Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

Rather than being a big old attention seeker, there was a point to me calling my blog ‘The Kissed Mouth’. Maybe that should be ‘In addition to being a big old attention seeker…’, but I think that Bocca Baciata is possibly the most important and interesting painting that Rossetti produced. Here’s why….

Bocca Baciata (1859) D G Rossetti
Painted in 1859, Bocca Baciata is heralded as a divergence from the watercoloured romance of Rossetti’s early art to a more sensual oil-based passion that would dominate his work until his death. His eye moved from the wane love of a faint damsel to sex and flowers with a sturdy lass who had a throat like an ivory tower. If you consider that Bocca Baciata was painted in the same year as Writing on the Sand, then the difference is marked.

Writing on the Sand (1859) D G Rossetti
Writing in the Sand is a rather unusual picture, being 'modern' rather than medieval, but it still sums up nicely the feeling of his 1850s work. The gentleman's little bird of a love coyly shies away from the passion of the romantic man.   Rossetti’s ‘1850s Lovers’ were chaste, virginal, and wistful, the man restrained yet longing and the woman shy and beautiful. In comes Fanny Cornforth and out goes the romance. All of a sudden we have lust, flesh and things you find in the first aisle of a supermarket. Obviously in my Fanny-centric view of the world, I have no problems with crediting Madame Cornforth with everything that happened of note in Rossetti’s life, but if I’m a little bit honest for a moment, could there be more at work?

Let’s start with Bellini’s St Dominic from 1515.

Hello Sexy.
 This had been recently purchased by the South Kensington museum and had been visited and admired by Rossetti. What do we have? Flattened background with organic patterning? Check. Flower? Check. Saucy expression? Okay, so he’s no Stunner, but there is a definite link stylistically between St. Dom and a Rossetti Venetian portrait like Regina Cordium, for example.

Regina Cordium (1866) D G Rossetti
So, maybe the time he spent with St Dominic had as great an impact as the time he spent with Fanny Cornforth. Add to this other works from the sixteenth century that Rossetti could have had access to and the links become stronger.

Woman with a Mirror (1513-15) Titian
Fazio's Mistress (1863) D G Rossetti

There is a style and an enjoyment of women that Rossetti shares eagerly with the Venetian masters of the sixteenth century. The poses they strike, the way they are presented, all echoes back three hundred years and were re-imagined during a period of moral uneasiness. When Rossetti painted beauty like this:

Dantis Amor (1860) D G Rossetti
…he was saying that there is a spiritual love between men and women that can span time, distance and death. The lovers of his former works rarely touched or kissed, but existed in a trance of chaste desire that never seemed to climax in physicality. When he painted beauty like Bocca Baciata he was saying ‘The enjoyment in beauty is in the consumption. The consumption of beauty will never diminish it.’

Uh oh.

Exactly how practical and honest the sentiment behind The Kissed Mouth was is debatable, but you have to wonder at a man who promotes promiscuity in women and praises the prostitute in high art. That’s simultaneously brave and deluded on a whole new level. I have a theory that he never had a physical relationship with Jane Morris for two reasons: firstly, his health was so bad and I wish I didn’t know what hydrocele was. Ouch. Secondly, I think Jane was smarter than that because Rossetti strikes me as a man who got bored when there was nothing left to discover, so better to remain a mystery and keep him interested than to show him everything. The thing about the renewal of the kissed mouth is that it doesn’t diminish, but then it doesn’t improve, it remains the same. I’m left with the impression that Rossetti liked novelty and he’s already kissed that mouth once. Next!

Back to the painting. If you look at his painted output of the 1850s it is hard to see where Bocca Baciata comes from. Watercolour maiden, watercolour knight….then, bam! Oily trollop! Not a smooth progression I grant you. I think more could be made to link Rossetti’s pencil sketches of Elizabeth during the decade to his Venetian period. His obsessive sketching of her yielded some very ‘1860s’ images, for example…

Head of Elizabeth Siddal reclining on a pillow (1850s) D G Rossetti
Lizzie as Regina Cordium
Ellen Heaten as Reginan Cordium
Put this in oil and Lizzie could be the Stunner she deserved to be. I find this sketch far more beautiful than the rather sad ‘Stunner’ oil he did of his wife as Regina Cordium (1860). Rossetti’s problem (one of them) was that he found a groove with Fanny and it wasn’t appropriate for his portraits of other women of that period, for example another Regina Cordium painted from Ellen Heaton (which is dreadful and awkward). The rather more languid beauty of the pencil sketch found its voice again with the portraits of Alexa Wilding, but for full on, in your face gorgeousness, Bocca Baciata is the one for me.

Finally, Rossetti created a head-and-shoulders Stunner picture earlier than 1859. It could be argued that the origins of Bocca Baciata can be seen in a pencil portrait of 1847 where the beauty of the sitter is sensual and alluring. Ah, the pouty lip and coy glance we know so well…

Self Portrait (1847) D G Rossetti
I think the reason I find Bocca such an important part of Rossetti’s psyche is that in many ways it reflects the painter’s projection of himself. He is the kissed mouth, he wants people to understand that he is not tainted or soiled by his passions. Bocca Baciata wasn’t the start of something new, but the culmination of something that was there at the birth of Rossetti’s artistic identity. I think Rossetti saw something in Fanny that reflected a freedom of expression, both artistic and sexual, that he desired to express in himself. She is at once his muse, his conduit and his leader, and all of these qualities may well have existed entirely in Rossetti’s head. Bocca Baciata is a celebration of the beauty of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite stunner and a glimpse into the mind of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite artist. It is a wonderfully modern tribute to a loving nature and rejoices in sauciness, cheerfulness and naughtiness.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that it’s also on the front cover of the new edition of Stunner.
You heard it straight from The Kissed Mouth.


  1. I'm THRILLED to hear that Bocca Baciata is going to be on the cover! Perfect choice, it really couldn't or shouldn't be anything else~

  2. How could it not be? :) Easiest part of the redraft so far!

  3. You've done it. I'm going over the the MFA this
    evening and look at Bocca baciata again ...

    many thanks


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