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Poem of the Month: Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio”
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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, 1854 (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

 

 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, 1854 (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti drew numerous pictures of his model, muse and later wife Elizabeth Siddal. The Rossetti Archive exhibits many portraits from 1850-1861, such as those given here. When his sister Christina’s poem “In an Artist’s Studio” (composed on 24 December 1856) was posthumously published in 1896, her other brother and editor William Michael revealed that it was about Dante Gabriel’s studio and his portraits of Siddal, and that it was written in 1856, in the heat of the Siddal-Rossetti relationship (“The reference is apparently to our brother’s studio, and to his constantly-repeated heads of the lady whom he afterwards married, Miss Siddal”). The title was added by William Michael (Crump 463).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal, 1861? (image courtesy of wikimedia commons)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem again recently as I work on a paper for NAVSA 2011 on the artist studio. While my conference paper concerns the representations of British and American expatriate artist studios in Italy, and their relation to new cultural and political models of performativity, thinking about these issues has suggested to me different ways of reading “In an Artist’s Studio”, which is perhaps the most famous text on the artist studio in this period. Often, critics responding to the poem do so in terms how the representational strategies of women offered by Dante Gabriel’s poems and paintings differ starkly from Christina Rossetti’s poems, and how this is complicated by her own status as his early muse and model. Critics also look at the poem’s adoption of the Petrarchan form, a genre associated with the love poetry of both Dante Alighieri and Petrarch, and their associated ideology of romantic love that idealises, silences and de-animates the woman as the object of address. Christina Rossetti turned to this issue several times, most notably in her sonnet sequence Monna Innominata, or unnamed lady, when the Petrachan beloved is given a temporary voice for the space of the 14 sonnets.

This approach to “In an Artist’s Studio” has yielded some fascinating readings about the aesthetic relationship between the Rossetti siblings. But I wonder about the significance of the poem’s title, and the very conception of the artist’s studio, which readings tend to overlook. The artist’s studio itself was, in the nineteenth century, a discursive space that often critically reflected on the nature of artistic production. The term “studio” was first used in the modern sense in the nineteenth century to denote a place of artistic creativity as opposed to a workshop or bottega, but incorporating the multiple and contradictory senses of retreat, labour, privacy and sociability, in opposition to the homosocial fraternity of the Salon or the Academy, and the associated commercialisation of art (see Cole and Prado’s introduction to their collection of essays). Christina Rossetti’s poem privileges the space of the study through the emphatic focus on the female model. While, the sonnet tells us, “We found her hidden just behind those screens”, the artist himself is nowhere to be seen except in that startling image “He feeds upon her face”. His labour is signified by the female image: artistic production is feminised and privatised in this privileged space. But the labour is also seen to be one of vampiric consumption, as others have pointed out, and thus dependent on his artistic fantasies. In terms of the conception of the artist’s studio in this period, Christina Rossetti’s poem depicts her brother’s place of artistic creativity as strangely remote from his presence. Instead, his identity as an artist – and his creative process – is signified metonymically by the reiterated portraits of one model “as she fills his dream”. The artist’s studio is thus a place of interiority, delusion, femininity. And, while the artist is himself physically absent in the poem, his studio is visited by more than one guest, for the poem’s voice is narrated through that third person pronoun “we”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, 1860? (image courtesy of wikimedia commons)

The mid-Victorian studio had become a place of sociability for the display of and discussion about art, and sometimes to attract commissions, but it had lost its sense of the creative space as messy labour. As Marc Gotlieb argues, indeed, often the studio was seen to be contingent on the Romantic-era myth of the solitary, neglected artist, as so many studio paintings depict a melancholy, raving or dead artist, and his failed art. Christina Rossetti’s poem takes this discourse of the studio and transforms the alienated artist into the absent artist whose work and indeed aesthetics can be replaced by the muse. And she flat-lines the sonnet form, if I can term it that, by insisting on her one message, just as her brother’s art means “The same one meaning, neither more nor less”. The traditional doubleness of the Petrarchan sonnet form, with the octave followed by the sestet, has become one of singular reiteration. The twist, in the poem, is that the meaning is given by the viewers, who here are in a position of power, to see what the artist cannot. This poem, then, could be read as an intriguing commentary on the conception of studio space in the mid-nineteenth century, rather than only a critique of a particular artist’s gendered aesthetics.

Elizabeth Siddal, Self Portrait, 1854 (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

I wonder, though, how should the “we” of the poem be decoded? Isn’t it unusual for a sonnet to have a third person plural voice? Who exactly does the poem speak on behalf of? To focus on the “we” of the poem I think fruitfully frustrates any simple biographical reading of the sonnet. And what difference does it make that this poem was unpublished in manuscript?

Works Cited

Rebecca Crump (ed.), The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti: A Variorum Edition, vol. 3 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990)

Marc Gotlieb, “Creation and Death in the Romantic Studio”, in Michael Cole and Mary Prado (ed.), Inventions of the Studio, Renaissance to Romanticism (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), pp. 147-84

See also:

Lizzie Siddal.com

Jan Marsh, The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal (London: Quartet Books, 1989)

W. M. Rossetti, “Dante Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal”, The Burlington Magazine, May 1903, pp. 273-95

Selected Poetry of Elizabeth Siddal

Christina Rossetti, “In an Artist’s Studio”

One face looks out from all his canvasses,
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 canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor 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.

 

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Poem of the Month: Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio” by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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