Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Cook, the Thief, the Artist and his Muse

I mentioned in an earlier post that Venus Verticordia by Rossetti had been x-rayed.  Well, here is a short article I wrote on what was revealed and the lovely x-ray.

Despite the fact that her name means ‘turner of hearts’, Venus Verticordia turns people’s heads like no other Rossetti picture. This may have something to do with the fact that she is Rossetti’s only ‘nude’ in oil, or perhaps the large scale orgy of nature that surrounds the beautiful young woman, but when the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery acquired the picture in 1946, they acquired an ambassador for their collection, who would travel the globe.
Venus Verticordia (1864-68) D G Rossetti
Venus Verticordia has travelled extensively; think of any Rossetti exhibition you have seen and she was probably there. She’s been to Paris, Monaco, around England, and it was on one of her many jaunts that she was x-rayed, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It had always been known that Rossetti had repainted this particular picture extensively, but nothing was known about its original state. Thanks to this x-ray, we can tell a little of what Rossetti rejected.

Undercover Venus!
To start with, the x-ray shows us the original position of the head. The original model was a cook that Rossetti saw in the street, and in his usual way accosted her and took her home. She sat for the picture when it was first commissioned in 1864. The description of this young woman is that she was ‘very large...almost a giantess’, although there seems little evidence in the finished picture of the size of the model. The right-hand side of the body is hidden by hair in the finished work, but on the x-ray more is visible, and you can see the broad shoulders of a working woman.

Possibly the Cook?

Fanny, aka The Thief (sorry Fan)

Of most interest is, of course, the head. After the advent of Alexa Wilding into Rossetti’s life in 1865, the artist began to revise canvases to the tastes of his patrons, but much to the displeasure of at least one of the original models. Rossetti scraped back the face and replaced it with that of Alexa in 1867. By looking at the x-ray, the original face is outlined lower and slightly to the left. Her neck is much shorter, a more natural length, and full throated, in line with the size of her upper torso. When Rossetti repainted, he added the sweep of a swan neck, with the tendons twisting as she turns her head.

Alexa's first outing as Venus
The original rendering of the picture shows a softer Venus, in line with Rossetti’s early ‘Venetian’ women, approachable and sexy. She will turn your heart in the sense that you cannot help but love her. With the changes comes a more complex message. The long neck gives a sense of unreality and the tension in the twist gives the distinct impression of ‘display’ by the Goddess. Coupled with the precise painting of the sea of acid-bright flowers, this work has a sense of sexual danger and force. The x-ray allows us to see that Venus got the same treatment as Lilith, and Rossetti had replaced a friendly, warm female ideal with something far more dangerous. It is left up to the viewer to speculate why.

After a few months in Italy, Venus is back hanging on the wall of the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth, under the watchful eye of Mr Walker, who looks after the topless hussy.  Not that I'm jealous....

1 comment:

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