Monday 22 February 2016

Is Fanny Cornforth the Model for Monna Vanna?

Welcome to a week of posts about Fanny Cornforth.  Me and Fanny have quite a long history together, over twenty years now, but this is the first year I can mark the day she died.  After I discovered the place and date of her death last March (in this post) we finally had a date, 24th February 1909, to remember her.  As this is my first Fanny anniversary (or Fanny-versary, if you will) I thought we'd have a number of posts discussing different ways we see and remember her and I'll start with a controversial one.  I believe that Fanny Cornforth is the model for the painting Monna Vanna and I shall tell you why...
Monna Vanna (1866) D G Rossetti

Although this oil painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti dates from his period of change-over from Fanny Cornforth to Alexa Wilding, the sitter has never been debated. The normal narrative of Rossetti's 1860s reads that he used Fanny as his model until laying eyes on Alexa in April 1865, when Fanny was dropped from oil, never to return.  The sharp features and auburn hair are always identified as being Alexa, and there exists no letters of debate, no discussions about over-painting, unlike Lady Lilith or Venus Verticordia which are from the same period.  However, I would like to suggest that model, at least the original model, was Fanny Cornforth which might make the cross-over period between his models a little more complicated.

Lady Lilith (1864-8)
Venus Verticordia (1864-8)
Monna Vanna appeared during Rossetti's period of richly decorated, half or three quarter length female figures.  They are surrounded by flowers, jewels or luxurious bric-a-brac and portray what was known as the 'Venetian' type of beauty. Beginning with Bocca Baciata (1859) and ending with the darkening focus of Jane Morris in the 1870s, these pictures became what people now think of when they think 'Rossetti'.  Heavy lips, wavy hair and long pale necks, each of the three models are at once individuals but also conflations into the ideal. At the beginning, Rossetti painted Fanny as Bocca Baciata because both he (and his patron/friend George Price Boyce) found her to be desirable.  At the end, Rossetti painted Jane Morris as she was his obsession.  However, the middle years, Alexa's years, were painted with an eye to the market which is why so many of the paintings were taken back and repainted, perfected for the patron.  The most famous of these has to be Lady Lilith which I'll talk about later in the week, but others include Venus Verticordia, a Frankenstein's monster of a painting with bits of Fanny, bits of someone's cook, a bit of Alexa, and a bit of goodness knows how many others. When Rossetti retrieved Fazio's Mistress to repaint in 1873, Fanny went mad, accusing him of scraping her out, although he maintained he did not touch her face.  Monna Vanna was also repainted in 1873, but no mention was made of exactly what he touched. Did he alter the face as he had on others?

Sketch for The Blue Bower (1865)
 As far as I can see, there are no sketches for Monna Vanna. In A Curl of Copper and Pearl I explained this by having Fanny burn them all in respose to Rossetti's replacing her in his paintings, but honestly it is a puzzle.  They might have been lost, but it might have been they exist and are attached to other pictures.  If you look at the above image of Fanny Cornforth from The Blue Bower the pose is very similar to Monna VannaThe Blue Bower preceeded Monna Vanna by a year and when I talk about Fanny, I try and place these two pictures together so that you can see how similar the position of the figures is.

The Blue Bower (detail)

Monna Vanna (detail)
There are differences in the colouring of the figures; ironically Fanny seems to have redder hair than Alexa, who seems to be sporting Fanny's blonder locks.  The head position is strikingly similar however and I would argue that it is possible that Rossetti used the sketches of Fanny from The Blue Bower for the voluptuous form of Monna Vanna.

Earrings from Monna Vanna
Fan from Monna Vanna

Woman with a Fan (1870)
Fanny is one of the few models who wore earrings in Rossetti's pictures, and the narrow range of earrings she wore leads me to wonder if some of them are actually her own.  The double flowers that hang from Monna Vanna's lobes are the same pair worn by Fanny in the 1870 chalk portrait Woman with a Fan.  Also, the fan in this chalk is a play on her name and is not a prop that Rossetti uses regularly, so possibly the 1870 chalk is an echo of the 1866 painting.  I can also see echoes of Lady Lilith from the same period who, in 1870, also had Fanny as a model.  By 1873, both Monna Vanna and Lady Lilith had Alexa as their model.

