Essay

Painted Ladies

Christina Rossetti versus the male gaze.
Collage illustration for Christina Rossetti feature.

In 1856, the 26-year-old English poet Christina Rossetti wrote “In an Artist's Studio,” a sonnet in which she contemplates the intimate yet alienating workspace of male artists. Rossetti suggests that these studios crackle with the kind of desire that poisons the creative kinship between painter and subject because the female body isn’t so much honored as exploited. She describes the artist’s muse as a diminished vessel for male fantasy: “Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright; / Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.” 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the poet’s older brother, was an artist, and she wrote the sonnet after visiting his studio at Chatham Place, in London. She confronted the same face on every canvas: that of Lizzie Siddal, an artist and a poet whom history recalls as Dante Gabriel’s wife and muse. “One face looks out from all his canvases,” the poem begins, “One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans: / We found her hidden just behind those screens.” In another context, the repetition of Siddal’s face might have signified harmony or a unified artistic vision. Rossetti implies the more pernicious effect of co-option. Each portrait conveys “the same one meaning, neither more nor less,” she writes. Siddal is “a nameless girl,” divested of nuance and the subjectivity that can result in a more complex depiction.

Rossetti’s sonnet was published in 1896 but not until the late 20th century was it hailed as a proto-feminist text. In 1985, editors Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar included it in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Soon after, Victorian literary critics posited the poem as an early, exemplary critique of gender inequality. (I taught it in this context while in graduate school.) Rossetti’s relationship with the 19th-century women’s movement was notoriously fraught—she argued against women’s suffrage—but her sonnet is a vehement rebuke to the exploitation then prevalent in the male-dominated arts. She anticipates John Berger’s 1972 TV series and book Ways of Seeing, in which he analyzes male artists’ voyeuristic tendencies and their influence on women’s self-perception. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” he writes. This “determines not only most relations between men and women, but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” Three years later, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey named this phenomenon “the male gaze.” For Rossetti, the male gaze is a vampiric obsession. “He feeds upon her face by day and night,” she writes in the sonnet, “And she with true kind eyes looks back on him.”

As a woman, Rossetti was consigned to the periphery of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), Dante Gabriel’s coterie of male artists, but she nonetheless witnessed its underlying desires firsthand. By the time she wrote “In an Artist’s Studio,” PRB member John Everett Millais had painted his famous renderings of two Shakespearean heroines: Measure for Measure’s Mariana (1851) and Hamlet’s Ophelia (1852). In the former, Mariana arches her back while gazing languidly out the window, her full breasts and sumptuous curves shown to advantage through her plush blue gown. Ophelia, too, is a voluptuous figure. She dies amid verdant flora, her lips parted as if in ecstasy. In addition, Dante Gabriel’s friend William Holman Hunt completed The Awakening Conscience in 1854. The painting depicts a kept woman rising from her lover’s lap as she realizes the potential of salvation. A red scarf tied around her waist accentuates her hips. Her hair, red and curly—markers of female hypersexuality—tumbles down her back in post-coital dishevelment. Although it’s unlikely that Rossetti was close friends with either Millais or Hunt, she must have been familiar with their work and their reliance on female models who posed for hours in intimate settings.

The PRB did seek to challenge its milieu, but with motivations unrelated to gender parity or “the Woman Question,” as 19th-century historians called it. The group’s origins are vague, although it seems to have coalesced by 1847. Dante Gabriel was the ringleader, joined by his brother, William (yet another Rossetti with literary talents); painters William Holman Hunt, Walter Deverell, and James Collinson; and sculptors Thomas Woolner and John Hancock. Millais joined soon after. Like Dante Gabriel, several members were aspiring writers even as they sought more lucrative careers in visual art. Their primary artistic objective, according to Jan Marsh’s 1994 biography of Rossetti, was “rubbishing Raphael and his influence” (thus the name) and adhering to what they perceived as “truth to nature.” They were dedicated to representing the natural world as they found it, with fidelity to the smallest particulars.

The PRB’s approach ran counter to utilitarianism, the ubiquitous 19th-century ideology, and instead privileged “art for art’s sake.” Accordingly, the PRB’s works are distinctly anti-narrative at a time when the novel was the prevailing literary genre. “Atmosphere” and “mood” were instead regarded as primary considerations, along with reverence for feminine beauty. In practice, this led to countless portraits of women posing as medieval, Arthurian, or Elizabethan tragic figures. Despite all but abandoning the church, Dante Gabriel often depicted religious imagery: Rossetti herself modeled for Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), one of her brother’s most famous paintings, in which the Virgin Mary cowers in bed before the angel Gabriel.

Dante Gabriel always intended his sister to participate in the PRB as a creator in her own right. Both he and William encouraged her to contribute to the PRB’s short-lived publication the Germ. She did, albeit under the alias Ellen Alleyn, a strategic move to prevent the publication from being dominated by Rossetti bylines. When Dante Gabriel suggested to Millais and Hunt that his sister be counted as a PRB member, they refused. In response, Dante Gabriel wrote to Hunt:

When I proposed that my sister should join, I never meant that she should attend the meetings, to which I know it would be impossible to persuade her. … I merely intended that she should entrust her productions to my reading; but must give up the idea, as I find she objects to this also, under the impression that it would seem like display, I believe, — a sort of thing she abhors.

The letter belies Dante Gabriel’s effort to present his sister as properly genteel according to Victorian standards. Critic Alexis Easley argues, “[Dante Gabriel] was probably … attempting to construct her as a stereotypical female writer for the benefit of his Pre-Raphaelite brothers, reassuring them that she was not the kind of woman who would actively seek literary notoriety.” Rossetti’s poetic talent thrilled her brother, but he was determined to support her career in ways that didn’t interfere with his own or, for that matter, ruffle the collegiality of the PRB.

There’s a fundamental tension in Rossetti’s career. Her success stemmed from her undeniable genius, but it was success contextualized and buttressed by her brother, who sought similar (and sometimes competing) recognition. Rossetti’s constrained circumstances weren’t exceptional for the time. Novelist Charlotte Brontë wrote under a male pseudonym, as did her sisters, Emily and Anne. Polite society shunned George Eliot, née Mary Ann Evans, because of her illicit relationship with George Henry Lewes, who was estranged from his first wife but not yet divorced. Some decades earlier, Mary Shelley allowed her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to edit and write the preface to Frankenstein (1818), which she published anonymously.

In the Rossetti family, Dante Gabriel was both the favored son and the designated virtuoso. As Marsh notes, he was allowed to study his passions in London and abroad, despite the financial drain on the family, while Rossetti was confined at home. She didn’t suppress her creative impulses though. When she was 16, her maternal grandfather, Gaetano Polidori, published a slim collection of her work, titled Verses. The praise that followed galvanized her, and by the fall of 1847, she had finished 19 new poems. When she was 17, the esteemed national publication Athenaeum published “Death’s Chill Between” and “Heart’s Chill Between.” Both were submitted at Dante Gabriel’s insistence. Rossetti knew she could be great, and despite what decorum demanded, she wanted to be.

Rossetti’s keen awareness of Victorian gender strictures is everywhere in her work, from the lament of her ghostly speaker in “After Death” to the claustrophobic romantic possibilities in “A Triad.” In “From the Antique,” her speaker sighs, “I wish and I wish I were a man.” Rossetti never relinquished her literary aspirations nor did her family pressure her to do so. Her parents encouraged their children’s creative ambitions, even though Rossetti and her older sister, Maria, never attended school. Despite her considerable success, however, Rossetti sometimes summoned essentialist assessments of feminine inferiority. When Dante Gabriel attempted to rouse her from a slump, she responded by letter: “Here is a great discovery, ‘Women are not Men,’ and you must not expect me to possess a tithe of your capacities, though I humbly—or proudly—lay claim to family-likeness.” In the wake of some discouraging reviews, she wrote to a friend, “We are not all D.G.Rs!” At the time, Dante Gabriel enjoyed the success of seeing his poetry volumes reprinted three, even four times over.

Though it’s since become one of Rossetti’s most famous poems, “In an Artist’s Studio” wasn’t published until two years after her death. Dante Gabriel, who acted as his sister’s de facto literary executor, likely suppressed the poem. And because Rossetti sought and trusted her brother’s guidance, she likely would have agreed to withhold it. But her compliance didn’t assure complacency. For a woman of Rossetti’s ambition—a condemnable trait in Victorian women—such equanimity was impossible.

Rossetti’s career suggests that she pursued the limited options available to her. Her 1862 poem “No, Thank you, John” reminds us that one of the most audacious acts a woman can commit is that of refusal. Although John is ostensibly a rejected lover, Rossetti’s female speaker luxuriates in the possibility of no for its own sake. She teases a fantasy of widespread male repudiation:

Let bygones be bygones:
                     Don’t call me false, who owed not to be true:
I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns
                      Than answer “Yes” to you.

