Fazio's Mistress (Tate Gallery; see Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Catalogue Raisonné, Oxford, 1971, no. 164, pl. 234) was painted in the autumn of 1863. Ten years later, when it belonged to the Birkenhead banker George Rae, one of Rossetti's keenest patrons, it was returned to the artist's studio for 'glazing'. Rossetti took the opportunity to retouch it extensively, and re-named it Aurelia.
The model for both the painting and the present drawing was Fanny Cornforth. Born Sarah Cox, the daughter of a blacksmith in the Sussex village of Steyning, in 1835, Fanny entered Rossetti's life on 25 August 1856 when they met during a fète in the old Surrey Gardens to celebrate the return of troops from the Crimea. The following day she went to his studio in Blackfriars to pose for the figure of the farmer's mistress in his picture Found (Bancroft Collection, Willmington). Of easy virtue, though probably not, as is sometimes alleged, a prostitute, Fanny possessed striking good looks of a worldly, voluptuous kind. Rossetti's brother, William Michael, described her as 'a pre-eminently fine woman, with regular and sweet features, and a mass of the most lovely blonde hair, light golden or "harvest yellow"'. For Dante Gabriel, her combination of beauty, sexual generosity and sheer animal magnetism proved irresistible, especially after his long and tortured relationship with the neurotic Lizzie Siddal. She was almost certainly his mistress before his marriage to Lizzie in May 1860, and when he moved to Cheyne Walk following Lizzie's death two years later, Fanny was established there as his housekeeper. During the early and mid 1860s she dominated his imagination, her type making her the perfect muse of his Venetian phase, just as the virginal Lizzie had inspired his earlier Dantesque period. By the later 1860s the more soulful looks of Jane Morris were in the ascendant, but Rossetti continued to rely on Fanny for practical help and the emotional stability he so needed in his later years, when his life was increasingly clouded by physical and mental illness. (For the most detailed and thoroughly-researched account of Fanny's career to date, see Anne Drewery, Julian Moore and Christopher Whittick, 'Re-Presenting Fanny Cornforth', The British Art Journal, vol. II, no. 3, Spring/Summer 2001, pp. 3-15).
Writing to Fanny when he was altering Fazio's Mistress in 1873, Rossetti emphasised that he had not touched the head, which was 'as like' her 'as any I ever did'. This would also seem to be true of the drawing, although there are many variations. In the painting, the angle of the head is slightly different, more emphasis is placed on the hair, the sitter's dress is arranged to display more of her shapely neck and shoulder, and a number of accessories, including a mirror, a comb and a hairbrush, are introduced.
The drawing is not included in Virginia Surtees' catalogue, and its re-appearance adds an interesting item to Rossetti's oeuvre. The date it bears conveys the hitherto unknown information that the artist was planning the picture as early as March 1863, seven months before the canvas itself was in progress.
Fazio's Mistress represents that fascinating moment when, abandoning watercolour and turning his back on Dantesque and Arthurian themes, Rossetti sought through the medium of oil to evolve an Aesthetic style that was essentially subjectless and decorative. His description of the picture in October 1863 is significant. 'I am now painting', he wrote to his Leeds patron Ellen Heaton, 'a lady plaiting her golden hair. This is in oil and chiefly a piece of colour.' It also says much about the abstract nature of the work that when he re-touched it he could give it a different title. As it happens, George Rae preferred the original name, and the picture is still generally known as Fazio's Mistress. Art historians should be grateful for this, for if, as seems likely, the title refers to the sixteenth-century Venetian artist Bonifazio Veronese, it supports other evidence of the influence of Venetian painting on Rossetti at this period.
We are grateful to Virginia Surtees for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.
For a note on Eric and Stella Newton see lot 140.