Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
(Whose sounds mine inner sense is fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring,) –
‘Woe’s for thee, unhappy Proserpine!'"
A TIMELESS ICON
The word ‘Iconic’ is overused but there are pictures that define an artist’s oeuvre, are milestones in an artistic movement and are pivotal images in history and to these the label is appropriate. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s haunting image of Proserpine is one such picture that should be regarded as no less than an icon of European art – instantly recognisable and representing the artist at the zenith of his originality. In many ways it stands apart from much of the art created by Rossetti’s contemporaries as something new and otherworldly that was unlike anything else that had been seen before it. Perhaps there is something of the intensity of William Blake's images of otherworldliness and the grace of classical art, a hint of the introverted gaze of the Madonnas that look out from countless Renaissance altarpieces. However, although Rossetti absorbed influences from historical art and the work of his contemporaries, his conception of beauty was personal and highly unique.
It is no exaggeration to say that Rossetti played a major role in the reshaping of modern ideas of female beauty, from the pinched and pale look of the Victorian archetype to the more sensual and exotic beauty that became popular towards the end of the nineteenth century. He created a craze for loose gowns free from the constraints of corsets and whalebone and for long hair worn in untamed masses flowing over bare shoulders. The sensuality of pouting lips, swan-like necks and deep soulful eyes is mirrored by long, elegant hands and tall statuesque physiques.
Without the Symbolism of images like Proserpine, with its connection to nature and to the beauty of the female form, the movements of Art Nouveau and the exotic excesses of the Fin de Siecle would not have found their sinuous, organic forms. The distancing from traditional forms of pictorial narrative to an art that was more abstracted and suggestive rather than explanatory, also paved the way for Expressionism and eventually Abstraction. Rossetti’s art was as avante garde and daring as the work of the Impressionists, arguably even more so because whilst the Impressionists presented a different view of the world, Rossetti presented a different view of the psyche.
With its strong verticality and concentration upon a monolithic female figure with a fierce exotic beauty and grasping slender hands, Gustav Klimt's famous Judith II of 1909 (Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Ca Pesaro, Venice) appears to owe much to Rossetti's Proserpine. Both depict women from the ancient world, enclosed within the confines of narrow, upright pictures and their garments have been abstracted to form repeating patterns that undulate through the pictorial space. Although none of the versions of Proserpine were exhibited abroad, one was illustrated in Magazine of Art in 1883 and again in Art Journal in 1907. These publications had a large and wide readership and did much to spread the fame of British art beyond its shores.
Rossetti did not often allow his paintings to be exhibited but Proserpine was well-known through reproductions both during his lifetime and afterwards. The influence upon artists like Odilon Redon and Fernand Knopff is clear and obvious but Rossetti's femme fatales would have a more far-reaching effect upon artists like Gauguin and Picasso, Munch and Klimt. The intensity of the gaze of Gauguin's exotic tempresses from Tahiti recalls that of Proserpine and the similarity of Rossetti's picture and Gauguin's Woman Holding a Fruit of 1892 may not be accidental. It is certainly known that Picasso was an admirer of Rossetti's pictures and in the early twentieth century, the Spanish artist painted several pictures that capture the same tension, such as Girl in a Chemise and The Old Guitarist of 1903. The melancholic tension of Proserpine anticipated the shadowy introspection of Picasso's Blue Period several decades after Rossetti had passed into the Underworld himself.
L.S. Lowry, the painter of stark industrial landscapes and town-scenes, was fascinated by Rossetti's art and owned more than a dozen pictures by him, including one of the oil versions of Proserpine (private collection) which hung for many years on his staircase. Of Rossetti's pictures he wrote; 'They are not real women, they are dreams. They fascinate me like a snake. There is no-one like Rossetti. I don't care much for his subject pictures but his women are very wonderful. I can't find anything quite like them... wonderful creatures they are... unreal pictures.' He had been beguiled by Rossetti's pictures in the late 1940s and his interest endured for more than twenty years. There is perhaps something of Rossetti's claustrophobia and tension in Lowry's own pictures of people, whether the troubled souls that inhabit his townscapes or the monolithic portraits of 'Anne' that he painted.
When we think of Victorian art we sometimes make the mistake of not seeing beyond the lace-curtains, overly ornate furniture and the obsession with clutter, chintz and collecting that define only one aspect of the period. It is easy to look through a narrow perspective and not see the powerful, decadent, staggeringly beautiful and highly original art that was produced by the Bohemians whose visions stood apart from those around them as remarkable icons of one of the fastest-changing and dynamic eras in history.
