LONDON – In Emma Thompson’s new film Effie Gray – see the trailer here and below – which premiered in London on Sunday, Greg Wise plays the artist/critic John Ruskin, whose marriage annulment trial to the titular Effie exposed his complicated sexual eccentricities. The reason for Ruskin’s disgust at the sight of his naked wife on their honeymoon has never been satisfactorily explained but has been much pondered. One suggestion is that Ruskin’s knowledge of the female body extended little beyond the perfected images of femininity presented in the classical marbles at the British Museum and when his bride undressed, the reality was more than he could bear. On 10 December, Sotheby’s will offer a painting, the reaction to which demonstrates Ruskin’s prudish ambivalence towards female sensuality – his comments about it showing what poor Effie faced.

                                      Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia, 1868. Estimate £1,000,000–1,500,000.

What was the painting that provoked Ruskin’s aversion? Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Venus Verticordia depicts an almost life-sized female nude, standing bare-breasted amid a paradise of flowers. When Ruskin first saw the oil version, now in the Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, he was profoundly disturbed, and the rebuke he sent to Rossetti caused a rift between the two and the end of Ruskin’s support for the radical young artist. Ruskin was unable to face the truth about what disturbed him, and rather than confronting his horror at such a dramatically modern female nude, he attacked the flowers in the picture: “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.” 

It is indicative of Ruskin’s troubled psyche that he chose to criticise the realism of the flowers when his offence was at being confronted by a naked woman so at odds with how he believed womanhood should be represented. Rossetti’s friends leapt to the artist’s defence – Graham Robertson wrote: “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.”

Are the flowers to blame for Ruskin’s reaction to the picture? The roses are certainly intended to be symbols of love and are of a voluptuous type that suggests sensuality. The apple, butterflies and flowers are all symbols of Rossetti’s intent to paint the ultimate picture of female sexual attraction, however, I do not believe the flowers offended Ruskin as much as he professed. I also do not think it was simply the nudity that disturbed him. The National Gallery was filled with images of naked women, and it was half a century before anyone would take offence at pictures like The Rokeby Venus. It is far more likely that Ruskin was intimidated by the presentation of a woman who gazes out so seductively and powerfully – both enticing and demonstrative. Perhaps it was acceptable for a Goddess to be depicted nude as long as she looked demure, but Rossetti’s woman demands to be looked at and exerts her sexuality in a way that men like Ruskin found threatening. She is unapologetically naked, proud of her beauty and displays the glory of her sexuality rather than being bashful. She represents a radical new notion of female sexuality in the mid-19th century. 

Rossetti understood, worshipped and glorified women, and so although it may be argued that he objectified them in his paintings, his later career was focussed upon celebrating powerful, confident and highly individual women. He attacked traditional notions of how women should be portrayed and mainstream beliefs of the feminine ideal. This embodiment of the Goddess of Love, as illustrated in the painting, is known as the Venus who can alter the course of love. Ruskin knew all too well how this felt, and perhaps he could see that Venus Verticordia depicted a woman who was able to make her own choices about who she loved – just as his wife Effie did.

Simon Toll is a specialist in the British and Irish Art department, Sotheby’s London. 

British & Irish Art
Sotheby’s London
Exhibition: 5, 7–9 December  
Auction: 10 December, 10 AM
Enquiries: +44 (0)20 7293 5731