The Many Portraits of Christina Rossetti

The Many Portraits of Christina Rossetti

It took a while for me to come up with a subtitle for my upcoming novel The Dove Upon Her Branch. Perhaps one wouldn’t be necessary if my authorship of it was enough to entice readers. I decided it was wiser to rely more on its protagonist’s lure.

She sometimes struggled with titles for her writing, often with her oldest brother’s opinion of her choices. Usually, she surrendered to his suggestions.

I hoped, as with the main title, the perfect words would appear out of the prolificacy of her poetry. Instead, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti was what I settled on. It was what I felt I had accomplished.

A Little Teaser of the Cover
Artwork Copyright 2022 by DM Denton

There are many drawings and paintings of the Victorian poet and youngest sibling of the remarkable Polidori-Rossetti family. From her girlhood to middle-age, Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, literally and lovingly captured the delicate beauty of his youngest sister’s youth, moods of her evolving temperament, and altered appearance due to age and disease.

Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina Rossetti
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

A few other artists put their hands to immortalizing her, two out of romantic interest, James Collinson’s unflattering, and John Brett’s never finished.

Christina Rossetti by James Collinson
Christina Rossetti by John Brett

A sketch of Christina Rossetti as a child by William Bell Scott from Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott, 1892 edition.

Above, intriguingly sulky, is the youngest portrait of Christina that I have come across. The artist was Scotsman William Bell Scott (1811 – 1890), who was also an art teacher and poet. The drawing was included in his Autobiographical Notes published posthumously in 1892, two years before Christina died at the age of sixty-four. He actually didn’t set eyes on her until she was almost eighteen, the drawing seemingly a copy of one Filippo Pistrucci did of her 1837.

Signore Pistrucci did another in 1839.

Christina Rossetti by Filippo Pistrucci

“Such a pretty little Christina. Such a perfectly still and dull Christina has never existed.” By the time he was eighteen and at Henry Sass’ Drawing Academy, Gabriel didn’t doubt he was the bona fide artist in the family and, therefore, the opinion that mattered.

      “He caught her wide-eyes and the softly determined jut of her chin, I think.”

      “Unimaginative work, Will. Where is the thought in her eyes? The words on her lips? The breath from her nostrils? He didn’t capture her truth. Realism without imagination is like religion without spirituality.”

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

In response to a letter Dante Gabriel had sent to him, Mr. Bell Scott began a lifelong association with the Rossettis – and, arguably, a significant place in Christina’s affections – in a December 1848 visit to London and the Rossetti family home on Charlotte Street, meeting Christina and her ailing father in the parlor.

In Mr. Scott’s words:

By the window was a high narrow reading-desk, at which stood writing a slight girl with a serious regular profile, dark against the palid wintry light without. This most interesting of the two inmates turned on my entrance, made the most formal and graceful curtsey, and resumed her writing …

The girl was Christina, who had already at seventeen written, like her brother, some admirable lyrics, nearly all overshadowed with melancholy. Melancholy I call it, but perhaps the right words would be pious sentiment. At least in her mind, piety and sadness went together, and have done all her life.

Christina Rossett by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

And in my words:

     The man brought to the parlor was tall, his face flushed, eyebrows bushy, and chin square, his jacket, cravat, waistcoat, and trousers artistically mismatched and well-worn. He seemed expectant then confused, his searching, sapphire gaze scanning the room. He removed his green-velvet, feathered hat, implying his impression of Christina with a broad smile and slight bow. She felt and probably appeared cross because she was unprepared to greet anyone she didn’t know.    

     Christina lowered her face and hurried back to her desk.

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll*, used a camera to portray a heavily costumed but relaxed thirty-three-year-old Christina with her beloved mother, older sister Maria, and older brothers William and Dante Gabriel on the back steps of the latter’s grand London house in Cheyne Walk.

     Compared to sitting for an artist, photographers were too busily burdened by the paraphernalia and processes of their trade to indulge in fostering relationships with their sitters. After a little bashful artistry, in few words Mr. Dodgson positioned Christina and, as soon as possible, escaped to concentrate on focusing the shot before he disappeared into his portable darkroom to prepare the plate. Ten or fifteen minutes of model patience was required for the time it took until he appeared rushed, holding his work away from the flaps of the tent, his cuffs, and anything else he might brush or bump it against. He did a final check with the darkening cloth over him and his magical machine, shut the lens, slid in the plate holder, pulled something up, and stood to the side.

