A little space her glance is still and coy;
But if she give the fruit that works her spell,
Those eyes shall flame for the Phrygian boy.
Then shall her bird’s strained throat the woe fortell,
And her far seas moan as a single shell,
And through her dark grove strike the light of Troy.’
Venus Verticordia by D.G. Rossetti
A radiant young woman with a mane of flame-red hair lit by a golden halo encircled by fluttering butterflies, stands naked amid a bower of honeysuckle and crimson roses. In one hand she holds up an apple and in the other she grips the shaft of a golden arrow. Venus Verticordia is Rossetti’s only important painting of a nude and his most erotic Symbolist picture, powerfully mystic in the intensity of the woman's blue-eyed gaze and luscious in its Venetian colouring.
Although Rossetti was usually indifferent to changing modes of fashion Venus Verticordia was his response to an emerging vogue for paintings of nudes that emerged in the 1860s. Contemporary examples of this new trend in art include Edward Poynter’s Siren of 1864 (private collection) and George Frederick Watts’ Study with Peacock Feathers of 1865 (private collection). It has also been suggested that Rossetti was responding to Renaissance precedents, such as the nude versions of the Mona Lisa that were in circulation in the nineteenth century, or the voluptuous images of women painted by Titian who are often in a state of undress. In June 1863 two versions of Venus Pudica were sold at Christie’s, one of which had been repainted by a prudish owner to include a proliferation of roses to conceal her nudity. At this time Botticelli’s status was not what it is today and he was a rather neglected artist. However, Rossetti was an admirer and owned a half-length portrait by him of Smeralda Bandinelli. Rossetti’s friend Fred Stephens drew the parallel between Venus Verticordia and earlier representations of the goddess; ‘She is a Venus of Chaucer’s heart, not the grave mother of the grand Greek school, still less a meretrix like the Venus de’ Medici or the pert women of the late Renaissance, but one of the true Renaissance, that glorious Indian summer when Art halted awhile before it fell completely.’ (Athenaeum, October 1865, p.21)
In Latin literature the name ‘Venus Verticordia’ referred to Venus’ ability to inspire virtue and chastity. The phrase exists in Ovid’s Fasti and the poetry of Valerius Maximus. However, it was Rossetti’s intention to suggest her ability to turn men’s hearts away from fidelity. Rossetti’s poem references the Trojan War by mentioning the ‘Phrygian boy’ – Paris, Prince of Troy. The apple in the painting also refers to the Trojan War – the golden apple of the Hesperides awarded to Venus during the Judgement of Paris in return for the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. After being awarded the apple and with the intervention of Venus Verticordia, Paris turned his heart away from the nymph Oenone and Helen turned hers from her husband Menelaus. The seemingly innocent fruit was the cause of the Trojan War in a similar way that the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden caused the Fall of Man and Proserpine’s eating of the fruit in the Underworld led to her incarceration. Venus protectively holds the apple against her own golden skin in a way that suggests that it should also be regarded as a visual metaphor for her heart, or her breast.
The earliest figure drawings for Venus Verticordia were probably made in the winter of 1863 or spring of 1864, including a pencil drawing (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and a study of the same model (formerly in the collection of L.S. Lowry, sold Sotheby’s, 13 July 2010, lot 8 and purchased by the Russell Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth). The first mention of Rossetti working on a painted version of Venus Verticordia appears in the diary of William Allingham on 26 June 1864; ‘Down to Chelsea to find D.G. Rossetti painting a very large young woman, almost a giantess, as Venus Verticordia.’ (William Allingham, A Diary, 1907, p.100). It is difficult to be certain but this picture was probably the oil version (Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth) commissioned by John Mitchell, an industrialist from Bradford. Another drawing, in red chalk (Faringdon Collection, Buscot Park, Oxfordshire), was probably made at this time using the model described by Allingham. William Michael Rossetti mentions this girl in a reminiscence published in 1884; ‘I can recollect that my brother being on the look out for some person to serve as a model for the head and shoulders of his Venus, noticed in the street a handsome and striking woman, not very much less perhaps than six feet high… He spoke to this person who turned out to be a cook serving in some family in Portland Place, and from her he painted his large Venus Verticordia.’ (Art Journal, 1884, p.167) This model appears to have been replaced by Harriet Emily Eliza Renshaw who was spotted in the street by Rossetti and his painting-assistant Walter Knewstub around 1864. Knewstub was enraged when he discovered that Rossetti had painted Emily’s features onto a naked torso, as he had fallen in love with her - in 1866 Knewstub married Emily, but the marriage was apparently not a happy one as Knewstub’s parents disapproved of her and disinherited their son. Although Rossetti agreed to repaint the oil picture to placate Knewstub, he had made a watercolour replica of the original appearance of the painting (Leverhulme Collection) whilst in Paris in November 1864.
