JANE MORRIS: 'BEAUTY LIKE HERS IS GENIUS'
Jane Burden first entered Rossetti’s imagination aged just seventeen, when in 1857 she attended the same performance as Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones at the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford alongside her sister, Elizabeth. At the time, the two young artists were working on the Arthurian murals to decorate the debating chamber of Benjamin Woodward's newly built Oxford Union, and being so taken with Jane’s strange beauty, Rossetti asked her to model for the figure of Queen Guinevere. During this period, Jane was living in a cramped cottage in Oxford with her parents and two siblings, and her introduction to the Pre-Raphaelite circle irrevocably altered both her own future, and that of the young Rossetti. A tender pencil portrait dates from the year they met (fig. 1), and despite Jane’s youth, her stylized dark waves and full features are instantly recognizable as the face that would come to dominate Rossetti’s later works.
Upon their first meeting Rossetti was engaged to the flame-haired Lizzie Siddall, and it was William Morris to whom Jane became engaged after she sat for Morris’s only oil painting, La belle Iseult (Tate Britain, London, 1858), and the pair were married in April 1859. In May 1860 Rossetti and Lizzie were finally married after a protracted engagement but their union was short lived, as in February 1862 Lizzie died from an overdose of laudanum, probably taking her own life. During this period Rossetti was so preoccupied by his own grief and absorbed with his work that Jane only reappears in Rossetti’s work in 1865, when Morris moved his wife and two young daughters to Queen Square, Bloomsbury, so that he could be nearer to Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
Jane’s reintroduction to London society brought her back into Rossetti’s sphere, and he almost immediately commissioned a series of now iconic photographs to be taken of her by John Robert Parsons, in the garden of his Cheyne Walk home (fig. 2). Jane collaborated in the creation of her inimitable image, and the dress she wears in the photographs, and in many of Rossetti’s paintings, was designed and sewn by herself (she was a talented embroiderer at Morris & Co.). The long sculptural gown defied Victorian convention by disposing of the usual structured hoops and crinoline. Through Jane’s self-conscious styling of her own image she had been able to elevate her societal position from the daughter of a stablehand destined to a dreary life as a domestic servant – reversing her fortunes via her marriage to Morris, and through her persona as an enigmatic artist’s model and muse. The American author, Henry James, visited the Morris’s Bloomsbury house in 1869 and was quite startled upon meeting Jane, commenting, ‘It’s hard to say whether she’s a grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made – or they a 'keen analysis' of her – whether she’s an original or a copy. In either case, she is a wonder’ (E. Becker, L. Prettejohn & J. Treuherz, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, London, 2003, p. 92). Rossetti agreed with James’s inference that Jane was art itself, writing in a sonnet that ‘Beauty like hers is genius’.
Following this photo shoot, Jane began to sit with regularity for Rossetti, and they embarked upon a romantic entanglement that lasted from the late 1860s to 1875. Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds served as the backdrop to Rossetti and Jane’s love affair, and after Morris discovered the house in 1871, Rossetti and Morris signed a joint lease to share the building which lasted until 1874. This shared tenancy lent an air of propriety to their sojourns, and Rossetti and Jane were able to spend large swathes of time together over this period, often in the absence of Morris, who took extended trips to Iceland in both 1871 and 1873.
Rossetti also lived exclusively at Kelmscott for a time when convalescing following his breakdown in 1872, precipitated by Robert Buchanan’s scathing review of Rossetti’s poetry, which culminated in a suicide attempt by laudanum, echoing Lizzie’s death a decade earlier. Rossetti’s insomnia, chloral addiction and fragile mental state served to fracture the relationship, and Jane sought to end the affair, although an affectionate professional relationship endured. There has been intense scholarly speculation as to the exact nature of their affair, but its significance undeniably left an indelible imprint on both parties. William Rossetti wrote that in Jane his brother found, ‘an ideal more entirely responsive than any other to his aspiration in art. It seemed a face created to fire his imagination, and to quicken his powers – a face of arcane and inexhaustible meaning. To realise its features was difficult; to transcend its suggestion, impossible’ (W. Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His family letters, vol. I, Cambridge, 2012, p. 244).
