Published: January 30, 2001
The Theme of the ‘Blue Bower’ Examined at the Clark Art Institute
WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. – The beautiful woman as muse, temptress, sorceress, saint, dreamer, mourner, voluptuary, murderer: this was the grand obsession of English artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) throughout a key period of his influential career, as seen in his paintings of sensuous “stunners.”
All the more suggestive for their lack of an explicit narrative, his richly colored paintings of isolated women – almost all of them with cupid’s-bow lip, luxuriant hair and deep, hooded eyes – are the subject of the exhibition “: The Blue Bower,” on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute through May 6.
The exhibition takes its subtitle from the culminating work in a series of idealized portraits, “The Blue Bower” (1865): an image of Rossetti’s housekeeper, lover and frequent model Fanny Cornforth posed against a background of ornate blue titles, her flowing auburn hair bedecked with a floral jewel, her voluptuous torso wrapped in an unfastened, fur-lined green robe, her slender fingers plucking at the strings of a Japanese Koto. Drawing on the heritage of Sixthteenth Century Venetian portraits of courtesans, while also anticipating Symbolist images of the femme fatale of the later Nineteenth Century, “The Blue Bower” is Rossetti’s central painting of he 1860s and one of the most sumptuous of all Pre-Raphaelite portraits.
For the exhibition, “The Blue Bower” is joined by 41 other paintings, drawings and prints. These include works by Rossetti’ contemporaries Edward Coley Bruen-Jones, Gustave Courbet (represented by his celebrated “Jo, The Beautiful Irish Girl” of 1865-66), James McNeill Whistler, Frederic Leighton, Frederick Sandys, Kate Bunce, George Frederic Watts and Arnold Bocklin.
Also included are works by Rossetti’s antecedents (such as Jacopo Palma il Vecchio and Kitawa Utamaro) and by a notable successor, Edvard Munch (“Madonna”, 1895). Major loans to the exhibition are being made by public and private collections in the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and Sweden.
The exhibition has been organized by The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, The University of Birmingham, which holds “The Blue Bower” in its collection and which is located in a city renowned for its paintings and drawings by the Pre-Raphaelite artists. The Clark Art Institute is the only museum other than the Barber Institute to present “: The Blue Bower.”
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was drawn from an early age toward both poetry and painting. While a student at the Royal Academy, he read widely in the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, and the Romantics and fell under the particular spell of William Blake, whose diatribes against English academic painting inspired Rossetti to write polemics of his own. When he became an informal student of Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti took up an enthusiasm for the German painters known as the Nazarenes. Also called Pre-Rephaelites, these artists sought to recover a purity of style and purpose that they believed to have been lost after the High Renaissance. In 1848, Rossetti took the lead in organizing an English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with seven other artists, almost all of them students at the Royal Academy.
The original Brotherhood (which also included William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais) broke up in the early 1850s. But with the patronage of critic John Ruskin and the fellowship of two young disciples from Oxford – Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris – Rossetti continued the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Departing from an initial commitment to being “true to nature,” the artist plunged into poetic imaginations of a fabled past, inspired by Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. His ideal of art as a force for the reformation of society now found expression in decorative arts, such as book illustration and mural painting.
Rossetti’s oil paintings of the 1860s, with their voluptuous merger of spiritual and sensual beauty, brought him a new affluence. The first woman to become a model for these works, in the early years of Pre-Raphaelite movement, was Elizabeth Siddal, the daughter of a Sheffield cutler, whom Rossetti met in 1850 and eventually married, in 1860,
From 1858 to 1859, Siddal was superceded as his favorite model by actress Ruth Herbert. But the woman who was decisive in the development of Rossetti’s art in the 1860s was Fanny Cornforth (born Sarah Cox), a Cockney whom he may have met as early as 1856.
In 1859, with his oil portrait of Cornforth (“Bocca Baciata”), he embarked on the series that is the focus of the exhibition “Rosetti in the 1860s.”
Cornforth continued to model for Rossetti after the death of Elizabeth Siddal, almost certainly by suicide, in 1862. (An 1880 version of his memorial painting of her “Beata Beatrix,” is included in this exhibition.) Other women whose images are seen in the exhibition are Jane Bruden (wife of William Morris, and the enduring love of Rossetti’s later years) and Alexa Wilding, a dressmaker and inspiring actress whom he met in 1865.
Rossetti also enjoyed a literary success in the 1860s, after his translations of The Early Italian Poets was published in 1861. But when his volume of Poems came out in 1870 – including works that he had buried with Lizzie Siddal and then exhumed – critical response was harsh. Rossetti suffered a collapse in 1872 and from then on lived as a semi-recluse. His final book of poetry, Ballards and Sonnets, appeared in 1881, the year before his death.
A fully illustrated catalogue of the exhibition, written by Paul Spencer -Longhurst, is published by Scala Publishers, London, in association with the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
The Clark Art Institute is at 225 South Street. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5 pm. for information, 41¾58-9545.
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