'THE BEST PICTURE I EVER PAINTED'
In a shadowed corner of her subterranean palace, where only a small shaft of sunlight penetrates the gloom, stands the beautiful Queen of the Underworld, Proserpine (or Persephone to use her Greek name) daughter of Zeus. In her elegant pale hands she holds a pomegranate fruit, her consumption of its seeds condemning her to stay for half of each year with her abductor Pluto, who had promised to return her to her mother Demeter, only if she had not eaten in his realm. Her face conveys the melancholy of her incarceration, but is also defiant and powerful; as the Queen of the Underworld she is the ultimate ruler of mankind all of whom must eventually stand before her throne. A lamp, resting on a ledge before her, is emitting curls of smoke, its flame extinguished by the sudden opening of a portal which casts the patch of light and reveals Proserpine's 'sin'. The spectator is placed in the position of Pluto himself, discovering his wife eating the fruit. Like Eve who was tempted in the Garden of Eden to taste the forbidden fruit, Proserpine has been caught with the fruit-juice staining her pouting lips. Tendrils of ivy curl around her head, invaders from the world above and symbols of clinging memory - her memory of the love of her mother who is searching the flower-clad slopes where Proserpine was snatched by her uncle, Pluto. It was at the lake of Pergusa on Sicily, where Proserpine was bathing with the nymphs, that Pluto had seen her and, impassioned by one of Cupid's arrows, he had swept her away in his chariot drawn by the fiery black horses Alastor, Orphnaeus, Aethon and Nycteus. Ceres searched in vain for her daughter, her every step scorching the earth and her rage causing the harvests to wither in the fields and vineyards. All she found was the belt from her daughter's gown floating in a pool of tears created by the nymphs; it was said that the the nymphs never forgave Pluto and in the form of the Sirens they sought to punish all men and gods with their ruinous song. It was the terror of Ceres' maternal anger that inspired Jupiter and Mercury to plead with Pluto for Proserpine's return.
Of all the subjects that Rossetti treated, both pictorially and in verse, that of Proserpine was the one into which he invested the most personal associations in his later years. In its various versions the image has come to represent the artist in his final and fullest identity – and as such tells much about his creatively inventive but also tormented soul. By his own reckoning, Proserpine was the most beautiful of all his inventions (Rossetti described one of the two oil versions upon which the present drawing was based as ‘the best picture I ever painted’). The subject of Proserpine is therefore seminal in the artist’s oeuvre as a whole; crucial in our understanding of the ultimate direction of Rossetti’s art; and one of the most immediately recognisable images of the nineteenth century. The otherworldly mystery of Proserpine has made the image timeless and eternal.
Proserpine is the picture in which Rossetti wove his most allegorical symbolism. She personifies winter, when Nature is held captive by frost and ice, new shoots are hidden in the soil waiting for spring and wild beasts have taken to caves and crevices to hibernate. Thus Proserpine is hidden away, her beauty unseen by the eyes of the Overworld. Clad in a gown of cold Tartarean grey which mirrors the pale beauty of her eyes and falls in folds that resemble a frozen waterfall, the fall of tears or the water spilled from the urn of the condemned Danaiades. Only the evergreen ivy is in leaf amid the wintry shadows of a world that will never see spring. Although Proserpine inhabits the palace of death, the golden glow of her flesh and the warmth of her lips makes it clear that she represents life, waiting to be freed and reborn. She also personifies female virginity; womanhood incarcerated and held from the eyes of men and the fruit revealing itself to be consumed has obvious sexual implications. Like the fruit which is both delicious and forbidden, she also reflects the contradictions of illicit temptation. She is irresistible but cannot be had and symbolises hope amid despair, spring in winter, life in death and love in grief. Her enigmatic expression reflects the duality of her symbolism and she is both alluring and threatening. The elegant fingers of her right hand seem to offer to share the fruit but she restrains her wrist and turns her body away from view to hide the fruit, herself and her sin.
Among other Victorian painters who treated the legend of Proserpine/Persephone, Edward John Poynter, in his 1869 Royal Academy exhibit, showed Proserpine gathering flowers in a meadow as Pluto was about to seize her. This subject was treated in similar vein by Walter Crane in 1878 and both Poynter and Crane concentrated on the narrative of the abduction. Frederic Leighton’s The Return of Persephone (Leeds City Art Gallery), shown in 1891, represents the moment of reunion between the goddess and her mother, as Hermes, the messenger of the gods, leads her from the Underworld to the land of the living. Rossetti depicted Proserpine in 1875 in a less well-known composition, the elaborate drawing Orpheus and Eurydice (British Museum) in which she is seen grieving for the fated lovers as Eurydice is condemned to die for a second time - seeing in Eurydice's death, her own inability to free herself fully from her imprisonment.
