A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
In an Artist’s Studio
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was still in her mid-twenties when she wrote this Petrarchan sonnet about male art and the way it depicts women. In the poem, an artist’s model (probably based on the Pre-Raphaelite muse, the working class artist Elizabeth Siddal), is required to dress up for a number of different roles – the exotic queen, the pretty maiden, the pure saint, the sexless angel – in order to fulfill male fantasies of women. What these roles have in common, to use the language of contemporary feminism, is the objectification of women rooted in society’s need to control gender conformity. In the #metoo era, this poem might seem to be a slam-dunk example of mid-19th century feminism, and indeed the poem is often taught in American universities as a way of raising students’ consciousness about the problems with the male gaze. However, a close reading of the poem, as well as a quick look at Rossetti’s family and her attitudes toward the incipient women’s movement of her time, may cause us to embrace a more nuanced view of this much-loved poem.
The first thing that may strike the reader is the beauty of the language created by the poet’s skillful use of the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet. The English language is rhyme-poor compared to Italian, so the intricate rhyme scheme (abbaabbacdcdcd) presents creative challenges. But as any poet knows, it’s not enough simply to rhyme, the music needs to support the overall argument. In this poem, the first and fourth lines end with slant rhymes (canvases/loveliness) creating a slightly imperfect mirroring between the woman’s beauty and the artist’s canvas. Then, there is a progression in full rhymes which contribute contrapuntally to the argument: night/light/bright suggests a brightening while the argument is establishing the dark despair of the woman. And the slant rhyme dim/dream contributes to the uncertain tone: if we are expecting the poem to finish with another full rhyme, then encountering the second slant rhyme in the final lines may feel a little jarring, perhaps suggesting that there is something slightly off about this painter’s vision.
The metaphors also contribute to the argument. The artist is presented as an appreciator of her beauty, but also as a demon ‘feed[ing] upon’ the face of the female model. The woman accepts this predation with ‘true kind eyes’, leaving open the question of whether she is aware that she is not, in his eyes, a person in her own right, but merely a reflection of what the man wants to envision. Line 13 (‘Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright’) tells us that she is disappointed by what her life has become.
The Petrarchan sonnet is traditionally associated with the medieval idea of courtly love, whereby the male poet admires from afar the beautiful unattainable woman. Typically, the poet cannot get close enough to speak to her, so she is no more than a mute object of the male gaze. So the Petrarchan sonnet is an appropriate form for Rossetti to appropriate here. Yet, it needs to be pointed out that, however the reader may feel about the objectification of women, there is — both in this poem and in Rossetti’s life –an ambivalent attitude toward the relationship between painter and model, as well as between poet and reader.
Clearly, the woman is conflicted about her presence in the studio. In line 3, “We” find the woman “hidden:” Who is “we”? The poet and the reader? Or perhaps the artist and the viewer of the painting? Why is she hidden? Are we as readers and viewers conspiring with the poet and the painter to keep this woman in her contrived roles? More questions arise when we see that in the last two lines, the artist is painting her not as she is, but as she once was. Why is she presenting herself as “joyful” when she is actually unhappy? In other words, why is she helping him to create a dream of the perfect woman based on a person she used to be but is no longer? This fiction, this play-acting, is a a creation of both the artist and the model, and as readers of the poem and as viewers of the canvas, we are part of the conspiracy to deny her reality. And yet, despite her unhappiness at living in a false world, she still looks at the painter with “true kind eyes.” Why is she participating in this role-playing? Is she grateful to him? After all, the painter has raised the model from being a hired sitter (or perhaps, as we shall see, a factory worker) to being an angel, a saint, or a queen: roles she can never realistically hope to perform in real life.
This ambiguity in the ethics of the situation carries over into the poet’s life, or at least her brother’s life. Christina Rossetti admired her older brother, the celebrated painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and his greatest paintings were of his four favorite models: Elizabeth Siddel, Alexa Wilding, Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris. All four women came from modest backgrounds and had little education, but Lizzie Siddal had a special relationship with Dante. Beginning in 1853 and ending with her death in 1862, she was Dante’s favorite model. They were in love, in fact, obsessed with each other, and were married in 1860, about four years after Christina wrote the poem. It’s not a reach to believe that Dante is the artist of his sister’s poem, the man who paints the ideal woman while erasing the actual woman who stands in front of him. Certainly he idealized women, portraying them in dream-like romantic settings. But in terms of class, the relationship between artist and model, Dante and Lizzie, was a mismatch: he was a famous and successful artist and she was a mill worker and aspiring artist. He was ashamed to introduce her to his family, even after they were married. The model was, in an economic sense, the willing captive of the artist who was in love with her.
Although it may be distasteful to a 21st century reader to interpret the poem — as some critics did during Rossetti’s lifetime — as an interpretation of women being lifted and celebrated through art, it is also perhaps false to hold up the poem as if it were a slogan, a meme condemning the male portrayal of women in art: the relationship between this artist and this model is far more complicated than a stereotype of the victimized woman. In a sense, Dante was both savior and jailer to Lizzie — for whom posing as an artist’s model certainly made for a better life than working in a dress factory, especially since the artist, who was rich by her standards, had by this time promised to marry her — and eventually did.
Christina Rossetti’s political convictions further complicate the portrayal of her as a poster-child for first-wave feminism. It’s true that Rossetti was concerned, as was her great predecessor Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with issues of the role of women in society and in the ways they are represented in art; however, unlike those of Browning, Rossetti’s attitudes did not easily fit into what we would now consider “feminism.” As Dr. Simon Avery noted in an article published in 2014 by The British Museum:
The Victorian period witnessed massive changes in thinking about women’s roles in society with much debate concerning women’s education, employment opportunities, marriage, sexuality, psychology, and the right to vote. Within this context, Christina Rossetti had complicated views on female suffrage and equality. At times she used the Biblical idea of woman’s subordination to man as reason for maintaining the status quo, while at others she argued for female representation in Parliament and spoke out against the sexual exploitation of women in prostitution. In many ways this shows her to be a particularly complex thinker about the position of women in society and it is certainly a concern which she comes back to time and again in her poetry. Her views may not always be ‘radical’ as such, but they are usually far from conservative and often questioning, challenging and potentially subversive.
The value of Rossetti’s poem lies in both the expert use of the Petrarchan sonnet, a particularly challenging form to master in English, and in the poet’s complex stance on the role of art in creating and re-enforcing images of women. This poem is not mere propaganda lending itself to one interpretation, but rather a subtle and ambiguous work whose meaning changes with the changing times.
Prose and compilation copyright 2020 Michael Simms.