The right of refusal must have been tantalizing to a woman in Rossetti’s era. But the poem’s playful, resolute tone suggests her unwillingness to capitulate simply because of her gender. In “Winter: My Secret” (1857), she offers further evidence of a will that’s not easily bent:

I tell my secret? No indeed, not I;
Perhaps some day, who knows?
[…]
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret’s mine, and I won’t tell.

Or, after all, perhaps there’s none:
Suppose there is no secret after all,
But only just my fun.

By 1860, Rossetti, then 30 years old, was determined to publish her work more widely. She struck up a timid correspondence with editor David Masson of Macmillan’s Magazine. Dante Gabriel advised her how to proceed once Masson expressed interest. Dante Gabriel also forwarded his sister’s notebooks to publisher Alexander Macmillan. According to Marsh, Rossetti’s poems were mostly published without revision. Dante Gabriel often supplied the titles because, as he said, “Christina paid too little attention to [them].” But despite Dante Gabriel’s involvement in his sister’s first poetry collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), he may have deliberately slowed the editorial process. He agreed to illustrate the book but delayed delivery of the woodcuts at least once because he didn’t want Rossetti’s debut to overshadow his own forthcoming collection.

Dante Gabriel was a man of his time. Rossetti once argued with him over whether to publish her poem “The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children” (1863), which expresses her view that “men were more to blame than women for sexual misconduct.” Dante Gabriel’s response wasn’t unexpected. As Marsh explains, “he disliked women speaking on such subjects about which he claimed they knew little.” Rossetti saw no reason why she shouldn’t write about the subject of illegitimacy—children born out of wedlock—and, furthermore, put pressure on the sexual double standards that marked Victorian gender roles.

Though it’s not “biographical fallacy” to regard Dante Gabriel’s portraits, and those of the PRB, with a raised eyebrow today, doing so requires careful consideration of many other 19th-century male painters. In fin-de-siècle France, for example, Edgar Degas indulged his fascination with lithe ballerinas. In the United States, John Singer Sargent scandalized viewers with Madame X (1884), his portrait of a young socialite in a risqué black dress. Dante Gabriel capitalized on his proximity to the beautiful women who visited his studio. His romance with Siddal, which ended with her suicide in 1862, was fraught from the beginning. When he began to paint Jane Morris, the wife of writer and textile designer William Morris, she and Dante Gabriel started an illicit affair. Although Rossetti never married, she wasn’t naïve: she knew her brother’s disposition and understood that the closeness of the studio worked as an aphrodisiac on him. But this wasn’t uncommon in the PRB. When John Ruskin’s wife, Effie Gray, began modeling for Millais, the two fell in love, and upon Effie’s separation from Ruskin in 1854, she and Millais married.

Ultimately, Rossetti criticized and emulated the PRB in equal measure. When the group disbanded in 1853, her commemorative verses teased the degenerative effects of sensuality: “So luscious fruit must fall when over-ripe / And so the consummated P.R.B,” she writes in “Luscious Fruit Must Fall.” England’s cultural critics were less generous in their interpretations of the PRB. One contemporary painter, affronted by Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents—a humble, purposefully unadorned rendering of the Holy Family—referred to it as “pictorial blasphemy,” indicative of “circumstantial Art-language from which we recoil with loathing and disgust.” In his essay “The Fleshly School of Poetry” (1871), the Scottish writer Robert Buchanan accused the PRB of “diligently spreading the seeds of disease broadcast wherever they are read and understood.”

As a devout Christian, Rossetti might have recoiled from her brother’s scandalous love affairs and the sexual manipulation that took place in the artist’s studio. But in Goblin Market and “A Birthday,” she conveys the same lush sensuality, even eroticism, that was denounced as obscene in the work of her brother and his cohorts. The poem “Goblin Market” portrays a young girl at the edge of death who is seduced into eating deadly magic fruit. She achieves salvation by sucking the juice that streams down her sister’s face after a confrontation with the goblins:

Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries, 
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together
In summer weather,—

The poem trills on in a singsong recitation that re-creates Eden and all its temptations. At the conclusion, the heroine, Lizzie, returns to her sister dripping with pulpy fruit juice and begs her to drink and rejuvenate herself:

She cried, “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”

The poem is intensely homosocial and almost dizzy with synesthesia. Reading it conveys the same effect of looking too long at Dante Gabriel’s Lady Lilith (1866–8) or The Beloved (1865–6), paintings that observe the PRB’s theory of “democracy of components,” in which every inch of the canvas is filled with opulent color, fleshy women, or blossoms bursting from the edges.