Subjects from classical mythology had become increasingly important stimuli for Rossetti, mirroring a trend that had become fashionable in the 1860s with paintings by Leighton, Burne-Jones and Poynter and by the likes of the members of the Aesthetic Movement Simeon Solomon, Albert Joseph Moore, George Frederick Watts and Whistler. Like Watts and Burne-Jones, Rossetti saw classical mythology as a world that could be plundered for subjects and rather than trying to recreate it, he interpretted it his own way. He sometimes struggled in his attempts to paint ambitious mythological subjects; the project to paint Perseus and Andromeda in Aspecta Medusa resulted in the creation of beautiful drawings but a finished work was aborted; painted versions of the intricate drawings The Question and Cassandra did not materialise and Orpheus and Eurydice was unsuccessful. However classical mythology resulted in the creation of at least three masterpieces, all depicting Jane Morris - Pandora, Astarte Syriaca and Proserpine.
Rossetti explained the subject of his representation of Proserpine in a letter to William Turner at the time that the collector was about to buy an oil version of the subject: ‘The figure represents Proserpine as Empress of Hades. After she was conveyed by Pluto to his realm, and became his bride, her mother Ceres importuned Jupiter for her return to earth, and he was prevailed on to consent to this, provided only she had not partaken of any of the fruits of Hades. It was found, however, that she had eaten one grain of a pomegranate, and this enchained her to her new empire and destiny. She is represented in a gloomy corridor of her palace, with the fatal fruit in her hand. As she passes, a gleam strikes on the wall behind her from some inlet suddenly opened, and admitting for a moment the light of the upper world; and she glances furtively towards it, immersed in thought. The incense-burner stands beside her as the attribute of a goddess. The ivy-branch in the background (a decorative appendage to the sonnet inscribed on the drawing) may be taken as a symbol of clinging memory’. As Rossetti first worked on the painting of the subject, he composed a sonnet as an accompaniment. This is given in its Italian form on a cartellino in the two principal oil versions of the subject as well as in the present drawing. It was not unusual for Rossetti to create a picture and a sonnet concurrently and he saw the two arts as mutually reflective.
In November 1872 Rossetti wrote to Charles Augustus Howell describing his intended composition, enclosing an extract from Lemprière’s classical dictionary describing the myth. The story of Proserpine was in fact long familiar to Rossetti and was undoubtedly discussed among his circle of friends. Swinburne’s two poems ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ and ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ had appeared in his Poems and Ballads, published in 1866, and had been regarded as lewd in their preoccupation with a destructive and sadistic femme fatale and in their repudiation of Christianity, and had been found disturbing by their stress on the close association of Proserpine with death. Walter Pater’s two essays on the theme of Proserpine, which appeared in The Fortnightly Review in 1876, described the dire circumstances of the goddess’s incarceration. While Rossetti’s own poem on the theme amounts to a more literal summary of the legend, it also omits reference to the delight and consolation of reunion between mother and daughter which is implicit in the legend taken as a whole (and which was emphasised by contrast by Tennyson in his poem ‘Demeter and Persephone’, of 1886).
The successive versions of Proserpine show the goddess tormented by despairing grief at her fate. Her expression is one of desperation, as she realises that the pleasures of human existence are to be denied her despite her youth and sensuous beauty. Her right hand rests on the wrist of her left as if in an attempt to restrain herself from tasting the fateful fruit, the consumption of which has already condemned her and upon which the gash made by her teeth stands as an emblem of her sexuality (and which in Rossetti’s composition she appears covertly to show to the artist and spectator as if to announce her acceptance of her own libido without shame, and to explain why she was driven to distraction by her loveless marriage). Both sonnet and painted image emphasise the sense of separation and remoteness that the goddess feels; the repeated word ‘afar’ is followed by a list of things from which she has departed – sunlight, flowers, sky, even recollections of the past and of her very self as she once had been. Symbols of memory such as the tendril of ivy and lamp (from which a last expiring thread of smoke, but no light, emerges) lend meaning to the mournful gist.
'THAT PERFECT STUNNER OF HIS'
The artist’s image of Proserpine originated in a chalk drawing modelled on his principal muse of his mature period, Jane Morris (née Burden). In 1857 the seventeen year old Jane entered the Pre-Raphaelite circle, at the time when Rossetti was leading the project to paint murals on Arthurian themes for the Union Building at Oxford University. She was the daughter of a local groom, with a simple upbringing but her fine, brooding good-looks enchanted both Rossetti and his friend William Morris, who married her in 1859. Strikingly beautiful, the poet Swinburne affected outrage at the news of her engagement, expressing the view that Morris should be ‘content with that perfect stunner of his’ and be satisfied just ‘to look at or speak to [her]. The idea of his marrying her is insane. To kiss her feet is the utmost men should dream of doing’.
