On Pre-Raphaelite muse Jane Morris.
“Defining British Art,” part of this summer’s 250th anniversary sale at London auctioneer Christie’s, included two lots by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Ligeia Siren (1873), a nude of an unknown model, and Portrait of Jane Morris, bust-length (ca. 1870), a chalk drawing of the legendary Pre-Raphaelite muse—née Jane Burden and known as Janey to her friends—who, despite being married to trailblazing designer William Morris for thirty-seven years, was the love of Rossetti’s life. Only the second work sold (for the tidy sum of £602,500), from which we might infer that Janey’s strange beauty, more than a century after her death, entices at least as much as Rossetti’s signature. A few years ago, his chalk drawing of Janey as Proserpine, goddess of spring and empress of Hades, sold at Sotheby’s for nearly £3.3 million—double the presale estimate.
Rossetti would be gratified indeed. Proserpine, which he reworked in at least eight versions, was his favorite creation, the fullest realization of an artistic drive fueled, above all, by his passion for Janey. A. S. Byatt, in pondering Rossetti’s painterly addiction to Janey in her new book, Peacock and Vine: Fortuny and Morris in Life and at Work, also sees this particular image as the culmination of Rossetti’s entwined artistic and erotic fixations. Byatt, however, is disquieted by it. “There is something appalling,” she writes, “in looking at a whole series of Rossetti’s images, more and more obsessive yet essentially all the same, brooding, dangerous, sexually greedy, too much. The best, and therefore the worst, is Proserpine.”
An oil version is in the collection at Tate Britain and currently features in the gallery’s exhibition “Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age.” In the four-foot-tall portrait, Janey holds a pomegranate; the redness of its flesh, exposed by a yonic split, matches the color of her juice-stained mouth. According to the myth, Proserpine partook of the forbidden fruit and was condemned to spend part of every year in the underworld. Yet Janey’s habitual unsmiling expression, seen in paintings and photographs alike, conveys neither regret nor contrition. Instead, Rossetti captures the very quality that made this reserved and intelligent woman so captivating as a model: the suggestion of a complicated, closely guarded inner life behind the saturnine composition of her features.
Janey’s destiny was set in motion not by this incorporeal essence but on account of her superficial attributes—her square jawline, cushiony lips, deep-set gray eyes, and thick, wavy black hair. Biographers revel in the fateful circumstances of her being plucked from poverty to become one of the most famous muses of all time: One evening, in the fall of 1857, while sitting with her younger sister, Bessie, in the audience of a makeshift theater in Oxford, seventeen-year-old Jane Burden was spotted by Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, a fellow Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood member. Always on the hunt for “stunners” to employ as sitters for his medieval-inspired art, Rossetti decided that this sultry young woman would make a perfect Queen Guinevere. Janey, then living with her parents and two siblings in a tiny cottage behind a pub, was soon posing in the drawing room of the lodgings shared by Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and William Morris, the man who, by the following spring, would be her fiancé.
A career as a domestic servant, the likeliest future for a stable hand’s daughter, had been averted. For Janey, the fact that her appearance proved the catalyst may have been the most surprising part. “It is likely,” observes her biographer, Jan Marsh, “that no one had ever said she was beautiful … and may indeed have described her as plain or even ugly.” Bessie, a neighbor once opined, was the prettier sister. But Rossetti and his circle put forth an ideal of female beauty entirely at odds with prevailing tastes, which, in the early Victorian era, favored petite blondes with childlike features and hourglass figures. Pale, lanky, and black-browed Janey, once immortalized by the Brotherhood, launched a revolution: by the 1870s, the writer Mary Eliza Haweis was marveling that, on account of the Pre-Raphaelites, “certain types of face and figure once literally hated [are] actually the fashion … A pallid face with a protruding lip is highly esteemed … In fact the pink cheeked dolls are nowhere; they are said to have ‘no character.’ ”
Janey, by contrast, with her rare blend of androgyny and sensuality, possessed the type of otherworldly air that inspires worship. “I was a holy thing to them,” she reminisced of her early days with the Pre-Raphaelites. To the Scottish politician John Bruce Glasier, she was “a veritable Astarte—a being, as I thought, who did not quite belong to our mortal world.” Rossetti put it more simply: “Beauty like hers is genius.”
