Important Art by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin was arguably Rossetti's first mature painting. Completed the year after he had cofounded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (in 1848) Rossetti intended to show the painting that spring at the Free Exhibition at the Hyde Park Corner Gallery. The canvas shows the young Virgin Mary seated at a table with her mother, Anne, as the two embroider a lily. In the background, Mary's Father, Joachim, reaches to prune a vine in a luscious green garden which has been visited by a haloed dove. At the women's feet are a crossed palm branch and thorn. On the left hand side of the picture frame is a child angel who waters a vase with the prop of the lily. The flower rests on a stack of educational books labelled: Charity, Faithfulness, Hope, Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude.
The childhood of the Virgin Mary was a common subject from medieval religious painting. However, Rossetti chose not to depict a straightforward bible scene but preferring to steep his narrative with luminous colors and symbolic meanings. The dove represents the Holy Spirit, the Vine leaves Christ himself, the Palm and Thorn, Palm Sunday and the Crucifixion, and the Lily represents Mary's purity. The significance of the young Mary embroidering a lily from nature has been commented upon, as it references the Pre-Raphaelites own reverence for the natural world. It also lays a significance on embroidery, and the decorative arts in general, not being a lesser craft (or a mere guild) but rather an important, and even semi-spiritual or meditative, practice.
Another un-orthodox factor of the painting was the way Rossetti used family members as models for the religious figures. The Virgin Mary was based on his sister, Christina, Saint Anne on his mother Frances, and Joachim was modelled on an old family servant known as "old Williams." To use such commonplace models as one's own family and especially servants for holy figures was atypical and daring, and only a few years later fellow Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais came under harsh criticism for using friends and family and a real carpenter as models for his 1850 work Christ in the house of his parents. Furthermore, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin was the first painting to be inscribed with the initials PRB, on its frame. In fact, Rossetti paid unusual attention to the frame of the painting, showing an early interest in decorating and artistically influencing every aspect of a finished piece. For him, this also involved embelishing the painting with poetry, and he wrote two sonnets to be read alongside the painting; one inscribed on the frame, another in the exhibition catalogue. His goal was to create a double work of art that blurred literary and visual categories.
The year after his "reimagining" of the childhood of the Virgin Mary, Rossetti chose to continue his vein of religious scenes by painting the Annunciation; the moment where the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin bringing news of her divine pregnancy. The Latin title quotes the Gospel of St Luke, translated as "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord." Rossetti creates a symbolic consistency by continuing the depiction of the Virgin Mary alongside lilies which were often used as a symbol of purity in Italian Renaissance and Medieval art. Here, indeed, Gabriel presents Mary with the lily as a symbol of her eternal virginity and purity. Both Mary and Gabriel are swathed in virginal white robes with golden haloes, and backed with the rich royal, heavenly blue typically associated with Mary. A rich red panel stands in her bedroom, also with a decorative lily motif.
When the painting was exhibited at the National Institution in 1850, it came in for harsh criticism for Rossetti's brazen re-imagining of the Annunciation. Mary, rather than kneeling for prayer, is depicted in her crumpled bed, in a long, creased white nightgown that was typical of a newly-wedded bride. For his part, Gabriel is shown without wings, and swathed in a loose white gown exposing his bare thigh and hip. Both figures seem ethereal, yet also real flesh and blood (again modelled on Rossetti's own family). A critic from the Athenaeum was caught off-guard by Rossetti's disregard for traditional Annunciation scenes, calling it "a work evidently thrust by the artist into the eye of the spectator more with the presumption of a teacher than in the modesty of a hopeful and true aspiration after excellence." Rossetti never exhibited the painting in public again, and in the 1850s he distinctly turned away from elaborate biblical scenes and towards female portraiture.
By the time he completed Bocca Baciata (in 1859), Rossetti had been in a nine year relationship with Elizabeth Siddal. In that time he produced dozens of adoring sketches of his future wife (they were married in 1860). However, the model for this, the first of his painted female portraits, was not Elizabeth, but his mistress, Fanny Cornforth. Whereas he sketched Elizabeth as a beautiful, ethereal being, Rossetti painted Fanny as his ideal of sensual desire and allure.
Rossetti based his painting of Fanny on a sonnet, Decameron, by the fourteenth century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. On the reverse of the canvas Rossetti had inscribed a line from said sonnet, "Bocca baciate non perda ventura, anzi rinnova come fa la luna," which translates as "The mouth that has been kissed loses not its freshness; still it renews itself even as does the moon." Contained by the tight framing, against a flat decorative background, and seen only from face and shoulders up, Fanny has been effectively removed from her environment. Her pink, slightly parted lips are the central point of the frame, and her loose red hair (historically, a sign of loose morality) flows in long ribbons around her shoulders while her unbuttoned blouse reveals bare flesh. And once again calling on religious symbolism (the fable of The Garden of Eden), Rossetti places an apple on the table in front of Fanny thus confirming Fanny's allure and her powers of temptation.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the painting received a mixed reception, not least from Rossetti's pious Brotherhood colleague Holman Hunt, who described the painting as "gross sensuality of a revolting kind." However, other critics and friends of Rossetti were enthralled by the painting. The poet Algernon Swinburne said that the picture was "more stunning than can be decently expressed" while artist Arthur Hughes commented that it was "such a superb thing, so awfully lovely" that he wouldn't be surprised if the paintings owner (George Price Boyce) tried to "kiss the dear thing's lips away."