[This essay originally appeared in the The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, 15 (Fall 2006): 15-26. — George P. Landow. Click on all the images to enlarge them.]


Found by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 1854-81. Oil on canvas, 30 x 35 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary Bancroft Memorial, Wilmington.

Found, the famous unfinished painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is a singular work in the production of the artist. Begun in 1853 and occupying the artist until his death in 1882, Found belongs neither to the category of watercolours inspired by Arthurian legend or the poetry of Dante, which form the bulk of Rossetti's production up to the 1860s, nor to the standard female portraits in the Venetian style, which later became his specialty. The painting's uniqueness has often been ascribed to the theme it illustrates: Rossetti's rare attempt at dealing with a "modern subject." However, even though the theme of the "fallen woman" was undoubtedly on his mind when he undertook his project for this picture, it seems that with the passing of years his intention became increasingly sophisticated, and he meant to achieve in a single painting purposes not only sociological and allegorical but moral and mystical as well. It is, I would suggest, the very ambitious character of the project, rather than the artist's loss of interest in the subject, which prevented Found from ever reaching completion.

Much has been written about Found, and a quick survey of the critical literature identifies six different readings. One focus considers it as a "social subject" upon the theme of contemporary prostitution, such as the young Rossetti could witness on his way to school from his parents' home in Charlotte Street. A second focus considers it as an illustration of William Bell Scott's poem "Rosabell" or of "Jenny," a poem Rossetti wrote as early as 1848 but remained unpublished until 1870. The similarities between "Jenny" and the painting have been demonstrated by G.L. Hersey (17-32). A third focus, based on the topography of the cityscape and the symbolic aspect of the bridge linking the country to the metropolis, considers it as an allegory on natural heaven and urban hell, as suggested by Linda Nochlin. A fourth considers it as a reflection on the status of the artist in Victorian society, an interpretation proposed by Danielle Bruckmuller-Genlot, who stresses the fact that Rossetti experienced his necessary compliance with the whims of patrons and art-dealers as a form of artistic and intellectual prostitution. A fifth considers it as a moral fable, similar to the one illustrated in The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt. Unsurprisingly, Hunt favoured this interpretation, while his granddaughter and biographer Diana Holman-Hunt noted that Rossetti believed he had thought first of the subject: "He insisted that he had thought of this subject, the rescue of the fallen, years ago" (144). A sixth focus considers Rossetti's well-known aversion for philanthropic enterprises and his friendliness with prostitutes, especially Annie Miller and Fanny Comforth who both sat for this painting; following Frederick Stephens's testimony that Rossetti was "thoroughly indisposed towards attempts to ameliorate anybody's condition by means of pictures," this focus is an anti-Pygmalion stance that rejects the orthodox redemption of the fallen girl.

These six readings are not exclusive of one another: they all represent one aspect of a complex, kaleidoscopic project which invites illustrative, allegorical, and moral interpretations. Most recently, in an insightful combination of these approaches, the painting has been read as a realist masterpiece by Marcia Werner, who has convincingly pointed to the standard Noli me Tangere representations of the resurrected Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene as a possible paradigm. As Werner suggests, "questions of reform, redemption, and eternity" certainly inform the painting and give credence to the biblical and pictorial precedent of the Noli me Tangere episode (198). I would like to pursue the implication of such a precedent and to examine the ways it affects a mystical reading of the painting based on its important biblical allusions. I am suggesting that the initial orthodox message about the "rescue of the fallen" is one that Rossetti was amending through time in order to keep pace with his changing attitude to the Anglo-Catholic creed in which he had been brought up by his mother. The artist's many attempts at solving this "problem picture," his selling it and taking it back twice, his working at it in intervals until the end of his life, all tell of his attachment to this piece and his struggles to come to terms with an increasingly complex project.

The painting depicts a young woman in a flowered gossamer dress, unsuitable for the season and the time of the day, crouching against the wall of a London cemetery. In some preliminary studies, Rossetti had drawn a few funeral monuments jutting visibly above the wall in the background. The prostitute has thrown herself on the pavement because she has just seen a young man in a long, white smock coming toward her. He is pulling a cart, taking a calf to the market. The young woman, whose cadaverous complexion indicates that she is struck with some fatal disease, refuses to follow the man who has caught her by the wrists. The painting was further described by Rossetti in a letter of 30 January 1855 to William Holman Hunt:

The picture represents a London street at dawn, with the lamps still lighted along a bridge that forms the distant background. The drover has left his cart standing in the middle of the road (in which, i.e. the cart, stands baa-ing a calf on its way to market) and has run a little way after a girl who has passed him, wandering in the streets. He has just come up with her and she, recognizing him, has sunk under her shame upon her knees, against the wall of a raised churchyard in the foreground, while he stands holding her hands as he seized them, half in bewilderment and half guarding her from doing herself a hurt. [Correspondence 2:13]