     “You may blink but don’t otherwise move.” After removing the lens cap, Mr. Dodgson counted slowly to ten, and put it back.

     He hurried into the tent to confirm that Christina had been caught, as William described, first with “an intellectual profile” and then “a bantering air.”

Excerpts from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

Christina Rossetti from a photograph by Charles Dodgson

*It is thought that Christina’s poem Goblin Market was one of the inspirations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

From ‘The Annunciation-Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
From The Girlhood of
Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina also sat for a number of paintings in which she was portrayed as someone other than herself. The two most famous are above, Dante Gabriel depicting her as the Virgin Mary.

… “Mary’s daisies”. They were everywhere around her grandparents’ cottage, across its lawns and creeping through its pathways, opening to the sun, closing to the rain. Mama had shown her how to weave them together in chains for her wrists, hair, or around her neck, Gabriel promising to paint a portrait of her “adorned with them.”

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

She also modelled for Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, her head an inspiration for Jesus’, although another model, her eventual sister-on-law, Elizabeth Siddal, supplied the copper-colored locks.

From The Light of the World
by William Holman Hunt

And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

From In the Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti

During her first visit to Penkill Castle in South Ayrshire, Scotland, Christina sat for several murals William Bell Scott was painting on the walls of a newly built large spiral staircase. He posed her as Lady Jane, the heroine and distant love of King James I in The King’s Quaire, a Medieval poem and courtly romance.

From Illustration by DM Denton © Copyright 2022

    “… I’m under no illusions that is a likeness of me. An artist sees pieces of a model, not the whole. They use what they want to: the color of her hair and eyes, shape of her face, length of her neck. They maneuver her to find the necessary position of her head, droop of her shoulders or outstretch of her hand. They imagine what they want to, such as turning the discomfort even pain of staying in one position for so long into a pining for love.”

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

Mural at Penkill Castle by William Bell Scott Christina posed for

Mural at Penkill Castle by William Bell Scott Christina posed for

Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1877

The chalk portrait above, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, of Christina in her late forties, is one of my favorites. It evokes something of her truth for me, a woman more herself as she grew older, not merely pretty in features and form but beautiful in the thought in her eyes, the words on her lips, the breath from her nostrils, the dishevelment of her dreams, the light and the shadow of her.

I think it also appeals to me because, like Christina, I’m of English and Italian descent, and this drawing certainly brings out the latter in her, more evident as she aged.

Her sister Maria always had a dark complexion and plumpness to portray her plain and foreign.

Christina didn’t have her sister’s complaint. She grew paler and slimmer, her hair sleeker, her eyes more clearly blue, as English as she was anything.

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch, A Novel Portrait of Christina Rossetti ©2022 DM Denton

Of course, looks were and continued to be deceiving. Six days after Christina returned from her one trip to Italy, she wrote the following poem inspired by ‘a very agreeable, bright-natured, eminently Italian in manner and character’ woman she had been introduced to. Enrica Filopanti was obviously enjoyed and, perhaps, even envied a little, but only in a poem to be emulated.

Enrica
by Christina Rossetti

She came among us from the South
  And made the North her home awhile
  Our dimness brightened in her smile,
Our tongue grew sweeter in her mouth.

We chilled beside her liberal glow,
  She dwarfed us by her ampler scale,
   Her full-blown blossom made us pale,
She summer-like and we like snow.

We Englishwomen, trim, correct,
  All minted in the self-same mould,
  Warm-hearted but of semblance cold,
All-courteous out of self-respect.

She woman in her natural grace,
  Less trammelled she by lore of school,
  Courteous by nature not by rule,
Warm-hearted and of cordial face.

So for awhile she made her home
  Among us in the rigid North,
  She who from Italy came forth
And scaled the Alps and crossed the foam.

But if she found us like our sea,
  Of aspect colourless and chill,
  Rock-girt; like it she found us still
Deep at our deepest, strong and free.

From Illustration by DM Denton © Copyright 2022

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Christina Rossetti: The Birthday of Her Life

Christina Rossetti: The Birthday of Her Life

The sun nor loiters nor speeds,
The rivers run as they ran,
Through clouds or through windy reeds
All run as when all began.

from
Time Flies, A Reading Diary
by Christina Rossetti
December 5th entry
(First published 1885)

Christina is the subject of my work-in-progress next novel, The Dove Upon Her Branch.

