Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Ruth and Boaz
pencil, watercolour and bodycolour with scratching out on paper and within a gold taped border
11 ½ x 6 7/8 in. (29.2 x 17.6 cm.)
In the original frame, reputedly designed by William Burges
William Burges; thence to his sister, Mrs Popplewell Pullen, and by descent to her niece
Miss E.M. Burges (Mrs Watson), daughter of Alfred Burges (William Burges’s brother), and by descent to her son, Wentworth Watson.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby’s, London, 29 May 1963, lot 25 (£320 to Virginia Surtees).
W.M. Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer, London, 1889, p. 276, no. 116.
H.C. Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Illustrated Memorial of his Art and Life, London, 1899, pp. 100 and 240, no. 81.
J.C.Troxell, Three Rossettis, Harvard, 1937, p. 29.
V. Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Catalogue Raisonné, Oxford, 1971, vol. 1, p. 33, no. 70; vol. 2, pl. 77.
London, Burlington Fine Arts Club, Pictures, Drawings, Designs, and Studies by the late Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1883, no. 15, lent by Mrs P. Pullen.
London, Royal Academy, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet, 1973, no. 107.

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Lot Essay

An illustration to the well-known story as told in the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament. The heroine stands in a cornfield, holding a sheaf of the corn she has gleaned after the reapers have departed, while Boaz, the ‘mighty man of wealth’ who owns the field, kisses her forehead, thereby declaring the love that eventually leads to their marriage. Brilliant sunshine reduces the forms to blocks of light and shadow.

William Michael Rossetti dated the watercolour to 1858, and Marillier was happy to follow him. As Virginia Surtees observes in her catalogue raisonné, however, this is a few years too late. The true date is revealed by a letter written to Rossetti by John Ruskin in which the writer mentions the watercolour, describing it as ‘all right as far as it went – noble and beautiful’. The letter is undated but can be assigned to June 1855 since it also refers to a Nativity that Rossetti painted for Ruskin that month.

In fact a date earlier than 1858 is suggested by more than documentary evidence. The picture is comparable – in size, religious subject matter and general handling – to a pair of watercolours of 1857, Mary Nazarene (fig. 1) and Mary Magdalene leaving the House of Feasting (both Tate Britain). All three, together with other works, including the Nativity contemporary with Ruth and Boaz, are examples of a mid-1850s phenomenon; Ruskin’s attempt at this period to cast Rossetti as a great religious painter, expressing Pre-Raphaelite principles but also responsive to his own influence and supervision.

Reflections of this endeavour meet us at every turn. In the immediate context alone, it accounts for Ruskin’s commissioning the Nativity; for the critical terms in which he refers to this picture in the letter of June 1855 just quoted (‘This drawing is in many respects likeable – but in many more wrong’); and even for the way he describes Ruth and Boaz, clearly admiring it (‘noble and beautiful') yet itching to improve it according to his own ideas (‘all right as far as it (goes)’). Inevitably Ruskin’s project ended in tears. He was too domineering and tactless, his protégé too strong-willed and independent; while the artist’s move from religious and Dantesque themes he approved of to chivalric and ‘Froissartian’ subjects that he felt were lightweight by comparison, left him angry and dismayed. Their friendship gradually deteriorated, and Ruskin began directing his reforming zeal at a younger and seemingly more malleable artist, Rossetti’s follower Edward Burne-Jones.

Ruth and Boaz belonged to William Burges, the Gothic Revival architect whom Rossetti knew for many years, and he is traditionally said to have designed the frame. Certainly no other picture by Rossetti has a frame of this form.

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