered, depth less space. The mirror in the background shows just how unreal and bizarre the space is; it shows the reflection of both the candles in the room and the exterior nature scene. The white roses tending to Lilith, admiring her beauty perhaps, symbolise cold, sensuous love and may reflect tradition that roses first ‘blushed‘ upon meeting Eve. Flowery background was the final part of the painting. White roses were, according to Rossetti’s assistant Dunn, gathered in large baskets from John Ruskin’s garden in Denmark Hill (area of Camberwell, London) from where they were brought to Rossetti’s studio in Chelsea. Red poppy in the lower right corner symbolises sleep and forgetfulness, and may indicate Lilith’s languid nature.

Rossetti also added a feminist dimension to the painting by emphasizing Lilith’s characteristics; her powerful, threatening and seductive attitude and resistance to male domination. She’s beautiful and she’s aware of it. Her massive luxurious red hair, undisguised sensuality and ‘clothes that look as if they’re soon to be removed‘ all make her irresistible to man. The painting represents ‘beauty gazing at itself‘. Lilith is an unobtainable beauty filled with power.