From left to right: Christina, Dante Gabriel, Frances (mother), William, and Maria Rossetti
Photograph by Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll
1863

She was part of a remarkable family of English-Italian scholars, artists, and poets, her older brother being Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I wrote a brief bio of her for The Literary Ladies Guide.

Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Today is the 190th anniversary of her birth, December 5, 1830

A Birthday
By Christina Rossetti


My heart is like a singing bird
                  Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
                  Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
                  That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
                  Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
                  Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
                  And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
                  In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
                  Is come, my love is come to me.

from Ecce Ancilla Domini, or The Annunciation
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Excerpt from The Dove Upon Her Branch

Christina and William Rossetti posing
for the painting of Ecce Ancilla Domini
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
in November 1849

     Another painting to pose for offered an alternative, productive engagement, being the handmaiden of the Lord a worthy occupation. William’s participation, not only as someone to accompany Christina to and from where their brother now worked on Newman Street above a hop-shop, but also to portray the Angel Gabriel, made for a happy distraction of camaraderie and creation.
     “Why is the painting tall and narrow?” Christina wondered with her first glance at the work in progress.
     “It is one-half of a diptych. Its companion will depict the Virgin’s death.”
     “Will you have both finished by spring for the RA?” William slapped his arms around himself in an attempt to warm his sleeveless, sheeted body. “Any more coal for the grate?”
     “Doubt it.” Gabriel urgently picked through the pile of brushes on the small pedestal table next to his easel.
     Christina noticed they were all thin-handled and fine-bristled.
     “No wonder it will take so long.” She also looked at his pallet, noticing he wasn’t mixing colors but using fresh daubs of unadulterated white, blue, and red paint.
     “I hope you won’t get bronchitis again.” William repositioned the woolen shawl that had slipped off her shoulders.
     “I haven’t even caught a cold.” Christina had resigned herself to shivering in her flimsy nightgown for the sake of Gabriel’s vision and to prove as enduring as any of the other models who sat for him.
     “Interesting.” As he leaned forward, William put a hand on his brother’s back. “Even with as little as you’ve done, I see the perspective of Giotto. Yet, I also see Flemish primitive, what you and Hunt were so taken with in Bruges. Before you started, I noticed you had followed Van Eyck’s practice of preparing the canvas with white ground.”
     Gabriel smiled, probably more because of his own thoughts than William’s. “I’m sure it will all seem a confused mess to those, like Ruskin, who think their opinions matter.”
     “A risk worth taking. But you must enter both panels together.”
     “I don’t paint to exhibit.”
     “You have to make a name for yourself, Gabe, a living. Your work has to be seen. And critiqued.”
     “Says the would-be critic.”
     “Now I see why you want me contorted on a corner of that saggy cot.” Christina though it wise to change the subject. “And all crinkly and looking about to jump up and run away.”
     “I thank Collinson for your disquiet.”
     They had spoken of many things during the hours of posing and painting, breaking to eat and drink, and for Christina and William to wrap themselves in blankets long enough to feel their fingers and toes again. Not once, until that moment, considering Gabriel was still brooding over Mr. Hunt falling into arrears with the rent at the Cleveland Street studio and defecting to James’ in Brompton, had anyone mentioned the man Christina had, without good reason, agreed to marry. She was almost convinced the last year of his waxing and waning hadn’t happened; that somewhere out there was the face not seen, the voice not heard, the heart that had not yet—
      Or, maybe they had been and it would if only it could.
Copyright © DM Denton 2020

Ecce Ancilla Domini, or The Annunciation
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Brief was the day of its power,
The day of its grace how brief:
As the fading of a flower,
As the falling of a leaf,
So brief its day and its hour …

from
Time Flies, A Reading Diary
by Christina Rossetti
December 5th entry
(First published 1885)

Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1877

Sing, that in thy song I may
Dream myself once more a child

from Maud by Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti as a child, by William Bell Scott

Happy Birthday, Christina Rossetti

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Christina Rossetti: Celebrating Her Natal Day

To-day’s your natal day;
Sweet flowers I bring:

“A Vision of Fiammetta (detail)” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In April 1842, the English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti, at the age of eleven, penned those opening lines to a poem actually written for her mother’s birthday.

Christina Rossetti and her Mother Frances Rossetti, 7th October 1863, by Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll)

 

Christina is the subject of my work-in-progress next novel and today is the 189th anniversary of her birth, December 5, 1830. It is an immense undertaking, satisfying, if very challenging, writing about her. Especially as I am very much occupied and often exhausted by the care of my elderly mom these days. (Hence my infrequency posting lately)

She was part of a remarkable family of English-Italian scholars, artists, and poets, her older brother being Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. You can read a brief bio I did of her for The Literary Ladies Guide.

I’m going to share a different excerpt than I did last year when I originally created this post. This one depicts Christina and her mother posing for Dante Gabriel’s first completed oil painting: The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1849 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

On the second visit, a few days later, Christina didn’t notice the shadiness and shabbiness of the location and look of Gabriel’s lodging and studio, her mother’s hand holding hers rather than the other way around. Her ascent into a holy scene, where she would inspire the painting of purity, felt like the best thing she had ever done. The light from the east—why Gabriel wanted them there early in the morning—miraculously broke through the rain and fog intent on spoiling that October. This time everything was ready for Christina to pose at the needlework frame Gabriel had convinced Aunt Eliza to part with for a few days, which he counted over a few weeks. No sooner Christina had, as she thought, perfected her leaning, her brother decided he wanted his Mary to sit upright, “in duty circumspect”, to the attention of her actual and acting mother, who was stiffly seated adjacent to her.

Gabriel came over and delicately adjusted their hand positions to be close but not touching. “There must be no doubt you are pious, humble, devoted to, and, yet, distinct from each other.”

“There won’t be, son, if you portray us as we are.”

He had requested his sister wear a modest dress, no bright colors, not black or grey, and with very little lace or other adornment. Christina had one she thought would do: beige, like the beach where she had last worn it, the summer sun had faded it, and splashing algae had stained its hem, its removable collar no longer crisp or undoubtedly white. He loosened her hair and, after putting the pins in his pocket, pushed it behind her shoulders “so it might seem longer than it was”. Fiddling with the folds of her skirt, he ordered her not to move from “how he sculpted” her, asking the same of their mother whose favorite shawl functioned as a wimple, while a large, musty blanket, definitely not favored by her, served as a mantle.

“Don’t close your eyes, Mama,” Gabriel gave yet another command.

“I thought it might be appropriate to pray.”

“Not in the Art Catholic’s church.”

“May we blink?” Christina hoped she might ease the seriousness that overcame Gabriel once he was behind his easel. His refusal to humor her made her say rather harshly, “May we even breathe?”

He grunted and, when he dropped his brush, swore.

“At least, until he makes you immortal,” quipped Mr. Hunt from his own creative corner of the League of Sincerity.

from The Dove Upon Her Branch Copyright © 2019 by DM Denton

Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti from a photograph by Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carol)

Sing, that in thy song I may
Dream myself once more a child

from Maud by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti as a child, by William Bell

 

Happy Birthday, Christina Rossetti

 

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

Christina Rossetti: Celebrating Her Natal Day

To-day’s your natal day;
Sweet flowers I bring:

“A Vision of Fiammetta (detail)” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In April 1842, the English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti, at the age of eleven, penned those opening lines to a poem actually written for her mother’s birthday.

Christina Rossetti and her Mother Frances Rossetti, 7th October 1863, by Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll)

 

Christina is the subject of my work-in-progress next novel and today is the 188th anniversary of her birth, December 5, 1830.

She was part of a remarkable family of English-Italian scholars, artists, and poets, her older brother being Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

I thought I’d share a little excerpt from my novel that’s in its very early stages of creation. The following is from the first chapter, describing the intimacy between brother and sister, who, as children, were very similar in temperament and interests. They were called “the two storms”, while their sister Maria and brother William were called ‘the two calms”.

From a photograph by Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carol)

In adulthood Gabriel’s hand revered and mocked her, in childhood it held hers on their long walks through the park and zoo, and sometimes even farther to the poor folks’ heights of London named prettily and nostalgically Primrose Hill. For children who didn’t mind being blown about, the broad meadowed mound was a welcome contrast to the grime and gridlock of the city. It offered the chase, not for wolves or boars or deer, but, as a Tutor King must have also enjoyed, the benefits of fresh air, exercise, escape, and a sense of being on top of the world.
Copyright © 2018 by DM Denton

 

Sing, that in thy song I may
Dream myself once more a child

from Maud by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti as a child, by William Bell

 

Happy Birthday, Christina Rossetti

 

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.