Aside from this letter, the textual references of the painting include the poem "Jenny," which the heroine — "Lazy laughing languid Jenny, / Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea" (1-2) — inspires the poet's compassion and love. In his eyes, she becomes a Victorian sister of Mary Magdalene, the celebrated biblical sinner, while at the same time she is saluted with the words the Archangel Gabriel addressed to the Virgin Mary: "Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace" (18). The oxymoronic salutation points to the dichotomy between the prostitute and the Madonna. Suggesting in pictorial terms the dual nature of a character is a challenge for any artist, and Rossetti resorted to several strategies to achieve this goal, relying mainly on interpictorial and intertextual references to guide the beholder's interpretation.

In order to make the narrative more explicit, Rossetti had intended to affix two texts, presumably on the picture-frame (Surtees 1:27) as he had already done for The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. The first one was a quotation from the Bible: "1 remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals" (Jeremiah 2.2). The second was a sonnet by Rossetti especially composed for the picture in 1881 in which we learn that the two protagonists were engaged to be married before she left the unspoilt rural life of her youth and subsequently yielded to the temptations of the metropolis. However, these textual additions complicate more than they clarify the artist's intention. Indeed, the discrepancy between "Jenny," written in 1848, and the sonnet of 1881 suggests that Rossetti's intention had evolved a great deal in the course of 33 years. The "Found" sonnet reads thus:

"There is a budding morrow in midnight":-
So sang our Keats, our English nightingale.
And here, as lamps across the bridge turn pale
In London's smokeless resurrection-light,
Dark breaks to dawn. But o'er the deadly blight
Of Love deflowered and sorrow of none avail,
Which makes this man gasp and this woman quail,

Can day from darkness ever again take flight?
Ah! Gave not these two hearts their mutual pledge,
Under one mantle sheltered 'neath the edge
In gloaming courtship? And, O God! to-day
He only knows he holds her; - but what part
Can life now take? She cries in her locked heart, -
"Leave me — I do not know you — go away!"

While the first poem, with its Magdalene-type heroine, seemed to call for a moral reading with redemption at stake, the sonnet has different innuendoes. The issue here is resurrection, and is hinted at in the first line, and then again in lines 4, 5, and 8. In a letter dated 5 February 1881, Rossetti confided: "The eternal Found picture is really getting done: — the figures close upon finish. It reads like a tale of pre-existence" (Surtees 1:27). The mysterious concluding sentence can be understood in various ways. The artist may have been alluding to his own evolution, and considered his initial project as the work of a different person from what he had become. Or else the previous life could be that of the main protagonist of the picture, who would then be seen in the act of repeating the life of a predecessor — which is compatible with the reading of the painting as a modem variation on the classical theme of the resurrection.

The final line of the sonnet and many iconographic elements in the painting point to the Noli me Tangere biblical episode as the model for Found. Indeed, the situation in the painting is not so different from one described in the gospels, which equally takes place early in the morning, close to a tomb, and brings together two characters: a "fallen" woman and an apparition that looks like a gardener. As explained in the Gospel of John, on the day of resurrection, Christ walked out of his tomb under the guise of a gardener and appeared to Mary Magdalene, who failed to recognize him until he called her name:

Jesus saith unto her. Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him. Sir, if you have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend to my Father; and to my God, and your God. [John 20.15-17]

This scripture was frequently depicted by masters of the Renaissance whom the Pre-Raphaelites sought to emulate. Marcia Werner rightly notes that "it would be difficult to tie Found to a specific example because many possible models would have been available in engravings," yet, she suggests, "the version of that subject at the National Gallery in London, formerly believed to be by Orcagna (an artist especially admired by the Pre-Raphaelites) and now attributed to the Master of the Lehman Crucifixion" is "the kind of image Rossetti might have looked at" (Werner 208). Versions of the apparition of Christ to Magdalene which Rossetti would have known include the ones he had seen in museums.

Left to right: (a) Martin Schongauer's Noli Me Tangere. (b) Titian's Noli Me Tangere. (c) Bronzino's Noli Me Tangere.

