The images here all come from the gallery's press release for the exhibition. Most of them are of works in public collections and are available under the terms of the Creative Commons licence. Click on all the images to enlarge them.

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ortraiture was an important part of Pre-Raphaelitism, and central to the art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who explored the idiom’s expressive possibilities in various forms. Working in oil, watercolour, pen and ink and graphite, Rossetti represented the faces of his friends and family as well as painting elaborate, stylized images of emblematic women.

The range of Dante’s interests is well presented in ‘Rossetti’s Portraits’, a new show at the Holbourne Museum, Bath. This small exhibition unites some of his most characteristic work: starting with a self-portrait in pen and ink, it also includes drawings of William Holman Hunt (who sketched Rossetti at the same time that Rossetti was sketching him), a portrait of his brother William Michael, and a number of his famous representations of his muse, the artist Lizzie Siddal. These intimate designs are juxtaposed with his large, showy canvases of the sixties and seventies, among them The Blue Bower, The Blue Silk Dress and Monna Vanna. A design for stained glass for Morris and Co. and photographs of Jane Morris complete the montage. The organizers claim this is the first time Rossetti’s portraits have been drawn together in one place – an assertion I find slightly dubious – but there is no doubt that the arrangement is an excellent introduction to the artist for those coming to the artist anew and a fresh perspective for those more familiar with his work.

Several themes stand out. First and foremost, it is important to reiterate that Rossetti’s manipulation of portraiture was sophisticated, based on a profound understanding of what the idiom could do. His initial approach was traditional and based on likeness, with the aim of creating a resemblance to the sitter. The earliest works in the exhibition, which may be intended as tokens of affection, stress the literality of his work: almost photographic in effect, and bound by the Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on verisimilitude, these drawings are a ‘true record’ of Holman Hunt’s and William Michael’s appearance. Both, indeed, are uncompromisingly direct. William Michael, shown in the early 1850s, is endowed with receding hair and appears older than his years, while Holman Hunt’s pugnacious face is rendered with frank realism, and is far from flattering. Had he only produced this sort of Pre-Raphaelite image Rossetti would be classified as a literalist or realist in the manner of his Pre-Raphaelite Brethren.

One of Rossetti’s claustrophobic images of
Elizabeth Siddal, from the mid-1850s.

However, the exhibition quickly moves on to the nub of Rossetti’s concerns, showing how he is centrally concerned with using portraiture to express the sitter’s emotions and psychology. In this approach exterior forms are deployed only to suggest the models’ mindscapes, a matter of ‘Nature’ expressing ‘human nature’. The principle is embodied in his drawings of Siddal. The exhibition draws together several of these moving designs, with images of a morose Lizzie at work at her easel, standing uneasily at a window (a famous drawing from the Victoria & Albert Museum), and asleep in a rapidly executed, almost expressionistic drawing in ink. In each case the sitter’s facial expression and awkward body shapes and gestures are a precise index of a deep sadness; she may have been Rossetti’s soul-mate, but the emotional tone is melancholic, with no sense of a joyous relationship existing between them.

The exhibition charts the next stage of Rossetti’s development in the form of his large paintings of brooding women placed in decorative niches. The drawings of Siddal demonstrate the interiority of the artist’s vision, and this focus is carried forward in his canvases, each of which enshrines feelings of loss and regret, longing, or simply reverie. Yet these works differ fundamentally from the earlier portraits; though nominally representations of a number of models – among them Fanny Cornforth, Alex Wilding and Jane Morris – Rossetti had a declining interest in verisimilitude, which means that their individual features are simplified and refigured as part of a lexicon of idealized beauty. The external vision is replaced by Rossetti’s inner perceptions, a process in which he structures his subjects in terms of a sexualized imagery of long necks, masculine jaws, cupid lips, soulful eyes and luxuriant, flowing hair. Starting from the ‘facts’ of appearance – of Lizzie’s melancholy face and William Michael’s baldness – Rossetti arrives at a purely imaginative notion of what constitutes the art of portraiture. The exhibition stresses this rapid reorientation and maps Rossetti’s journey from Pre-Raphaelite realism to abstraction, from hard fact to a dreamy notion of idealized, but androgynous femininity. In a few key works, carefully juxtaposed, we can see the progress from first stage Pre-Raphaelitism to Aestheticism.

Three paintings, this time from Rossetti’s golden period of portraiture in the 1860s. Left to right: (a) The Blue Bower from 1865; (b) Monna Vanna (1866); and (c) The Blue Silk Dress (1868).

‘Rossetti’s Portraits’ also provides an opportunity to trace the artist’s strengths and weaknesses. It is well known that Rossetti’s technical and formal abilities were of uneven quality, and the exhibition reveals this patchiness in some detail. A positive point is the artist’s dazzling talent as a colourist: The Blue Bower embodies an enamel-like hardness and luminosity, as if it were made of metal, while Monna Vanna (a picture in the style of Veronese and as far from Pre-Raphaelite particularization as it is possible to be), is a delicious concoction of shimmering, ephemeral effects in orange and red, a fine piece of painterliness that links to J. M. Whistler’s arrangements in colour. Yet Rossetti’s draughtsmanship occasionally creaks under the pressure of his demanding imagination. In the Blue Silk Dress, for instance, the painting of the accessories is amateurish, the work of someone who knows what he paints well and can’t be bothered to work on unforgiving technical problems. It is intriguing to see this sort of indifference in conjunction with the high passion of the artist’s poetic themes and psychological focus.

‘Rossetti’s Portraits’, with its careful curation, enables us to see these contradictions in epitome, and offers an illuminating insight into one important aspect of his work. Clearly designed and arranged, the exhibition is further enhanced by its outstandingly lucid captions and well-written information boards. It is also accompanied by an informative catalogue by Sylvie Broussine and the well-known expert on Victorian painting, Christopher Newall. Tucked away in the intimate spaces of the beautiful Holbourne Museum, ‘Rossetti’s Portraits’ is well worth a visit.

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Created 27 October 2021

Last modified 31 October 2021