In the early 1860s Jane was preoccupied with her young children May and Jenny and there was only occasional contact between her and Rossetti, whose own romantic life was complicated by his love affair with the earthy Fanny Cornforth, followed by his marriage to Elizabeth Siddal and her tragic death. Therefore, it was not before the middle of the 1860s that he found himself turning to Jane for spiritual succour, and allowing himself to become enamoured of her extraordinary physical appearance and sphinx-like personality. In 1865 he commissioned a series of photographs to be taken of her by John Robert Parsons in the garden of his house in Cheyne Walk (known collectively as the ‘Jane Morris Album’ and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum). It was also in 1865 that he commenced a series of chalk head studies of Jane Morris in which he memorialised her remarkable and distinctive beauty - her sensuous lips, tall and sculptural neck, and lustrous cascading hair.
Caught in a disappointing marriage to a man she probably never loved whose intellectual and artistic enthusiasms left little time to devote to her, Jane found comfort from the attentions of the passionate Rossetti. However it is not known whether their love affair was ever physical and she herself insisted that it was not. William Morris was aware of Rossetti’s infatuation with his wife, but did nothing to cease contact between them and even allowed them to spend long periods of time together during the summers of 1871 and 1872 at Kelmscott Manor, the beautiful house on the Thames near Lechlade that he and Rossetti shared as a country retreat. It was at Kelmscott, during those uninterrupted idyllic summer days that Rossetti’s love for Jane grew and he made numerous drawings of her.
The intensity of Rossetti's feelings for Jane can be judged from his letters to her, such as the one written in February 1870: 'No-one seems alive to me now, and places that are empty of you are empty of all life... You are the noblest and dearest thing that the world has had to show me, and if no lesser loss than the loss of you could have brought me so much bitterness I would still rather have this to endure than have missed the fullness of wonder and worship which nothing else could have made known to me.' (J. Bryson and J.C. Troxell, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris: Their Correspondence, 1976, p.68) This obsessiveness led in part to Rossetti’s mental breakdown in 1872 after which their friendship became more distant until in 1876 Jane announced that she could no longer continue their relationship on the level of intensity that he required. By this time the images of Jane in Rossetti’s paintings had ceased to be portraits and had taken on a much more symbolic intensity, culminating in Astarte Syriaca of 1877 (Manchester City Art Gallery), Pandora (private collection) and the versions of Proserpine, in which he personified her with the magnificence of a goddess.
Proserpine represented Rossetti's emergence from his breakdown of 1872. It was the first project that he designed after his recovery and rather than being a pessimistic view of the world, it symbolised the reawakening of his artistic energies. During the darkest times of his depression, when he had often contemplated death and even attempted to take his own life, Rossetti had experienced the shadowed world of Proserpine's prison but now in the summer at Kelmscott, with his beloved Jane, he was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The symbolism of the story of Proserpine has clear allusions to how Rossetti felt about Jane’s marriage to William. He clearly intended to draw a parallel between the time that they were able to spend at Kelmscott in the summer months and Proserpine’s release from Hades. Rossetti had made similar connections in 1868 when he began to paint Jane as La Pia de’Tolomei (University Museum of Art, Lawrence, Kansas) depicting a woman imprisoned by her cruel husband in a malarial marsh. In more oblique terms Rossetti painted Jane as unfulfilled or abandoned women, in pictures such as Mariana of 1870 (Aberdeen Art Gallery) and Penelope of 1869 (collection of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber). Rossetti even placed in Jane's hand a golden pomegranate, the shape of which had often appeared in wallpaper designs by her husband, including one of his most popular designs made in 1864.
The beauty of Jane Morris and Rossetti’s love for her, combined with his extraordinary artistic talent created an image of womanhood that was very different from the mainstream Victorian ideal. Rossetti’s pictures of Jane have made hers one of the most recognisable faces of the nineteenth century and the intensity of the images is testament to the love that Rossetti felt for her.
THE CREATION OF A MASTERPIECE
‘I am hard at work on a picture of Proserpine, which I have begun and re-begun time after time, being resolved to make it the best I can do.’
(letter from Rossetti to George Price Boyce, 1872)
It was Rossetti’s practice, particularly in his late career, to make multiple versions of the subjects that most appealed to him. In part, he did this so as to satisfy clients who had seen and admired particular works commissioned by or promised to other patrons and thus to raise money. However, it was the artist’s method and predilection to paint successive versions of a subject, in the process hoping to arrive at a definitive treatment in which all pictorial difficulties were resolved. As the artist’s friend William Bell Scott observed at the time of the two Rossetti memorial exhibitions, ‘he only attained to the command of a subject by repeating it’.
The chronology and provenance of the various versions of Proserpine has always frustrated and intrigued Rossetti scholars and the mysteries may never be fully resolved. In 1899 when H.C. Marillier wrote his extensive monograph on Rossetti, he explained that the picture, ‘has a very complicated history attached to it, and is without exception the most difficult puzzle in connection with the artist’s work.’ He felt that he had ‘unravelled the main facts’ but in truth there were many more strands of the mystery to be unravelled. In 1971 Virginia Surtees published her catalogue raisonnee and was able to shed new light on several of the versions, but there remained unanswered questions, some of which have only very recently been solved by Alan Life’s publication of Rossetti’s correspondence – a seventeen page Appendix is devoted to the oil versions of Proserpine.
The composition of Proserpine can be traced back to a drawing dated 1871 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) which has simpler draperies and lacks the peripheral details of the lamp, ivy and sonnet. This drawing was probably made between July and October 1871 when Rossetti was at Kelmscott with Jane Morris and her daughters. On 25 August he wrote to his friend William Bell Scott, ‘made chalk drawings… of the kids and of their mamma’; one of these drawings may have been the Ashmolean drawing. This drawing had a strong emotional attachment for Rossetti who refused to part with it; it was bequeathed to Jane upon his death and given by her daughter to the Ashmolean in 1939.
The present drawing was almost certainly the one that Rossetti described in a letter to Jane Morris on 19 February 1878: 'I have lately done in replica the drawings of Pandora & Proserpine for the market, as I wouldn't part with the originals; but haven't spotted a buyer yet. Of course indeed no one has yet seen them. The Proserpine is fully carried out as in the picture ... and both look very well.' (William E. Fredeman (ed.), The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 2002-2009, 9 volumes, vol.8., p.250 the version of Pandora mentioned in the letter is now at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). Rossetti's studio assistant Henry Treffry Dunn made the initial underdrawing of the present picture by copying the outline in graphite for Rossetti to work over with coloured chalks. When the picture was sold at Christie's in 1970 the catalogue stated; 'It is thought that the most which Dunn could have done on this work was the outline of the figure.' and it is pointed out that Dunn had left Rossetti's employ by the time the drawing was made, to pursue a career in Cornwall as a portrait painter.
The drawing clearly occupied Rossetti for some time as he did not date it until 1880 when it was acquired by one of his most loyal and devoted patrons, William Graham. Graham was an M.P. for Glasgow whose collection of Pre-Raphaelite and Old Master pictures was exceptional in its variety and quality. Among the thirty-seven pictures by Rossetti owned by Graham, were painting from his early years Ecce Ancilla Domini of 1850 (Tate), and Arthur's Tomb of 1855 (British Museum); and later masterpieces The Blue Bower of 1865 (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham), Mariana of 1870 (Aberdeen Art Gallery), La Ghirlandata of 1873 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London), The Blessed Damozel of 1878 (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts) and Dante's Dream of 1880 (Dundee Art Gallery). It seems that Rossetti gave Proserpine to Graham to settle a debt from 1871 when Graham had paid the artist £100 for a drawing that failed to materialise. The fragment of a letter from Graham written in the summer of 1880 mentions Proserpine and the final settlement of the debt. Rossetti also mentioned the drawing in a letter to Dunn, dated 17 February 1880: 'I have had already to sacrifice to him [William Graham] (and it came very conveniently) the Proserpine you commenced and I carried on, to meet a debt which he proved (to my surprise) of £100 to be met by chalk work, and which had got quite overlooked for years. This Proserpine I must finish'.
The picture was last seen on the art market in 1971 when it was sold to the present owner by the proprietors of the Stone Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Stone Gallery sold paintings and drawings by Rossetti at a time when Pre-Raphaelite art was at an ebb in popularity and value. However they had several loyal clients who purchased pictures by Rossetti and his circle, including the artist L.S. Lowry whose work they also represented. Lowry had bought the oil version of Proserpine (private collection) six years earlier.
Sotheby’s are very grateful to The Society of Antiquaries of London who own and manage Kelmscott Manor, for allowing us to photograph Proserpine in the room used by Rossetti as a studio. With upwards of 18,000 annual visitors, this important international heritage site urgently needs protecting for future generations. The custodians of Kelmscott would welcome anyone who feels able to help protect this important legacy, please contact Sarah Parker at email@example.com
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