Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
16.5 x 12.25 inches
Inscribed by a later hand verso 'Study by D.G. Rossetti given by him to G. Boyce May 19th '65.'
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Commentary by the Maas Gallery
Alexa Wilding's relationship with Rossetti, unlike with a number of his other models including Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris, was free of emotional and physical complications. One of his favourite models during the 1860s and 1870s, Wilding sat for Rossetti regularly during this period and appears in an astonishing number of major works including Venus Verticordia (1864-8, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth), Monna Vanna (1866, Tate Gallery), Regina Cordium (1866, Glasgow Art Gallery), Sibylla Palmifera (1866-70, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), The Bower Meadow (1872, Manchester City Art Gallery), The Roman Widow (1874, Ponce, Puerto Rico), La Bella Mano (1875, Bancroft Collection, Wilmington, Delaware) and The Blessed Damozel (1875-8, Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard).
Although we do not know Miss Wilding's date of birth, it is thought that she was in her late 20s or early 30s when she began modelling for Rossetti. They met quite by chance one summer evening, as Rossetti was on his way to The Arundel Club. Walking alongside a young woman, Rossetti was struck by her beautiful features and her auburn hair and followed her for some distance. Finally building up his courage, the artist approached Miss Wilding and asked her to visit his studio and sit for him. They agreed for her to visit the next day, however, to his great disappointment she failed to appear and he gave up hope of seeing her again.
Some months later, Rossetti chanced upon her again on The Strand and convinced here there and then, to visit his studio. On learning that she could earn more money in a single sitting than in a week as a dressmaker, she agreed to model for him exclusively. For a number of years in the late 1860s and 1870s, Rossetti paid Alexa a retainer of £2 a week to sit for him exclusively, although Rossetti's friend and patron George Price Boyce,(1826–1897), who was also the original owner of this drawing, was on occasion, allowed to draw her. Rossetti's assistant Henry Treffry Dunn is recorded as stating 'Miss Wilding's was a lovely face, beautifully moulded in every feature, full of quiescent, soft, mystical repose that suited some of [Rossetti's] 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.'
Dunn also noticed that 'she had a deep well of affection within her seemingly placid exterior.' When Rossetti died in 1882, she was one of the few who travelled down to Birchington-on-Sea, even though she could ill afford it; a testament to the depth of their friendship.
The present drawing is previously not recorded and does not appear to be a study for a specific work. It appears to have been gifted to George Price Boyce in 1865. His entry diary of 19th May 1865, which has in itself become an important source on the activities of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood reads: 'Dined with Rossetti and Fanny and Howell at Chelsea. Settled to take for £50 eleven selected pencil studies of heads, R. in addition giving me one of a new model he has got to sit.' We believe that the present drawing may have been one these sketches.
We are grateful to Virginia Surtees for confirming the authenticity of this work after examining the picture first hand.
Pre-Raphaelitism. Exhibition catalogue. London: Maas Gallery, 2013. No. 16.
Last modified 29 April 2013