Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

A woman combing her hair; Fanny Cornforth

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
A woman combing her hair; Fanny Cornforth
signed with monogram and dated '1864' (lower left)
pencil, watercolour and bodycolour heightened with gum arabic on paper
13 ½ x 12 ¼ in. (34.3 x 31.1 cm.)
John Bibby; Christie's, London, 3 June 1899, lot 37 (320 gns to Dunthorne).
Major C. S. Goldman, and by descent to his son,
John Monck; Christie's, London, 16 November 1965, lot 18 (200 gns to Maas).
with Maas Gallery, London.
Mrs Virginia Surtees.
W. Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Record and Study, London, 1882, no. 119.
F.G. Stephens, 'The Private Collections of England...', Athenaeum, 27 September 1884, pp. 408-9.
H.C. Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Illustrated Memorial of his Life and Art, London, 1899, pp. 132, 245, no. 147.
P.F. Baum, ed., Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Letters to Fanny Cornforth, Baltimore, 1940, p. 21.
V. Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Oxford, 1971, I, no. 174; II, pl. 252.
J. Treuherz, E. Prettejohn, E. Becker, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, London, 2003, pp. 70, 188, fig. 49.
Newcastle, Laing Art Gallery, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882,1971, no. 58
London, Royal Academy and Birmingham, Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Painter and Poet, 1973, no. 122.
London, Tate Gallery, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts, Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, 1997, no. 314.
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Amsterdam; and Van Gogh Museum, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 16 October 2003 - 18 January 2004 and 27 February 2004 - 6 June 2004, no. 102.

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Clare Keiller
Clare Keiller

Lot Essay

From circa 1859, Rossetti turned away from his earlier Dante or Medieval inspired narratives and began instead to formulate a more Aesthetic style, where female beauty and the overall decorative and chromatic effects were key. As a result, Rossetti produced a small group of single figure paintings, which were essentially a concentration on female beauty. The figures were often, such as the present work, or Lady Lilith (1868, Delaware Art Museum, Samuel & Mary Bancroft Memorial) or Fazio’s Mistress (1863, Tate Gallery, London), engaged in making their toilette, or occupied in music making such as The Blue Bower (1865, The Barber Institute of Arts, Birmingham) or Morning Music (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). They are characterised by the fact that the sitters are depicted from close up, filling the picture surface and usually against a floral background and with simple devices in front of them, such as fruit or ornaments.

The work of the Venetian masters, in particular Titian and Giovanni Bellini, were instrumental in influencing Rossetti’s ideas at this time. Bellini’s painting, Fra Teodoro of Urbino as Saint Dominic, (Victoria and Albert Museum, on loan to the National Gallery, London) with its half-length figure, holding a book and a lily, in front of a floral background was a work that Rossetti was familiar with and admired. As was Titian’s Woman with a mirror, which Rossetti studied in the Louvre, whilst on honeymoon in Paris in 1860. Indeed, such was its importance to the artist that Rossetti even acquired a photograph of the painting. The mirror behind Fanny Cornforth in this work is directly inspired by the Italian Master’s work. It is interesting to note that Titian’s painting was exhibited under the title La femme à sa toilette during this period further demonstrating the importance of the earlier artist on Rossetti. Rossetti, referencing his Bocca Baciata (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), for which Fanny Cornforth also modelled, described himself as being ‘very desirous of painting, wherever I can find leisure & opportunity, various figures of this kind, chiefly as a rapid study of flesh painting. I am sure that amid the many botherations of a picture, where design, drawing, expression & colour have to be thought of all at once … Even among the old good painters, their portraits & simpler pictures are almost always their masterpieces for colour & execution.’ (W. Fredeman ed., The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, II, p. 276).

During the 1850s numerous articles on Venetian painters were published in the Art Journal and other periodicals. Between 1851 and 1853, Ruskin published his monumental exploration of Venetian architecture, Stones of Venice and at the end of the decade, Rossetti’s close friend and fellow artist, Edward Burne-Jones had undertaken the first of four lengthy visits to Italy and returned inspired by what he had seen. The two artists spent a great deal of time discussing what Burne-Jones had seen on this trip and the ideas that it had engendered.

The sitter of the present work is Fanny Cornforth (1835-1906), who dominated Rossetti’s imagination throughout the first half of the 1860s and who sat for nearly all of his most important work of the period. Her first sitting was in August 1856, as the model for the farmer’s sweetheart in Found (Bancroft Collection, Willmington). In 1859, she sat for Bocca Bociata (Museum of Fine Arts Boston), which is generally regarded as the painting which marks the emergence of Rossetti’s mature style and a crucial essay on Aestheticism.

Fanny first met Rossetti during the summer of 1856, at a fête to celebrate the return of the troops from the Crimea. Born Sarah Cox, she was the daughter of a Sussex blacksmith. Her beauty, vitality and sensual magnetism, was in direct contrast to the ailing, delicate Lizzie Siddall and proved an irresistible pull to the artist. There is no evidence but it seems likely that the two became lovers in the period when Rossetti and Lizzie had separated, before their reconciliation and marriage in 1860. Following Lizzie’s death from laudanum two years later, Fanny Cornforth moved into Rossetti’s Cheyne Walk house, as his housekeeper. She remained there for at least the next decade and even when Rossetti became entranced with other muses, such as Alexa Wilding and Jane Morris, she and Rossetti remained close.

In many of Rossetti’s portrait’s jewellery plays an integral part and he had a large stock of jewellery, which he used as studio props. In Rosa Triplex, which was sold in these Rooms 17 June 2014, lot 17, for example, he depicted May Morris wearing jewellery from the Balkans, the Ottoman region, the Middle East, India and North Africa. At the time there was a wide interest in exotic jewellery; exhibitions were held as early as 1851, which Rossetti must have seen.

Rossetti collected not only jewellery and endlessly visited antique and bric a brac shops in search of things that interested him or that he could use in his work. He was also a keen collector of blue and white ceramics and often included examples from his collection in his paintings, such as in the present work. Rossetti also introduced others to the field, including Whistler and the two men developed a healthy rivalry seeking out desirable pieces. Rossetti often used examples from his collection as staffage in his paintings.

Although essentially a portrait, the present work is not intended as such, and there is no psychological penetration: indeed Fanny’s face is almost devoid of expression. By placing the sitter close to the viewer and showing her as if caught in the intimate act of brushing her long hair, the viewer is drawn into the picture and thus a sense of intimacy is automatically created. This sense is emphasised by the fact that Fanny looks directly out at the viewer, engaging with the spectator. However, conversely the lack of emotion in her expression creates an uncompromising but fascinating contrast; there is a tension between the remoteness of the sitter and the viewer’s automatic involvement.

The majority of Rossetti’s patrons and admirers were captivated by these single figure subject pictures. F.G. Stephens, the art critic for the Athenaeum, described them as ‘of the nature of a lyrical poem, which aims at effect quite as much by means of inherent beauty and melodious colouring as by the mere subject, which is superficial. Titian and Giorgione produced lyrics of this sort in abundance’. (F.G. Stephens, ‘Mr Rossetti’s Pictures’, Athenaeum, no. 1982, 21 October 1865, pp. 545-6).

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