Although “Goblin Market” ends with the moral “For there is no friend like a sister,” the poem carries a visceral physical charge. Laura clips a lock of her own golden hair to pay for the goblins’ fruit, a significant gesture because hair evoked female sexuality in the Victorian era. To cut one’s hair was typically understood as a mark of lost innocence. When Lizzie angers the goblins by resisting their overtures, she withstands their brutal attack and commingles the pleasure of renunciation with near-sexual violence. And, of course, the sisters’ intimacy is rooted in deep physicality. Some illustrators have interpreted “Goblin Market” as pornographic. But as scholar Dinah Roe observes, Rossetti “disguised Pre-Raphaelite realism with allegory and fantasy, thereby avoiding the critical outrage which had attended the Brotherhood’s more controversial works.”

Dante Gabriel and his colleagues painted voluptuous female forms that seem to invite an erotic gaze and sometimes invoke what were considered sinful pursuits, including sex work (DGR’s Found) and adultery (Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience). “Goblin Market” could be, and often is, read as a cautionary tale about sexual wantonness, but it’s a fairy tale first. It can also be interpreted as an argument against gluttony. When Victorian children read Rossetti’s poem, they likely perceived it as the latter: after consorting with hobgoblins, a pretty little girl learns a valuable lesson in moderation. The poem’s myriad meanings and Rossetti’s novelty as a newfound talent ensured the poem’s freedom from censure. Indeed, Goblin Market and Other Poems was wildly popular, and Rossetti was hailed as the successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Even Dante Gabriel often admitted that his sister was the superior talent.

Still, Rossetti sometimes implies in her work that an artistic Victorian woman is likely to suffer life-draining stasis. In “A Study (A Soul),” from 1854, she writes, “She stands alone, a wonder deathly white; / She stands there patient, nerved with inner might, / Indomitable in her feebleness, / Her face and will athirst against the light.” The woman in the poem isn’t an art object, yet she’s conceived of as an ornament. In waning health, she appears “as pale as Parian statues.” There’s no escaping the bind of representation, Rossetti warns; in fact, it may be the Victorian woman’s only access to the artistic fold. Unable to create herself, she suffers the burden of “will athirst” as she’s deprived of inner life (“a wonder deathly white”). Perhaps she’ll be granted immortality this way. But what is preferable: to exist solely as a man’s phantasm—to “fill his dream”—or to be annihilated altogether? Forced with the choice, Rossetti probably would have opted for the latter.

It’d be easy to memorialize Rossetti as a woman with “will athirst” beating against society’s cage. One could conclude that between “A Study (A Soul)” and “In an Artist’s Studio,” she determined full female subjectivity to be impossible. Perhaps female creative potential was always squandered because its full reception and nourishment was culturally impossible. However, Rossetti might ask us to pause and recall these lines from “Winter: My Secret:”

Today’s a nipping day, a biting day;
In which one wants a shawl,
A veil, a cloak, and other wraps:
I cannot ope to every one who taps,
And let the draughts come whistling thro’ my hall;
Come bounding and surrounding me,
Come buffeting, astounding me,
Nipping and clipping thro’ my wraps and all.

Sometimes, Rossetti suggests, female agency resides in self-preservation—the choice to be silent or to conceal or to withhold or even to mislead. “Only, my secret’s mine, and I won’t tell,” the poem’s speaker declares. Was this Rossetti’s coded declaration of independence? We can’t know for sure. Beyond her poems, she left no template for those who followed her. To biographers’ knowledge, she never told another woman how to be an artist. After all, she struggled with her own notions of how to be one. She never sought these answers from Dante Gabriel, yet she must have known that his influence over her was diffuse. However much she agreed to collaborate with him, she resisted redefinition and submission. Unlike the women beaming from the PRB’s portraits—luminous but silenced—she chose her own self-representation. For a female poet, perhaps some of the secrets she keeps are just as vital as the verse she shares.

Originally Published: July 23rd, 2018

Rachel Vorona Cote is the author of Too Much Is Just Enough: How Culture Binds Us And Excess Becomes Us (Grand Central, forthcoming 2019). She lives in Washington, DC.