Object of the month: Monna Vanna by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Published 3 March 2016

We take a closer look at one of the finest Pre-Raphaelite paintings which is on display in Liverpool.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the three founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, considered Monna Vanna to be one of his best works. The jewel-encrusted model wrapped in giant white and gold silk sleeves would have signalled modernity and sophistication in mid-19th century London.

Rossetti intended to represent ‘the Venetian ideal of female beauty’ with the Monna Vanna. His model for the painting was Alexa Wilding, whose ethereal beauty he admired. Rossetti first spotted Wilding one evening on the Strand in 1865. Struck by her good looks, he asked her to sit for him the following day. Although Wilding initially agreed, she failed to show up as planned (likely to have been put off by the dubious reputation of artists’ models at the time).

After a few weeks, Rossetti spotted Wilding again in the street. He jumped out from his cab and persuaded her to go straight to his studio. Afraid that other artists may wish to employ her, Rossetti paid Wilding a weekly fee to sit for him exclusively.

A year after their first encounter, Rossetti completed Monna Vanna. Wilding became one of his muses. He even repainted some of his works to include Wilding’s face, such as Lady Lilith (pictured), which was originally modelled by Rossetti’s lover Fanny Cornforth.

Compared to his other muses (Elizabeth Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth), little is known about Alexa Wilding. This is partly because Wilding and Rossetti shared a lasting platonic bond, as opposed to a romantic one.

Monna Vanna, whom Alexa Wilding depicts in the painting, is a character in Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova, a 13th-century book of poetry. Vanna is a Florentine lady who was the best friend of the poet’s true love Beatrice. She represented springtime while Beatrice signified love. Monna Vanna was hence a fitting character for Wilding to portray.

The painting also reflects the Pre-Raphaelites’ move into the mainstream from the 1860s. When the brotherhood was originally founded, the artists sought to paint life-like as opposed to idolised beauty. For example, early Pre-Raphaelite works include the wrinkles, veins and blemishes of their subjects. This was in stark contrast to how portraits were painted at the time – with smooth, glowing skin.

The realism that the Pre-Raphaelites originally applied to (sometimes sacred) subjects caused outrage. However, following the patronage of the celebrated art critic John Ruskin, public sentiment towards the brotherhood changed. The Pre-Raphaelites outgrew the avant-garde and from the mid-19th century were ready to embrace commercial fame and fortune with art designed to please bigger audiences. From that point on, Rossetti’s work took on an increasingly erotic direction.

Monna Vanna or Belcolore by Dante Gabriel Rossetti was acquired by Tate in 1916 with support from the Art Fund.

The work is currently on display at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, in the Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion exhibition (until 5 June), 50% off with a National Art Pass.

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