As Mrs. Surtees was the first to observe, the drawing is clearly a study of Alexa Wilding for Veronica Veronese, a painting of 1872 now in the Bancroft Collection in the Delaware Art Museum at Wilmington, U.S.A.. Marillier misdated it 1876 and called it a Head of a Magdalen, although the presence of this title on an old label on the back, presumably in the hand of George Rae, suggests that it might go back to Rossetti himself, seeking to give the study the status of an independent work by attaching this title to it. The title The Blessed Damozel on another label is harder to explain. The reference must be to the painting of 1875-8, now in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard (Surtees, no. 244, pl. 355), and it is possible that someone thought our study might be for one of the embracing lovers in the background.
Veronica Veronese is one of Rossetti's purest essays in the 'aesthetic' taste of the 1870s, both on account of its colour harmony and its musical theme, and it is no accident that it was painted for F.R. Leyland, the Liverpool shipping magnate whose London house, 49 Prince's Gate, contained the most sumptuous 'aesthetic' interior of the day. Rossetti described the picture to Leyland as follows: 'The girl is in a sort of passionate reverie, and is drawing her hand listlessly along the strings of a violin which hangs against the wall, while she holds the bow with the other hand, as if arrested by the thought of the moment, when she was about to play. In colour I shall make the picture a study of varied greens' (quoted in Surtees, op.cit., vol. I, p. 128, under no. 228). The musical element would have appealed strongly to Leyland, who was a keen amateur pianist.
Alexa Wilding sat to Rossetti consistently from the mid-1860s. 'Miss Wilding's was a lovely face', wrote his assistant T.H. Dunn, 'beautifully moulded in every feature, full of quiescent, soft, mystical repose that suited some of his conceptions admirably, but without any variety of expression. She sat like the Sphinx waiting to be questioned and with always a vague reply in return; about the last girl one would think to have the makings of an actress in her, and yet to be that was her ambition'. Rossetti first noticed her one evening in the Strand, and asked her to sit. To his great disappointment, she never turned up, but some weeks later he saw her again and was more successful, with the result that she gave up her job as a dressmaker, living on the retainer he paid her. According to Dunn, 'she had a deep well of affection within her seemingly placid exterior. She was one of the few ... who journeyed down to Birchington-on-Sea when she could ill afford it so that she might place a wreath on Rossetti's grave' (quoted in Surtees, op.cit., vol. I, p. 200, under no. 530). Another fine drawing of her, for The Bower Meadow, also painted in 1872, was sold in these Rooms on 11 June 1993, lot 81.
George Rae, the present drawing's first owner, was a Liverpool banker who formed a magnificent collection of Rossetti's works, buying some at least direct from the artist. A large group was acquired for the Tate Gallery in 1916, but there are also examples in the British Museum, the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, Mass.