THE MYTH OF PROSERPINE
The theme of Proserpine in Rossetti’s œuvre represents both a distillation of Rossetti’s creative vision and a culmination of his artistic practice. The repetition of the theme, the significance of his relationship with Jane, and the autobiographical identification he felt to the subject all contribute to the strength of the image and underscore its haunting beauty. Proserpine was the beguiling daughter of Ceres, who had dominion over the harvest and sovereignty of the seasons, and Zeus, the king of the gods. Captivated by her beauty, Pluto, the god of the Underworld opened the earth, and conveyed Proserpine to hell whilst she picked flowers in the vale of Nysa. Upon the loss of her daughter Ceres’ grief was so vast it plunged the earth into famine. To ameliorate this crisis Zeus sent Hermes to return Proserpine, however, she had already eaten the seeds of a pomegranate, given to her cunningly by Pluto, and it was therefore ordained she must return each year, as those who taste the food of hell must return. Through Rossetti’s letters we know that in October 1872 he was sent a summary of the Proserpine myth copied by his studio assistant, Henry Treffry Dunn, from Lemprière's well-known Classical Dictionary. Rossetti had also requested that Dunn was sent out to procure pomegranates for the artist, to be sent on to him at Kelmscott.
Rossetti’s correspondences betray the connection he felt to the myth of Proserpine as an allegory for Jane’s life and their forbidden relationship. Morris took Jane to a spa at Ems, Germany in 1869 to help her to recuperate from one of her many bouts of ill-health, and in January 1870 Rossetti wrote to Jane, pronouncing, ‘now everything will be dark for me till I can see you again’, following up in his next letter that, ‘No one else seems alive at all to me now, places that are empty of you are empty of all life’ (G.H. Fleming, That Ne’er shall meet again, London, 1971, p. 261). The phrases Rossetti uses indicate that he believed that Jane’s (Proserpine’s) absence had seized the light and life from the earth, leaving him run aground in an eternal winter. Alicia Craig Faxon recapitulates that the subject of Proserpine ‘summed up Rossetti’s view of Jane Morris as a goddess bound to a husband from whom she was only released to joy and light’ (A. Craig Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, London, 1994, p.191). Rossetti’s gloomy interpretation of Proserpine’s tale is bound up in the general treatment of the goddess during the period by poets, such as Algernon Charles Swinburne, who wrote Hymn to Proserpine and The Garden of Proserpine in 1866, which painted the goddess as a deathly figure deprived of the salvation of Christianity.
The composition of Proserpine is weighted with symbolism, developed throughout the many versions Rossetti produced and evocative of his preoccupation with death and memory. The cartellino in the upper right corner is inscribed with an Italian sonnet penned by Rossetti in November 1872, which recites Proserpine’s tragic tale. The censer smoking softly in the lower left corner indicates to the viewer that Proserpine is a goddess. The spray of ivy which curves down on the left-hand side of the painting has numerous symbolic connotations, most significantly that of ‘clinging memory’ as Rossetti himself noted to his patron W. A. Turner (A. Wilton & R. Upstone, The Age of Rossetti, Burne Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, London, 1997, p. 160) and of life in death. Ivy is also evocative of fidelity, and is employed by Rossetti in several paintings of Jane, perhaps as a marker of his faithfulness to her. This is most obviously utilized in La Pia de’Tolomei (fig. 3, Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS) where Jane is fully surrounded by swathes of ivy. The subject of the work is also telling, as it is drawn from a tale from Canto V in Dante’s Purgatory where a woman is poisoned by her husband. Rossetti frequently implies through his work that Jane was trapped in an unsuitable marriage, for example his 1870 oil, Mariana, depicts a character from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, who is abandoned by her betrothed (Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections, Aberdeen). He also depicted Jane as Othello’s doomed wife in Desdemona’s Death Song (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). The ray of light in the background of the composition is the only signal of hope, redolent of her happy life prior to her abduction.
The pomegranate, so vital to Proserpine’s tale, has been deeply imbued with myth and symbolism since Ancient Egyptian and Greek times. The fruit has been found in Christian iconography from as early as the 4th century in the mosaic at Hinton St. Mary, Dorset, where Christ is depicted alongside two pomegranates. The fruits in this context are representative of the fullness of Jesus’s sacrifice through the resurrection. Many Renaissance depictions of Christ therefore show him with a pomegranate as his attribute (fig. 4). The pomegranate is also symbolic of fertility and the indissolubility of marriage, perhaps representative of Rossetti’s own feelings regarding Jane’s marriage to his friend and colleague, and the impossibility of their union. In Judaism, some scholars believe that it was a pomegranate, and not an apple, that tempted Eve in Eden. This is of significance, as Rossetti originally painted Jane holding an apple, only later substituting the fruit for a pomegranate. John Christian considered that this change could have occurred as late as the autumn of 1872. The implications of temptation, seduction and a predestined banishment from paradise can be drawn from Rossetti’s confluence of these two subjects. While Proserpine’s left-hand lifts the open pomegranate to her lips, her right-hand catches her wrist, as if to restrain her desire. However, it is clearly too late, as the seeds have been eaten and Proserpine is now wedded to the underworld for eternity.