In 1867 Rossetti returned to the subject and composition of Venus Verticordia and made another version in coloured chalks (Christie’s, 7 November 1997, lot 40). In 1868 Rossetti wrote to George Price Boyce to inform him of progress on the oil painting; ‘I have at last erased & completely repainted the figure and head in my Venus’ and by May he reported that it was ‘very near completion’. The painting was completed by September 1868 and sent to Mitchell in Bradford, repainted with the head of Alexa Wilding.
Rossetti had first seen Miss Wilding (whose first name was Alice, although in due course she adopted the more exotic 'Alexa'), the seamstress daughter of a maker of pianofortes, when she was walking in the Strand one day in 1865. He had beseached her to allow him to paint and draw her but although she agreed to call at his studio, she failed to appear. Fortunately Rossetti saw her again - apparently at the same spot where he had first seen her and on this occasion Rossetti succeeded in persuading Alexa that his intentions were honourable, so that in due course she began to serve as a model. Within a year, Rossetti had embarked on the series of paintings of her, of which Venus Verticordia, Monna Vanna (Tate), Sibylla Palmifera (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) and La Ghirlandata (Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London) are among the most famous. During the second half of the 1860s and early 1870s, Rossetti relied upon Alexa Wilding to be available to him, finding her a patient and biddable sitter, and with a kind of beauty passive enough to allow her to adopt a wide variety of personifications and roles. Over a period of several years he paid her a small salary that she should model for him exclusively, perhaps because it was known that other artists - notably John Everett Millais - desired to paint her. His studio assistant Henry Treffry Dunn, harboured an unrequited love for Alexa and described her as a woman whose 'lovely face [was] beautifully moulded in every feature, full of a quiescent soft mystical repose that suited some of his [Rossetti's] compositions admirably, but without any variety of expression', whilst Frederic George Stephens believed that 'in regard to her form and air, he [Rossetti] never adopted a more exquisite form of womanhood, per se' than 'the beautiful Miss Wilding'. Although Alexa had dreams of becoming an actress, she was considered by most of Rossetti's circle to be 'respectable', even being invited to spend Christmas at Rossetti's country house Kelmscott Manor with the artist, his sisters and his mother. It is therefore likely that she only posed for the head of Venus and although he painted her as the Goddess of Love he did not have romantic feelings towards her. However, he clearly found her physically attractive.
The present watercolour is a replica of the Bournemouth picture, painted in 1868 for the great Pre-Raphaelite collector William Graham who owned no fewer than forty pictures by Rossetti. Graham was an M.P. for Glasgow whose collection of Pre-Raphaelite and Old Master pictures was exceptional in its variety and quality. He was a passionate collector, known to have kissed the parts of a picture that he found most beautiful. Among his pictures by Rossetti, were early paintings Ecce Ancilla Domini (Tate), and Arthur's Tomb (British Museum); and later masterpieces The Blue Bower (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham), Mariana (Aberdeen Art Gallery), La Ghirlandata (Guildhall Art Gallery, London), The Blessed Damozel (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts) and Dante's Dream (Dundee Art Gallery). Graham also owned the chalk version of Proserpine (sold in these rooms 19 November 2013, lot 8).
The Symbolism of a Masterpiece
Venus Verticordia represents the zenith of Rossetti’s desire to capture the essence of powerful female allure. This obsession with luscious sensuality has been linked to Rossetti’s friendship with the poet Swinburne, with whom he shared a house in the 1860s and whose poetry also dealt with similar subjects of powerful, domineering women. In 1865 Fred Stephen’s described Venus Verticordia as being a woman who; ’guards the apple with the threatening dart, while the Psyche, tremulous of wing, traverses its surface. Winner of hearts, she reeks not for her soul; fraught with peril, her ways are inscrutable; there is more evil than good in her; she is victorious and indominatable’ (Athenaeum, 21 October 1865, p.546).
The arrow is symbolic of the weapons of Cupid (Venus’ son) used to pierce the hearts of lovers and inflict a wound that will not heal with a sweet poison that inspires love. The arrow can also be seen as a further symbol of Paris, being the arrow that will mortally wound him on the battlefield of Troy. Venus holds the shaft of the arrow like a javelin, drawing it back as though she were poised to inflict a wound upon the viewer. The apple too is a symbol of both Paris and Venus and a sensual reference to her own breast, a connection that Rossetti made explicit in his poem of 1869 'Troy Town', which opens with Helen of Troy moulding a chalice into the form of her own breast as an offering to Venus:
'Each twin breast is an apple sweet.
