The Rossettian Hand

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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Pandora', 1878
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Pandora’, 1878
John Robert Parsons, 'Jane Morris' (detail), 1865. This particular photograph has been considered the basis for Rossetti's 'Pandora' drawings.
John Robert Parsons, ‘Jane Morris’ (detail), 1865. This particular photograph has been considered the basis for Rossetti’s ‘Pandora’ drawings.

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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'La Pia de' Tolomei', 1868-80
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘La Pia de’ Tolomei’, 1868-80
Study for 'La Pia', 1868
Study for ‘La Pia’, 1868
Study for 'La Pia', 1868
Study for ‘La Pia’, 1868

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.

John Robert Parsons, 'Jane Morris', 1865
John Robert Parsons, ‘Jane Morris’, 1865
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Reverie', 1868
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Reverie’, 1868

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).

Sandro Botticelli, 'Madonna of the Magnificat', 1481
Sandro Botticelli, ‘Madonna of the Magnificat’, 1481
Michelangelo, 'Tomb of Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici', 1520-34
Michelangelo, ‘Tomb of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici’, 1520-34

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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'La Bella Mano', 1875
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘La Bella Mano’, 1875

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.


The Pre-Raphaelites at the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE

Alas, I have neglected this blog of mine for several months! University, and probably life in general, has got quite in the way (I’ve a dissertation to write!). But, no fear, I have returned.

I was recently in the United States on a family visit, and since Bethesda, MD, is only a two-hour drive from Delaware I slyly encouraged a trip to Wilmington with the intention of going to the Delaware Art Museum. The museum occupies a special place in Pre-Raphaelite studies since it holds the largest and most important collection of the Brotherhood’s work outside the UK, which is certainly unusual for such a deeply British movement. Samuel Bancroft, a Wilmington textile mill owner, first rapturously beheld a Pre-Raphaelite painting — Rossetti’s Vision of Fiametta (1878) — in 1880, and in the 1890s began to enthusiastically acquire PRB art to display in his home, now sadly demolished. His fine collection was bequeathed to the museum in 1935, and although his tastes would surely have seemed bizarre to his fellow Americans at the time his passion for the work of D.G. Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, John Millais and Ford Madox Brown resulted in one of the few American collections of nineteenth-century British art (I believe that the Fogg Museum at Harvard University is one another).

Despite an apocalyptically-titled ‘polar vortex’ we were able to make the journey up to Wilmington, and I spent the afternoon at the museum. I was especially privileged to meet with Margaretta S. Frederick, chief curator of the Bancroft Collection, who very kindly took the time to show my father, my sister and me round the main gallery and then to see a substantial number of paintings in storage. She was very friendly and welcoming, and it is always lovely to speak to a fellow Pre-Raphaelite obsessive (if that’s the right word to use!). I am now tempted to return to the museum and make use of its fabulous library (which includes original volumes of The Yellow Book and Rossetti first editions) for future research!

The galleries themselves are beautifully assembled. Some of the walls are papered with William Morris’s Marigold pattern, while others are painted in greens and blues to complement those rich Pre-Raphaelite colours. As you can see from the photographs below the rooms were empty on that cold Wednesday afternoon, so I was able to examine and wander among the paintings and objects in reverential solitude. I had seen some of the pictures in previous exhibitions — Veronica Veronese at the V&A’s Cult of Beauty; Lady Lilith at the Tate Pre-Raphelites — but due to crowded conditions it was difficult to really get close and appreciate them in one’s own time, so this quietude was rather welcomed by me (though it would have been nice to see a few others out Pre-Raph hunting!).

On the wall: ‘Veronica Veronese’ and ‘La Bella Mano’ (bigger than I expected) by Rossetti; ‘The Somnambulist’ by Millais. Photography is allowed, fyi.
‘The Council Chamber’ from the ‘Briar Rose’ series — certainly the largest Burne-Jones I have yet seen!
On the wall: ‘Lady Lilith’ by Rossetti; Charles Fairfax Murray’s lovely copy of Rossetti’s ‘Beata Beatrix’

