Christina Rossetti, in her sonnet In an Artist’s Studio, talks of obsession, fantasy and idealism. Her criticism of both personal and aesthetic problems inherent in the relationship between male artist and female model is discussed effectively. The final judgment of Rossetti regarding the “truth” of the painter’s works is difficult to ascertain, especially when considering the definition of “truth”. Taking both Keats’ idea of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” and the idea of “truth” being the honesty of the male artist’s painting, Rossetti’s view is extremely censorious.
It was stated by William Michael Rossetti, Christina’s younger brother, that the sonnet referred to their older brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s studio. Dante Rossetti in the mid nineteenth century headed the Brotherhood of Pre-Raphaelites, an art movement that developed from a deep dissatisfaction with the art of the period. Rossetti and seven of his contemporaries, disheartened by the historic scenes and drab realism of Victorian art decided to revive the art of the Middle Ages. They drew their inspiration from medieval times and the art of Raphael. They saw this time period as being more honest in their representation of their art and more alive in colour and form. The critics of the time were astounded and confused by paintings they considered nave in their realism and startling in their treatment of both religious and secular subjects1. When perusing Dante Rossetti’s artworks, it is clear that the women are very similar in appearance. Although Christina was only one of several models that sat for Dante Rossetti, all the women look incredibly alike. Christina Rossetti views this as a personal and aesthetic obsession.
The sonnet is rife with a fairly strong criticism of the male artist’s obsession, “one face looks out,” “one selfsame figure sits,” “the same one meaning.” The continual repetition of the word ‘one’ conveys the idea of obsession quite succinctly. It represents the idea of the artist’s mind being solely focussed on the one subject. It also conveys the idea of loss of identity, one of the main problems Christina Rossetti finds in the aesthetic of Pre-Raphaelite art.
Through imagery, Christina Rossetti is also able to communicate her view that his obsession may be slightly unhealthy. The depiction of the male artist hiding his artwork behind a screen, “we found her hidden just behind those screens,” as well as the description of his fixation “he feeds upon her face by day and night” allow for this unhealthiness to become apparent. Words such as ‘feeds’ and ‘hidden’ allude to something darker and more consuming than a mere preoccupation. And the use of ‘day and night’ when describing his greedy addiction illustrates an all-consuming obsession with this one woman.
Perhaps the biggest concern that is raised in In an Artist’s Studio is the aesthetic problem in the relationship between male artist and female model. Rossetti finds herself most troubled by the loss of identity in Pre-Raphaelite art. As aforementioned, the repetition of the word ‘one’ alludes to this theme quite strongly. Depictions of the paintings also convey this loss of identity, “a queen in opal”, “a nameless girl”, “a saint, an angel”. All of these random images are linked by the same likeness, the “one face” that looks out from “all his canvasses”. Rossetti continues by stating that “every canvas means/ The same one meaning, neither more nor less”. This reduction of personality in to similar looking, similarly posed women is what Rossetti views as a problem. She saw that the romance and attention that surrounded the models of the artists placed them in a level higher than ordinary mortals.
They were glorified and transported to a mythical realm of tragic heroines and fatal sirens, where they were archetypes and dreams, “a queen in opal” and “a saint, an angel”. Rossetti believed that this intentional exaltation of their models paradoxically diminished them. That by raising them higher than everyday women, they reduced their reality, their complexity and any sense of activity. Rossetti describes the painted women as “fair as the moon and joyful as the light,” as “not wan with wanting, not with sorrow,” “not as she is”. Jan Marsh states in The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood that “in art and life, some of the Pre-Raphaelite women felt the pressure to abandon humanity and become an archetype.” She also describes the women as “dreams coming to life in paints”. This dream in paint is what the male artist’s fell in love with and became obsessed by. It was an idealistic form of woman that Christina Rossetti believes to be the aesthetic problem of the male artists.
Throughout the poem, Rossetti discusses the idea of beauty and its manifestations. In order to determine what her final judgment of the artist’s “truth” is, a definition of “truth” must be ascertained. There are several ways one could define the term “truth” but for sake of continuity, there are two that link well and coincide with the aforementioned analysis of Christina Rossetti’s view on Pre-Raphaelite personal and aesthetic problems.
Firstly, let us consider Keats’ idea of “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” As with Rossetti’s view that the aesthetic obsession of painting women in the same likeness is deletrious to the Pre-Raphaelite women, so too the idea of beauty being “truth” and “truth” being beauty. She depicts no truth in the beauty of the women in her sonnet, nor does see understand that beauty to be very truthful. The repeated line in the final couplet, “not as she is,” emphasises this lack of honesty in the male artist’s painting and reinforces the loss of identity. This continual deceit by the artist leads us to see that regardless of how beautiful a picture is painted, there is not necessarily an essence of truth to it. Even subtle images such as the hiding of paintings can suggest a deceit, almost as though he is embarrassed of what he has painted. This ceaseless depiction of dishonesty between male artist and female model is of what Rossetti seems most critical.
These two definitions of “truth” – Keats’ and the honesty of an artist – link together nicely. Using both definitions, it is clear that Rossetti finds no “truth” in such paintings. Obviously, there is little honesty in the actual work seeing as these paintings are modelled from real women, but are made in to something heavenly and immortal by Pre-Raphaelites. These heavenly representations are what occupy the minds of the artists, these beautiful and unrecognisable women. The fact that all women painted by Dante Rossetti look very similar tells us that there is little truth in his depiction of the women in his life. It also allows us to understand Christina Rossetti’s view that there is not “truth” in the beauty of the paintings and that such beauty can be detrimental to ones mortal life, as shown by the male artist’s unhealthy obsession. The beauty of the paintings is clear, Christina Rossetti notes it throughout the sonnet with word choice, “shone bright,” “opal or ruby,” “freshest summer-greens”, “joyful,” but there is no indication of her finding an ultimate “truth”.
It is indeed true that Christian Rossetti’s In an Artist’s Studio concerns itself with the relationship between the male artist and the female model. Throughout the sonnet Rossetti condemns and criticises the Pre-Raphaelite notions of beauty, vehemently denouncing the loss of individuality and reduction of human nature. She finds several problems, both personal and aesthetic in the relationship between artist and model. The main theme of the sonnet is obsession, and this is effectively conveyed with imagery and word choice. It is also Rossetti’s main argument for personal trouble. She continues to discuss the aesthetic problems of the art by criticising the incredibly pressured situation such exaltation placed on women. Rossetti does not find any specific “truth” in the painter’s artwork other than the fact that it isn’t “truthful”. There is no truth in portraying models in similar fashion or becoming fixated on a painted dream.
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