Art review: Portraits of Rossetti at the Holburne Museum, Bath

The popular image in PRE-RAPHAELITE art is a three-quarter figure in an ornate frame, probably a woman in historical costume, frozen in a mannered pose. But ‘Rossetti’s Portraits’ at the Holburne Museum, Bath, casts a new light on Brotherhood output, with a timeline spanning the return of Florence Nightingale from Crimea and the evolution of Symbolist photography and painting, foreshadowing the 20th century art.

Throughout his career, Gabriel Rossetti produced intimate portraits of his loved ones. At the start of the movement in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelites exchanged portraits of each other as a token of their friendship, even depicting themselves painting portraits. And assigning friends and family the role of historical or mythological characters saves on the cost of hiring models.

In the first painting exhibited by Rossetti with the initials PRB, meaning the Brotherhood, The Childhood of the Virgin Mary, the artist painted his sister Christina as Mary and his mother as Saint Anne. A stone altar, organ and embroidery symbolize his family’s High Church affiliations.

Painted a decade later, Saint Catherine, one of two explicitly religious works in “Rossetti’s Portraits”, shows his future wife Elizabeth Siddal as Saint Catherine, in golden medieval dress, carrying a palm frond to symbolize her faith and a spiked wheel to represent her martyrdom. The canvas is cut in two by the edge of an easel and, in the right plane, a painter dressed in a robe with red fringes and pointed shoes applies a brush to a board, resuming the image of the saint.

In the early 1860s, Rossetti created stained glass while working for William Morris. The ink-on-paper drawing of the Sermon on the Mount for All Saints’ Day, Selsey, places members of Rossetti’s circle in appropriate roles: his sister Christina is again the Virgin Mary, the Christ figure is George Meredith, Saint Pierre is William Morris, and Judas is the art dealer Ernest Gambart, whom the artist despised. St Mary Magdalene may be Fanny Cornforth, the model/babysitter who rode Siddal in Rossetti work and affections. The central figure of Christ towers above his seated disciples, the base of his flowing robes blending into the garments of those around him. Apart from the Virgin Mary, whose head is covered, lush, flowing hair frames all the figures.

Awareness of the blurred line between sitter and sitter is central to Rossetti’s work. Models were seen as a means to an end, not the object of the work itself. But a sitter is the subject of the painting, and the artist sets out to capture her appearance, status, and character. And the correspondence between the real woman and the subject she represents adds another layer of meaning. Rossetti’s paintings of subjects can be read as portraits or performances, as biographies or historical and fictional re-enactments.

One of the most moving portraits of Siddal dates from the summer of 1854, when she and Rossetti were staying in Hastings, while Siddal was recuperating from ill health. The pen-and-ink drawing captures the convalescent standing by a window, palm flat against the sill, with one side of her face and dress bathed in light, the other in shadow s intensifying to black. Fine lines form the basis of her dress, the chiaroscuro creating the illusion of folds and volumes.

© Society of Antiquaries of London: Kelmscott ManorBlue silk dress (Jane Morris), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1868

Two years after Siddal’s death, Rossetti used studies and drawings created earlier to paint Beata Beatrice in oil, where the artist’s wife represents the love of Dante Beatrice. Both women died young. The chronology of the 1864 work is a bit hazy, as the artist began telling a patron of it the previous year “I found these sketches of my late wife”.

Fanny Cornforth, whom Rossetti drew 40 times in 16 years, features in his flagship work Bocca Baciata (The Kissed Mouth), a turning point where the artist moves away from Arthurian themes and the style of medieval Florentine religious paintings, towards oils by Venetian old masters of the 16th century. Gone is the rigidity and flatness of previous works, and in their place a more sensual feel, with dazzling light and flowing brushstrokes.

In the blue gazebo, the last major oil painting of Cornforth, the inspiration of 16th-century Venetian painting is clear, with warm tones and shallow perspective. The background wall of Chinese pattern and Arabic shape tiles shows the vogue of Orientalism, but also pushes the figure forward to meet the viewer’s gaze. The work marks the beginning of the aesthetic movement and emphasizes the power of beauty over the viewer.

In the mid-1860s, Rossetti entered into an all-consuming obsession with Jane Morris, William’s wife. Blue Silk Dress is one of Rossetti’s few formal oil paintings and defies the conventions of Victorian portraiture, showing Jane Morris leaning forward with a hunched back, turning towards the viewer as if momentarily distracted from the open book before her. Her hands are twisted inward, as if waiting to support the weight of her chin. A vase of blooming white roses showcases Rossetti’s talent for still life.

The Holburne exhibition ends with startlingly modern portraits of Jane Morris, taken in 1865 in Rossetti’s Cheyne Walk house by a commercial photographer. Performed by the artist, the model’s experimental poses break up Victorian decorum by showcasing her curved back and showing her leaning towards the lens. The careful arrangement of his clothes, to capture the light, gives the black and white images the solidity of sculpture. As in most “Portraits of Rossetti”, forms merge and distinctions blur, to create something new and unsettling.

‘Rossetti’s Portraits’ is at the Holburne Museum, Great Pulteney Street, Bath, BA2 4DB, until 9 January. Telephone 01225 388569. www.holburne.org