I thought it would be nice to focus on a few favourite works in the collection. The painting which greets you in the first room (and it was the first Pre-Raphaelite work Bancroft bought) is one I was particularly looking forward to seeing, though its small size makes it seem unassuming and even a little insignificant when compared alongside other, much larger works by Rossetti. Titled Water Willow, it’s a kind of love letter to Jane Morris and was painted at Kelmscott Manor in the summer of 1871. Anyone who read my previous post about William Morris’s bed might have some idea of my deep love for Kelmscott, and Water Willow actually features the house and the village church in the background and what is presumably the River Thames with a boathouse in the middle ground. (A copy of the painting executed by Charles Fairfax Murray in 1893 currently hangs in Jane Morris’s bedroom at Kelmscott Manor, which left me eager to see the original!) Rossetti’s infamous affair with Jane reached its peak at this time, and while William was away in Iceland the two used Kelmscott and its surrounding landscape as a private, rural retreat in which to indulge their passions. The painting can also be regarded alongside several sonnets which Rossetti composed in the same summer, now informally called the ‘Kelmscott Love Sonnets’. One such poem, ‘Silent Noon’, is rich with natural imagery and a quiet atmosphere which matches the Water Willow painting (see links at the end). I particularly love the picture’s cool, aqueous colour palette of watery greens and pale blues, echoing Jane’s eyes and imbuing the painting with a curiously introspective, meditative mood. The willow boughs of course also bring to mind one of William Morris’s best-loved designs, though his pattern was first printed a good few years later in 1887.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Water Willow', 1871
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Water Willow’, 1871
Close-up of 'Water Willow'
Close-up of ‘Water Willow’

Another lovely painting in the collection is John Millais’s The Highland Lassie from 1854. Also small in size, this painting actually reminded me somewhat of those little oval gold-framed daguerrotype portraits popular in the Victorian period; certainly, Millais’s obsessive attention to detail has been described as photographic and this painting’s plain background is perhaps reminiscent of a backdrop in a photographer’s studio. It is one of several paintings executed by Millais in the Scottish Highlands, the most famous of which is his portrait of John Ruskin (recently bought by the Ashmolean), and the sitter’s name is now sadly unknown. She gazes out at the viewer, her blue eyes and the soft pink of her lips and faint blushing cheek complemented by her dark blue collar and the pink and white pinstripes of her dress (though Millais originally requested a dress of Rob Roy tartan).

John Everett Millais, 'The Highland Lassie', 1854
John Everett Millais, ‘The Highland Lassie’, 1854
Close-up of ‘The Highland Lassie’

Finally (though I could write far more!), another Rossetti in the collection is Veronica Veronese, a sumptuous study in greens painted in 1872. A characteristic of Rossetti’s work which I’ve always noticed is his tendency to give his paintings alliterative, pretty-sounding titles which sound vaguely Latin or Italian: Veronica Veronese apparently simply means ‘Veronica of Verona’, and might also allude to the Venetian painter Paolo Veronese. Here a woman swathed in rich green velvet — modelled by Alexa Wilding — sits absorbed in contemplation before a violin, whose strings she fingers absentmindedly, while just behind her a canary sings (symbolically?) outside its cage. This is not a painting with any moral or narrative, as in earlier Pre-Raphaelite work: now, in the quintessentially Aesthetic mode, Rossetti places an emphasis on mood and the senses. Perhaps underlying the painting is the idea of synesthesia, or the stimulation of more than one sense at the same time, and the canary’s song, the daffodils on the table, the suggestion of the woman’s music and the gorgeous colour palette all combine to intensify the viewer’s sensory experience. It is best to supply Rossetti’s own evocative explanation of the picture in order to understand these Aesthetic principles:

Suddenly leaning forward, the Lady Veronica rapidly wrote the first notes on the virgin page. Then she took the bow of the violin to make her dream reality; but before commencing to play the instrument hanging from her hand, she remained quiet a few moments, listening to the inspiring bird, while her left hand strayed over the strings searching for the supreme melody, still elusive. It was the marriage of the voices of nature and the soul — the dawn of a mystic creation.

Echoing Walter Pater’s famous claim in his essay ‘The School of Giorgione’ that ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’, the painting could thus also be viewed as a representation of the creative process.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Veronica Veronese', 1872
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Veronica Veronese’, 1872
Close-up of 'Veronica'
Close-up of ‘Veronica’

As a souvenir of my visit I decided to buy a particularly beautiful book about the Bancroft Collection with some gifted dollars. Its full title is Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum, and almost all of the works on display and in storage are photographed with accompanying commentaries. The only downside is that it made the luggage a good deal heavier on the flight home! I could not recommend the museum highly enough to other Pre-Raphaelite fans, and thanks must be given again to Margaretta Frederick for showing me its unique collection.


Further information

  • The Bancroft Collection has its own excellent website which lists all the paintings by each artist, with high-quality photographs.
  • The Delaware Art Museum’s main website, with information of its other collections. Any pirate fans would appreciate its galleries of Howard Pyle!
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Kelmscott Love Sonnet’, ‘Silent Noon‘, composed like Water Willow in the summer of 1871 at Kelmscott Manor. The text here is from The House of Life, Rossetti’s large sonnet sequence published in complete form in 1881.
  • Veronica Veronese in the Rossetti Archive, with a more in-depth discussion of its production and iconography.