Audio: Dante Gabriel Rossetti Lot 5
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
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Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

Study for 'Desdemona's Death Song'

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Study for 'Desdemona's Death Song'
black chalk on two joined sheets of pale blue prepared paper
41 x 29 ½ in. (104.2 x 75 cm.)
D.G. Rossetti (†); Christie's, London, 12 May 1883, probably lot 17 (4 gns to Watts-Dunton).
Theodore Watts-Dunton.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 10 November 1981, lot 38.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 14 May 1985, lot 192.
with Christopher Wood, London, where purchased by the present owners.
H.C. Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, London, 1899, no. 287.
V. Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Oxford, 1971, pp. 150-1, possibly no. 254f.
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Clare Keiller
Clare Keiller

Lot Essay

Rossetti has taken his inspiration from Shakespeare’s Othello, Act IV, scene iii, where Desdemona is seen getting ready for bed with her maid Emilia arranging her in her ‘nightly wearing; and combing out her hair. Desdemona, upset by Othello’s groundless accusations of infidelity, is eager to comply with his request that she retires to bed and whilst getting ready remembers a song she learnt from her mother’s maid, who had been deserted by her lover. Desdemona describes how the song, ‘Will not go from my mind; I have much to do, But to go hang my head all at one side, And sing it…’.

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften'd the stones;
Sing willow…

Rossetti was thinking of the subject as early as 1872, when he suggested it as a possible subject for one of his most important patrons, the Liverpool ship owner, F. R. Leyland (see lot 8 for another commission for Leyland). Leyland had been creating a sumptuous Aesthetic interior at his London house, 22 Queen’s Gate, since 1868 and Rossetti felt that it would make a suitable and ‘splendid centre for other musical pictures in [Leyland’s] drawing room... The figures would come of a moderate life-size without interfering with its conveniently taking place over your piano’ (V. Surtees, op. cit., p. 150). A previously unrecorded, highly-finished chalk drawing of Alexa Wilding as Desdemona, was sold in these Rooms (23 November 2005, lot 19, fig. 1). It is dated 1875 and serves as a fascinating insight into Rossetti’s earlier conception of the subject, which is rather different from that which he began working on a few years later.

It is uncertain when Rossetti actually started work on the composition to which the present sheet relates, although he was definitely working in it towards the end of 1878, when he finished The Vision of Fiammetta (private collection). Despite Rossetti’s enthusiasm for the scheme, the painting remained unfinished at the artist’s death ten years later and survives today as a fragment (recently sold in these Rooms, 17 June 2014, lot 61, fig. 2) showing Desdemona’s head.

A letter that the artist wrote just a fortnight before his death, to the critic F.G. Stephens, implies that he had only recently begun work on the painting; he wrote that he had 'designed and begun painting lately a good sized picture of Desdemona singing the Willow Song while Emilia dresses her hair'. The touching belief he had expressed to Stephens, in the same letter that the picture would 'certainly be one of my best and most attractive things,' was never realised. However, that he produced eight studies including the present drawing, monumental in scale, is testament to the importance he placed on the idea.

Three of the studies, all executed in black chalk, similarly sized are on two joined-sheets. One is a highly detailed compositional drawing, showing Emilia brushing Desdemona’s hair, which was sold in these Rooms (lot 4, 24 November 2004, fig. 3) and is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington . Here Desdemona sits impassively whilst her hair is brushed, her lips slightly parted, as if singing. A second sheet now in Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery depicts the figure of Desdemona, alone, lost in thought, her head on one hand and her hairbrush hanging forgotten in her left. In the present drawing however, Rossetti’s intention appears to have been the melancholic emotions of the sitter, and the emphasis is on her face and expression, and on her arms, her nightclothes being merely sketched in. Her arm hangs heavy without the brush and our eye is drawn to the carefully-sculpted face. The fact that her night clothes are merely sketched in and her hair still piled up on her head, means that our eye is constantly drawn to the carefully delineated form of her hauntingly beautiful face, emphasising the almost otherworldliness of her expression, reminding us of her fate.

Both Jane Morris and Marie Stillman have in the past been suggested as models for the subject. In a surviving letter Rossetti records, 'I am still expecting Mrs Stillman to get about my new Desdemona picture from her. I have it all in my head' (letter to Jane Morris, 27 August 1879, British Museum). However, neither women are particularly recognizable in any of the surviving drawings and the sitter appears more likely to be Alexa Wilding, who was the model for the earlier 1875 study (fig. 1).

The work of Shakespeare influenced Rossetti throughout his life. As early as circa 1846 Rossetti explored the subject of Helena and Hermia (Surtees, op. cit., no. 26) from Act III, scene ii of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By 1850 he was contemplating a watercolour illustrating Much Ado about Nothing (Surtees, op. cit., no. 46). In 1858 he was exploring Hamlet and Ophelia, a subject he returned again in the mid-1860s and indeed it was Hamlet more than any other play which captured his imagination in his early maturity (lot 1).

By the early 1870s, however, Rossetti’s approach to Shakespeare had shifted and he began to explore subjects laden with menace and dark foreboding. Not only does he explore the subject of Othello’s Desdemona, depicting her at the very moment she awaits her husband and ultimately her death, but he embarks on an even darker subject, that of the death of Lady Macbeth, surrounded by distraught waiting women and monks frantically invoking heavenly intercession (fig. 4). Taken together they seem to reflect the emotional turbulence of the artist’s later life.

John Christian has suggested that Rossetti’s interest in Desdemona’s ‘willow song’ sprang not from any particular musical instinct but from an association in his mind between Jane Morris and the word ‘willow’. In December 1868 he had written a sequence of four sonnets entitled ‘Willow-wood’, in which he had explored his and Jane’s fraught relationship. Furthermore in 1871, he painted Water-willow, a portrait of Morris, holding willow branches, with Kelmscott Manor, where they had spent most of their happiest times, in the background. Such deeply autobiographical, or ‘auto-psychological’ (as Rossetti termed it), undertones is not unusual in Rossetti’s work and the inclusion of elements of his own life and beliefs in his art, whether consciously or subconsciously, was something that the artist acknowledged.

Theodore Watts Dunton (1832-1914), who purchased the drawing from Rossetti's studio sale, was a lawyer, literary writer and poet and close friend of Rossetti’s during the last years of his life. Watts Dunton practiced as a solicitor in London and wrote widely for various publications including the Examiner from 1874, the Athenaeum from 1875, as well as contributing several articles to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, including most notably the entry on Poetry for the 9th Edition. His first volume of poetry published under his own name was not released until 1897. Watts Dunton is also remembered for inviting Algernon Swinburne to live with him and rescuing him from alcoholism; Swinburne remained with Watts Dunton until his death in 1909. Theodore’s sister and brother-in-law (a fellow solicitor) and their son, as well as later on, a second sister and Henry Treffry Dunn, one of Rossetti’s studio assistants, all lived with Watts Dunton, who only married in 1905.

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