Due to the haunting beauty of Proserpine, Rossetti was commissioned to revisit the subject for several of his patrons. Owing to this, and Rossetti’s somewhat confused correspondence, the exact chronology regarding the various Proserpine versions is murky at best, despite being tackled by successive generations of Rossetti scholars. In total eight oil versions were begun, but various misfortunes appear to have led to some being cut down or else left unfinished. Writing to Ford Madox Brown in January 1874 Rossetti wrote of this ‘doomed picture of Proserpine’, then goes on to detail at length the ‘vicissitudes of this blessed picture’ caused by a series of calamities that had befallen various iterations of the work (W.E. Fredeman, The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti 6: The Last Decade, Cambridge, 2004, p. 376). The darkness of the subject and the subsequent problems that befell so many of the canvases led William Rossetti to believe that his brother ‘suspected that there was a ‘fate’ against the Proserpine pictures, germane to their grievous theme’ (W.E. Fredeman, op. cit., p. 600).
The most famous version is currently housed in the collection at Tate Britain, and was executed in 1874 for Frederick Richards Leyland; one of the artist’s greatest patrons. The 1877 copy is also similarly well-known, having been the first Victorian picture to realize more than £1,000,000 at auction in 1987. The work was in the possession of the great Rossetti enthusiast, L. S. Lowry, who lent it to the Manchester Art Gallery for many years, and it now resides in the Lloyd Webber Collection. Besides these oil versions there are several iterations in chalk, most significantly the 1871 version at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford which Rossetti made for Jane Morris herself. The present work is the only known watercolor of the design, and is therefore unique among the Proserpines. It is also a rare demonstration in the medium at this late point in Rossetti’s career, since he had mostly abandoned watercolor in favor of oil and chalk by the end of the 1860s. Rossetti had pioneered an innovative watercolor technique early in his career by layering watercolor, bodycolor and gum arabic applied with hog-hair brushes, usually reserved for oils, to build depth and strength of color. Burne-Jones, who became a pupil of Rossetti in 1856, also adopted his techniques, as can be seen in Love Among the Ruins (Christie’s, London, 11 July 2013, lot 13).
The present lot was painted for the bookseller and publisher, Frederick Startridge Ellis, who ran a successful business dealing in antiquarian books and manuscripts, and he acquired the picture in 1878 for the price of £262. Ellis published the works of both Rossetti and Morris, and maintained close ties with both men and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle throughout his long career, with Ruskin affectionately referring to him as ‘Papa Ellis’. Ellis owned nine paintings and drawings by Rossetti, including such major examples as La Bella Mano (Bancroft Collection, Delaware) and La Donna della Finestra (Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard). Ellis was also an ardent devotee of Morris’s work at Kelmscott Press, and edited many of their publications, included the celebrated 1896 version of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, featuring wood-cut illustrations by Burne-Jones.
Upon his retirement in May 1885, Ellis offered nine works for sale at Christie's, London, including paintings by Burne-Jones, Ford Madox-Brown and Turner. By this time, Proserpine had already moved on from his collection, and in 1884 it had been sold at Christie’s by another owner, James Hutton of Victoria Park, Manchester. While it is unknown when Ellis sold the work, there is evidence that Ellis himself was acting as a dealer, and it is plausible that it passed quickly through his hands. In the 1884 sale the work moved to Agnew’s briefly before Mrs. Clara Jessup Bloomfield Moore purchased it from them five days later, on 15 of May. Moore was a poet, author and philanthropist, who spent most of her life in Philadelphia, moving to London in 1878 upon the death of her wealthy husband, Bloomfield Haines Moore. In London, Moore set up her home in Mayfair as a creative salon, featuring luminaries of the day, such as Robert Browning. Moore was also a great supporter and patron of John Worrell Keeley, an inventor and scientist who claimed to have discovered a new motive power that harnessed ‘etheric’ forces. Keeley’s invention (somewhat unsurprisingly) never materialized, and he refused all attempts by his company to divulge his research. Moore died shortly after Keeley’s death in 1878, supposedly prompted by her grief.
Upon Moore’s death, Proserpine was sold at Christie’s in May 1900, but remained in Moore's family after being purchased by her grandson, Count Carl Clarence von Rosen who lived in Stockholm, who ultimately purchased some 13 works from his grandmother’s sale. The watercolor then passed to a Stockholm dealer, Bernhard Magaliff, before returning to London in the mid-1970s.