Bocca Baciata (1859)
Unlike today, Rossetti's contemporary commentators and biographers didn't have much interest particularly in who modelled for him.  After all, they just are the models, not the art.  Not only that, as we will see later in the week, Fanny's reputation for speaking her mind and making enemies probably coloured what was said about her, so people may have felt even less prone to mention her.  F G Stephens, founder Pre-Raphaelite brother and art critic, doesn't mention a model by name for Monna Vanna but makes a very interesting comment.  When describing the face in the picture, he writes:
 "Her lips that have been often kissed are cherry-coloured, ripe and full, yet not warmed by inner passion, nor exalted by rapture of contemplation"
Arguably, Stephens is alluding to Bocca Baciata, or 'The Kissed Mouth' (great name for a blog), Fanny Cornforth's most infamous role and certainly one he would know.  There is also a hint of morality in his comment - there is no reason to think that Monna Vanna is any more loose with her favours than any other Rossetti beauty, whose lips are very similar indeed, so possibly it is not the painting Stephens is referring to but the model.  Alexa had no such reputation, and certainly Stephens refers to her quite favourably in his biography of Rossetti.  Fanny however always had a whiff of scandal about her and so the slur I believe was directed at her.
Fanny Cornforth (1874)

Fanny Cornforth (1874)
 Although Monna Vanna resembles other images of Alexa Wilding from the 1860s, there is one image from the 1870s which also echoes it to the extent that I was convinced of Fanny's involvement in the painting and also Rossetti's later regret at scrapping his friend from his canvases.  In 1874, Rossetti did a series of chalk portraits of Fanny which have often been seen as a bribe by him to placate her for his constant absences and to stem her demands for money.  The two above are the ones that are usual shown, claiming that he had flattered her, made the now old and fat Fanny into a stunner once more.  Now that may or may not be true, but it does seem to assume that he was the king of verisimilitude in all other works which is patently untrue. A third portrait from the same date, with Fanny in the same clothes, ties the model to Monna Vanna in a quite surprising way...
Portrait of Fanny Cornforth (1874)
Monna Vanna again
Fanny Cornforth (1859)
Even more than The Blue Bower, this 1874 pastel of Fanny is so very like Monna Vanna as to make me assume Fanny's involvement in the 1866 painting.  The third pastel, which may or may not have passed through Fanny's hands like the other two, is unlike his normal way of showing her.  It is interesting to note the difference in her face when she is facing left (Lady Lilith, Fazio's Mistress, the majority of sketches) and when she is looking right (such as the sketch from 1859, left). None this takes into account Rossetti's way of making his ideal from what is in front of him, and in a way the early biographers were right to discount model as half of what we see in the completed painting comes straight out of the artist's head, but I still like to know who was physically in front of him, who inspired him to pick up a brush.  The earrrings and the fan seem to be stylistic points that link the picture to Fanny and the later pastel shows how Rossetti could make Fanny look like his 'Alexa' type.  To my mind, Monna Vanna, the voluptuous woman of riches was Fanny's last appearance in oil. 
How much of her remains is another matter...


  1. Dear Kirsty
    A fascinating post, as ever. Wouldn't it be great to have seen the originals, without the subsequent over painting? I would have loved to have seen the original Awakening Conscience, with the expression on the woman's face which so upset the buyer...I am sure there are many more paintings where the original face is changed.
    (I do love Rossetti's sketches - which are stunningly beautiful - more than the finished works in most cases.) I look forward to the rest of the 'Fanny-versary!'
    Best wishes

  2. I am not an expert but I definitely thought Mona Vanna was Fanny! It looks so much like her in my opinion!

  3. Thank you ladies. Even in the latest Exhibition catalogue for Liverpool, Monna Vanna is Alexa, so I fear we are on our own with Fanny, but it's worth suggesting...

  4. Personally I feel that Rossetti basically did 3 lots of paintings - those which are clearly Lizzie Siddal, those which are clearly Fanny and then the rest which all look like Jane Morris but can be Jane or Alexa or someone else like Marie Stillman. It's because the latter group all look so similar that people often say that all Rossetti's women look the same! Personally I feel this painting falls into the "Jane-esque" group - the face is different to the portraits of Fanny. It's true that the pose is similar to the other sketches/paintings of Fanny, so maybe it was originally Fanny or based on Fanny but then got replaced by Alexa's face later.

    1. I agree and will see if the Tate have any xrays of Monna Vanna - mind yo, having seen an xray of Venus Verticordia, the scraping can be quite substantial...

  5. I have always thought Monna Vanna was Fanny. For me,she was the most striking of interesting of Rossetti's models



Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx