Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Portrait of Alexa Wilding - 1865

signed with monogram and dated l.r.: 1865

red chalk over pencil
16 1/2 by 13 1/2 in.
Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 66,000 GBP

Simon Toll, 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Discovery of Alexa Wilding', in British Art Journal, Autumn 2006, p. 88 (incorrectly cited as Pl 2.), repr. p. 89, pl. 5.

This is one of Rossetti's first formal portrait drawings of Alexa Wilding, who he discovered in 1865, and who was to become one of his principle models in the decade that followed. Her head and shoulders are shown, with her long and beautiful neck (perhaps somewhat exaggerated by Rossetti in the drawing, but only in the interest of displaying what was an admired attribute of her physical appearance) seen without a necklace and emerging from a simple collarless garment; her soft flowing hair is parted at the centre and then drawn back over the sides of her head and allowed to fall onto the nape of her neck; the expression of her face is one of serenity and contentment, and conveys her sense of ease with the process of being drawn.

Henry Treffry Dunn recalled how Rossetti had first seen Miss Wilding (whose first name was in fact Alice, although in due course she adopted the more exotic 'Alexa') when she was walking in the Strand and how he had besought her to allow him to paint and draw her. On the first occasion of asking she failed to appear at his studio as had been arranged, but, according to Dunn's account, by chance Rossetti saw her again - apparently at the same spot where he had seen her before. On this second occasion, Rossetti succeeded in persuading Alexa that his intentions were honourable, so that in due course she began to serve as a model. Within a year, Rossetti had embarked on the series of paintings of her, of which Venus Verticordia (Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth) Monna Vanna (Tate, London), Sibylla Palmifera (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) and La Ghirlandata (Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London) are among the most famous. During the second half of the 1860s and early 1870s, Rossetti relied upon Alexa Wilding to be available to him, finding her a patient and biddable sitter, and with a kind of beauty which was passive enough to allow her to adopt a wide variety of personifications and roles. Over a period of several years he paid her a small salary that she should model for him exclusively, perhaps because it was known that other artists - notably John Everett Millais - desired to paint her.

Alexa Wilding's personality is hard to gauge, either from the accounts of people who knew her, or on the basis of her representation in Rossetti's paintings and drawings. Dunn described her as a woman whose 'lovely face [was] beautifully moulded in every feature, [and] full of a quiescent soft mystical repose that suited some of his [Rossetti's] compositions admirably, but without any variety of expression'. William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's brother, found her physiognomy more demonstrative, describing 'a head of fine and rather peculiar mould, eminently strong in contour and also capable of much varying expression'. Frederic George Stephens believed that 'in regard to her form and air, he [Rossetti] never adopted a more exquisite form of womanhood, per se' than 'the beautiful Miss Wilding', explaining that Rossetti's representations of Alexa were quite personal and dependent upon his own feelings for her:

So many differently inspired versions did Rossetti give us of the beauty of Alice Wilding. Nevertheless, I dare say, not a little of her charm existed mostly in the passionate heart of the painter; yet I well remember that nothing he drew of her, diverse as the delineations were, seemed less than an exact likeness'.

Alexa made occasional visits to Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, where Rossetti lived for a period from 1872, although she was only permitted to go there when Jane Morris was not in residence. In 1873 she attempted to gain her financial independence by setting up a boarding house, although in the mid-1870s she still received money from Rossetti. Gradually, however, she drifted out of his circle, and by the late 1870s was modelling for him only on rare occasions. Two children were born to her, in 1876 and 1877, although Alexa seems not to have been married to their father. The second version of Rossetti's Sancta Lilias of 1879 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) was his last painting for which she served as a model. H.T. Dunn described how Alexa, after Rossetti's death in 1882, made an expedition to the churchyard at Birchington-on-Sea to lay a wreath upon his grave. She herself died in 1884, aged thirty-seven.

Biographical information about Alexa Wilding, and a detailed account of her relationship with Rossetti, is given as Appendix 3, 'Monna Innominata: Alexa Wilding', in William E. Fredeman (ed.), The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, vol. VI, Cambridge, 2006, pp.605-45. See also, Simon Toll, 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti's discovery of Alexa Wilding', British Art Journal, vol. VII, no. 2, pp. 87-91.

This drawing was owned by Rossetti's publisher Frederick Stephen Ellis, who owned other works by Rossetti including watercolour replicas of Joan of Arc (unlocated) and of Proserpine (unlocated), crayon versions of Mariana (private collection) and of Lady Lilith (Israeli Museum of Art, Tel Aviv). He appears to have been purchasing pictures from Rossetti in the 1870s and his most important purchases were another depiction of Alexa, the large oil entitled La Bella Mano (Samuel and Mary Bancroft Collection, Wilmington Society of Fine Arts, Delaware) bought from the Murray Marks collection in 1875 and the primary version of La Donna Della Finestra (Grenville L. Winthrop Bequest, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University) bought directly from the artist in 1879. He also owned more intimate portrait studies of Elizabeth Siddall and Jane Morris which are closer to the present drawing. When the drawing was sold from Ellis' collection it was purchased by the soap manufacturer Viscount Leverhulme, perhaps the most famous of all collectors of Victorian art, much of which is now housed at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight.

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