Noli me Tangere by Fra Bartolommeo (1508, formerly attributed to Albertinelli) and Noli me Tangere by Bronzino (1561) were both visible at the Louvre when Rossetti visited the museum in 1849 (Laurent 25). He would also know the Noli me Tangere painted around 1510-1512 by Titian, which was exhibited at the National Gallery in London since 1856, as well as the version by Anton Raphael Mengs which was, for most of the nineteenth century, the centrepiece of the All Souls College Chapel in Oxford. In addition, through reproductions, Rossetti would know the Noli me Tangere painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel, Padua (1303-05), which had been popularized among the Victorians by Lady Calcott's monograph, Description of the Chapel of the Annunziata dell'Arena, or Giotto's Chapel in Padua (1835), as well as the Noli me Tangere by Martin Schongauer (c. 1470-80, Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar), since the whole of Schongauer's oeuvre was part of the Print Collection at the British Museum where the young Pre-Raphaelites spent much of their time. Most likely, Rossetti would also be aware of the Noli me Tangere by Jan Brueghel the Younger, which depicts a muscular Christ with his horse-drawn cart in the background, and of Veronese's Noli me Tangere, since, as far as the posture of the girl is concerned, it is his version that Found resembles most. Research has proved that the Pre-Raphaelites enjoyed quoting their favourite Old Masters. For instance, in the specific case of Found, Linda Nochlin suggests that the design of an urban background, linked to the foreground by a bridge, was very possibly borrowed from Jan Van Eyck's Chancellor Rollin Madonna (151), which Rossetti had seen in the Louvre.

Left to right: (a) Veronese's Noli Me Tangere. (b) Jan Brueghel the Younger's Noli Me Tangere.

Noli me Tangere pictures by Bronzino, Fra Bartolommeo, Brueghel the Younger, and Titian portray Christ in the guise of an agricultural worker holding a hoe or a spade. Brueghel even went as far as depicting him as a muscular peasant surrounded with his crop of fruit, vegetable, and flowers, which He is placing in baskets, some of them already laden on the horse-drawn cart, to be taken to the market in the neighbouring town visible in the background, on the other side of the bridge. Similarities are discernable in the scenario — a prostitute meeting an apparition who looks like a rustic — and in "the general poses and disposition of figures" (Werner 208 a male figure standing above and extending an arm in the direction of a kneeling female figure, as well as in such details as the cart and bridge in the Brueghel version. By using similar props and costumes, Rossetti, like his predecessors, gave verisimilitude to the uncertain identification of the characters by each other. The act of surprise and recognition, as described in John 20.16 ("'Mary!' ... 'Rabboni!'"), is central to Rossetti's iconographic intention and may aptly justify the mysterious title of the picture.

Other details discussed by Werner as important symbolical elements in the programme of Found could have been inspired by Schongauer's Noli me Tangere. The original is part of the altarpiece of the Dominican chapel (now Musée d'Unterlinden) in Colmar, and there exist slightly different versions in engraving. Schongauer's must have been a rather popular Noli me Tangere among European Pre-Raphaelites of the nineteenth century since, as Lionel Gossman shows, it served as the model for Johann Friedrich Overbeck's painting Easter Morning of 1818 (Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf). This precedent is particularly interesting because Overbeck was admired and personally known by Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti's painting tutor and friend at whose house in Finchley the early sections of Found were painted. The foreground in Martin Schongauer's Noli me Tangere bears little resemblance with Rossetti's design: Christ does not appear as a gardener, but is rather identified as the Resurrected through conventional visual signs: his wounds, halo, and Christian banner. The background, however, offers intriguing analogies: a trellis with a rose bush bearing beautiful, open flowers is displayed next to a pomegranate tree on which two birds are perched. Two of the most powerful symbolic elements in Found — the crushed and withered rose in the gutter, the two nesting sparrows flying in the lower right part in the preparatory drawings (1853, British Museum, and 1855, Birmingham Museum and Gallery) and "the subtle pattern of the lavender shawl [which] undoubtedly depicts pomegranate blossoms" (Werner 202) could well come from this source.

The most straightforward application of the Noli me Tangere pattern would render the man as the Christ figure and the girl as the repentant sinner, a pattern which seems to have guided Rossetti's first sketches and his 1855 letter to William Holman Hunt. A "Magdalene" was indeed a Victorian euphemism for prostitute (Werner 206). The project in its early stages appears to have been very similar to Hunt's pair of paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1854, The Awakening Conscience and The Light of the World.

It appears, however, that progressively the roles were reversed in Found: the girl, not the man, is in fancy dress in the Delaware version; she is closest to the graveyard and begs to be left alone in Rossetti's 1881 sonnet. According to the biblical scripture, Christ refuses to be touched because He wants to be alone at the moment of his ascension. By endowing his female character with some of the attributes of Christ, did Rossetti wish to make her a feminized Christ figure in a revisited version of the Noli me Tangere'?

This interpretation is plausible, since the high-minded Victorians who knew of William Acton's Prostitution, considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects commonly considered the thousands of prostitutes walking the streets of London, and often dying there, as the sacrificial victims of the new age when Mammon-worship had replaced traditional Christianity. With their pains, these women were expiating not their own sins, but those of all men. This second mystical reading is complementary of the first, since the sinner is also a saviour as, according to David Sonstroem, most of Rossetti's painted ladies are. The paradoxical virginal prostitute then offers "a compensatory salvation accordant with [Rossetti's] own notions" (Sonstroem 20).