(O Troy Town!)
Once an apple stirred the beat
Of thy heart with the heart's desire: —
Say, who brought it then to thy feet?
(O Troy's down,
Tall Troy's on fire!)'
A golden apple had also been present in the first of Rossetti's celebrations of sensual femininity, Bocca Baciata of 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) in which the plucked fruit symbolised the loss of virginity of a woman who was intended to be seen as a courtesan in a modern 'Bower of Bliss'. In later years Rossetti used the symbolism of apples in his poem 'The Orchard Pit', a frightening vision of a siren who lives in the boughs of an apple tree luring men to their death;
'In the soft dell, among the apple-trees,
High up above the hidden pit she stands,
Life's eyes are gleaming from her forehead fair,
And from her breasts the ravishing eyes of Death.'
The golden butterfly feeding on the apple symbolises attraction and appetite. In classical mythology the butterfly also represents the soul of mortals, represented by Psyche who was often depicted with butterfly wings. The maiden Psyche was the lover of Venus’ son Cupid who incurred the wrath of the Goddess of Love when Psyche disobeyed him.
The roses are symbols of love and are of a voluptuous type that suggests sensuality. The petals are almost fleshy and have an overt erotic symbolism whilst the honeysuckle was regarded by Rossetti as being a flower with stamen that resembled the human tongue. Honeysuckle and roses are also flowers with strong perfume that attract insects (like butterflies) and thus add to the theme of seduction and fertility. Rossetti went to great trouble and expense to obtain the flowers for the picture, borrowing money from his brother Michael to pay for exotic out-of-season blooms imported from the south of France. He wrote to his mother of the difficulties he had in obtaining the flowers; ‘I got three different parcels of honeysuckles from three different friends in three different parts of England, none of which were any use. Then I got some from a nursery at Waltham Cross which were not much use either, and lastly from the Crystal Palace. All with much delay and bother.’ (Oswald Doughty and J.R. Wahl (eds) The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1965-7, p.548) Honeysuckle had a particularly strong attachment to Rossetti, appearing in several of his most important paintings, including La Ghirlandata and The Daydream and being the subject of his poem 'The Honeysuckle' written in the summer of 1853;
I plucked a honeysuckle where
The hedge on high is quick with thorn,
And climbing for the prize, was torn,
And fouled my feet in quag-water;
And by the thorns and by the wind
The blossom that I took was thinn'd,
And yet I found it sweet and fair.
Rossetti’s efforts to realistically capture the forms of the roses led to the breaking of a friendship with an artist who had extolled the Pre-Raphaelite principle of truth to nature and studying natural forms, John Ruskin. The prudish and sexually-complicated Ruskin had become increasingly concerned by what he perceived to be sensuousness in Rossetti’s art. Unable to confront the real reason for his discomfort regarding Venus Verticordia, he centred his critical wrath upon the roses which he described in a pompous letter to Rossetti; ‘I purposely use the word “wonderfully” painted about those flowers. They were wonderful to me, in their realism; awful – I can use no other word – in their coarseness: showing enormous power, showing certain conditions of non-sentiment which underlie all you are doing – now.’ (John Ruskin, Works, XXXVI, p.491) Graham Robertson responded to Ruskin's reaction to the painting in a letter to Rossetti; 'I suppose he is reflecting upon their morals, but I never hear a word breathed against the perfect respectability of a honeysuckle. Of course roses have got themselves talked about from time to time, but really if one were to listen to scandal about flowers, gardening would become impossible.'
Rossetti took the remarkable decision to paint a halo or nimbus behind the head of his Venus, an addition that he justified by stating that ‘I believe the Greeks used to do it’ in a letter to Ford Madox Brown. For some, the halo was a blasphemous linking of this sensual Venus to the Virgin Mother and the mischievous influence of Algernon Swinburne was suspected. The inclusion of this halo demonstrates how important to him Venus Verticordia was – so important that he made her almost saintly among his vision of beauties. As has recently been stated; ‘the juxtaposition of the halo with the pulpy, sensual flowers – presents a characteristically Rossettian blend of earthiness and spirituality, suited to the conception of the ancient goddess of Love.’ (Julian Treuherz, Elizabeth Prettejohn and Edwin Becker, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 2004, pp.189-190)
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