There is a particular recurring detail of Rossetti’s images of women which once seen, for some reason, cannot be unseen: the emphasis on hands. In his later work Rossetti frequently elongates the palms and fingers of his female sitters (particularly those of Jane Morris), exaggerating their lengths sometimes to impossibility. Rossettian hands are often curled and tensed, lithe and willowy, and are symptomatic of Rossetti’s tendency to stylise and accentuate female body parts — the lips, the hair — for sensual effect. These curious hands also presumably express the psychological states of the women to whom they belong, or draw the viewer’s attention to particular objects central to the theme or narrative of the images, as will be discussed below.
Take, for example, Rossetti’s chalk version of Pandora (below). The exaggeration of Pandora’s hands makes them the focus of the image, drawing attention to the woeful act which this femme fatale is enacting: using her overly-nimble, almost double-jointed fingers, she opens the lid of the box from which evil is unleashed upon the world for all eternity. It is a moment of tension, and indeed the fingers are tensed as if in regret — in the accompanying sonnet, Rossetti commands her to ‘clench the casket now!’ In a way, Pandora’s clenched hands have doomed mankind.
In a similar vein, the hands of Jane Morris in La Pia de’ Tolomei (below) become an expressive focal point of the painting and highlight a particular melancholy symbol. The subject of the picture is from Canto V of Dante’s Purgatorio. The beautiful La Pia has been imprisoned by her husband, Nello della Pietra, in a fortress in the Tuscan marshes. In Rossetti’s painting she sits on the ramparts of the castle against an ivy-curtained wall, her hands clasped in her lap and her fingers absentmindedly toying her wedding ring, which has now become an emblem of her failed marriage and entrapment by her husband. Preparatory sketches for the painting feature a similar fixation with her hands and wedding ring. Alistair Grieve has pointed out that the change in the position of Jane’s head from tilting back to leaning forward serves to draw attention to the hands and wedding ring.
Rossetti’s treatment of female hands in this manner seems a tad fetishistic. Jane Morris was known for having particularly willowy, slender hands, but a comparison between John Robert Parson’s photograph of her and Rossetti’s chalk drawing Reverie based upon that photograph (below) reveals the extent to which he exaggerated them. In the drawing her left hand is longer than her face, and her right hand resting on her lap is of impossible proportions — in the photograph, Jane’s hands are not nearly as pronounced. There has also been a general softening of Jane’s features, a loosening of her limbs, with the lips made fuller and rounder.
J. B. Bullen posits that Botticelli’s paintings might have had an influence, pointing to the Madonna of the Magnificat as an example. The Virgin Mary in Botticelli’s picture has similarly poised, tensed fingers. The female figures in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Venus and Mars also have enlarged hands. I would also suggest the work of Michelangelo, whose sculptures are frequently endowed with abnormally-emphasised fingers (below).
Finally, Rossetti even created a sonnet and painting entitled La Bella Mano, or The Beautiful Hand in English. The central figure of the painting was modelled by Alexa Wilding, a Venus who washes her long hands in a gilded basin while her winged attendants stand by with a towel and jewellery. As in Pandora and La Pia, the graceful female hands are the focus of the painting, even directly addressed in the sonnet:
O lovely hand, that thy sweet self doth lave
In that thy pure and proper element,
Whence erst the Lady of Love high advènt
Was born […]
In royal wise ring-girt and bracelet-spann’d,
A flower of Venus’s own virginity,
Go shine among thy sisterly sweet band;
In maiden-minded converse delicately
Evermore white and soft; until thou be,
O hand! heart-handsel’d in a lover’s hand.
Here the purpose of the hand of Venus, the hand of Love, is to be bejewelled and eventually entrusted to another’s — her beautiful hand will be entwined with her lover’s, who presumably waits somewhere outside the picture space in the cosy room reflected in the convex mirror haloing her head. Thus, Rossettian hands express a range of symbolic gestures, from bringers of destruction in Pandora, to gentle love-tokens in La Bella Mano.