Iconographically, the heroine of Found is assimilated to the calf tied on the netted wooden cart, which is being taken to market: the young man holds one or the other. Had the animal on the cart been a lamb (as it is in the poem "Jenny" [text]) rather than a calf, it would have been compatible with the sacrificial aspect already mentioned, and the allegorical representation of rural innocence. However, the artist opted for a calf, a strategy that enables a dual reading where the two implications subsist but are complicated by the allusion to the "molten calf," which is the image of the false god to whom the people of Israel have worshipped, therefore provoking God's wrath (Exodus 32.1-4).

In the context of this allusion to Exodus, the quotation from Jeremiah, which Rossetti wished to inscribe on the frame of his painting, transcends the scripture it has often been thought to illustrate and takes on a profoundly catholic meaning. The words, which on a superficial level could have been assigned to the rural drover, are, according to the prophet, spoken by God to the people of Israel. The biblical rhetoric frequently uses the metaphor of marriage to describe the relationship between God and his worshippers. The verse "I remember the love of thy youth" (Jeremiah 2.2) is included in the chapter entitled "Apostasia of Israel," wherein the Lord laments the erring of the Israelite people from their initial faith. In this light, Found would seem to cast the man in the role of God, the girl in the guise of Ecclesia, and the breaking of vows as an allusion to the growing secularization movement, or the "national apostasia" as Cardinal Newman termed it: the falling-away from God and Christian doctrines on a national scale. When Newman used the expression in 1879, he identified "the general character of the great apostasia" with the "liberal principle" prevalent in Victorian Britain (Newman 68). However, Rossetti avoids the allegorical connotations of Newman's orthodox warning, which would condemn the female sinner, since the male drover is the one who has been in contact with the (molten) calf. The masculine figure is thus assimilated with the false God mentioned in the scriptures, while the feminine figure becomes the true divinity. This feminized Christ figure rejecting the summons to return home to her youthful vows may be considered allegorically as an incentive to the public to abandon the orthodox Anglican creed by which Rossetti and the majority of his middle-class contemporaries had been raised. The resurrection depicted in the painting would thus seem to be that of ancient divinities linking the Magdalene to the pagan ancestors of the Virgin Mary — Venus and Proserpine — by means of the symbolic rose, nesting birds, and pomegranate. The issue of such a conflation would be to restore the severed link between various forms of spirituality, making paganism the ancestor of Christianity and "art-catholicism" its heir in a dogma-free continuum.

The rejection of the Old Testament figure of God-the-Father may be signalled in a detail, initially planned in a sketch, which, presumably due to the painting's incompleteness, did not find its way in the oil version. One of the stone monuments visible from behind the wall in the background bears a fragmentary inscription: "There is joy ... the angels ... one sinner that." These seemingly meaningless words are from the Gospel of Luke concerning one oS the three parables of mercy: the Parable of the Lost Piece of Silver (15.10). The playful hint in the title would seem to point to a redemptive moral, one which values repentance more highly than a perfectly holy life. However, the face of the pseudo-redeemer shows no sign of the joy mentioned in the scriptures, a detail which makes this interpretation unconvincing. In fact, the fragmentary quotation contains some interesting amputations. The full text reads: "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." Rossetti intriguingly chose to cut off the references to God and repentance. While the fragments of inscription that are visible do not make an intelligible sentence, the unwritten segments do make up a coherent sentence which could be transcribed as "in the presence of God, over-repenteth." Through the skilful amputation of the scripture, Rossetti seems to announce a new variant of the traditional creed: the religion of humanity, which entrusts every individual with the responsibility of his or her own salvation. Through his manipulations of biblical texts and iconography, Rossetti shows how hard he was trying to discard a religious framework in which he felt ill-at-ease and which remained his artistic paradigm.

The complex network of literary and scriptural references and of visual quotations and allusions activated in the programme of Found gives to the painting a multi-layered significance in which the tensions at work puzzle the viewer. Found was from the start a complex and malleable iconographic project. As the work dragged on, Rossetti's initial intention may have become irresolute because of his effort to keep pace with his own and his contemporaries' changing attitudes to religion. Eventually, Found may have remained an unfinished painting because Rossetti was unable to find a clear understanding of his own intentions amid the complexity of subversive motives.


"Songs of the Art Catholic" was Rossetti's working title for a manuscript selection of poems he sent to William Bell Scott in 1847.


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_____. Study for Found. 1855, pen and ink; Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

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Last modified 6 March 2024