A twenty-five-year-old Henry James visited the Morrises’ Bloomsbury house in 1869. In a letter to his sister, Alice, he described twenty-nine-year-old Janey as a
figure cut out of a missal—out of one of Rossetti’s or Hunt’s pictures—to say this gives but a faint idea of her, because when such an image puts on flesh and blood, it is an apparition of fearful and wonderful intensity … On the wall was a large nearly full-length portrait of her by Rossetti, so strange and unreal that if you hadn’t seen her you’d pronounce it a distempered vision, but in fact an extremely good likeness.
Rossetti’s niece Helen Angeli concurs. In a biography of her uncle, she writes that his “drawings and paintings of [Janey] are faithful portraiture. He did not and could not exaggerate her beauty, nor hardly emphasize its somber depths.” The “good likeness” James saw was probably The Blue Silk Dress, painted at a time when Janey and Rossetti’s relationship had, believes the scholar J. B. Bullen, “reached a new pitch of intensity.” Its presence in the main room of the home Janey shared with her husband (and their daughters, May and Jenny) gives some idea of the accommodation reached in this love triangle. Byatt, sympathizing with the cuckolded husband, wonders, “What effect did these images of Rossetti’s feelings have on Morris, as they were hung in his house or bought by others?” But if Morris suffered from jealousy or insecurity, he mostly kept it to himself. His graciousness was not lost on Janey, who once praised him as “the most magnanimous, the least selfish of men.”
Rossetti and Janey were, by all accounts, wildly attracted at first sight, but he was already engaged to Lizzie Siddal, the Titian-haired model and artist who appears in many Pre-Raphaelite pictures, including John Everett Millais’s famous Ophelia. Siddal and Rossetti married in 1860, but it was a commitment undertaken, he confided to a friend shortly before his death, “out of a mistaken sense of loyalty and fear of giving pain,” when in truth his heart had been lost to another.
Janey, meanwhile, was in no position to reject a marriage proposal from a suitor as eligible as Morris. Not only was he firmly middle class but, thanks to his late father’s mining interests, he was independently wealthy at age twenty-four. Morris was short, portly, and unconcerned with personal hygiene, and he was gruff, with a tendency to curse; he was neither as handsome nor as charming as Rossetti, but he adored Janey. During the first months of their friendship, he painted her as the tragic Arthurian princess Iseult and wrote on the finished canvas, “I cannot paint you, but I love you.” (La Belle Iseult is believed to be the only oil painting Morris ever completed, as if a failure to do justice to his beloved soured him on the medium for life.) As a widow, Janey confessed that she had never loved him. But she had no regrets: “I suppose if I was young again I should do the same again.”
Janey also claimed that she never “gave herself” to Rossetti. Nevertheless, it was hardly a clandestine romance. Rossetti was widowed in 1862 (Siddal, after a long period of depression and illness, overdosed on laudanum), and in the subsequent years he and Janey irresistibly gravitated toward each other. While Morris focused on the running of his thriving interior-design firm (in which Rossetti had a share), Janey often modeled for Rossetti at his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. During this fruitful phase he produced many renowned works, including, in 1870, Mariana, an oil portrait of a pensive, swan-necked Janey as Measure for Measure’s abandoned lover, also currently part of Tate Britain’s “Painting with Light.”
In 1871, the pair spent a blissful summer at Kelmscott Manor, the Elizabethan house in the Cotswolds leased jointly by Morris and Rossetti. An indication of Morris’s desire to keep things civilized for all concerned, the cosigned lease conferred respectability on Janey’s sojourns there with a man other than her husband. Morris’s veneer of politeness only slipped when, in his view, Rossetti had begun monopolizing Kelmscott. In a November 1872 letter to a woman friend, Aglaia Coronio, Morris rued that Rossetti’s ongoing residence was spoiling “that harbour of refuge.” After all, he pointed out with elegant understatement, “it really is a farce our meeting when we can help it.”
Janey finally ended the affair with Rossetti in 1876, in large part due to the drastic decline of his mental health. He suffered from schizophrenic-like psychotic episodes and was addicted to chloral (the first chemical sedative) and whiskey. In the summer of 1872, he fell into a coma after drinking an entire bottle of laudanum. Unlike Siddal, he survived. But he was never the same again: thirty-six hours of unconsciousness left him partially paralyzed on his left side for several months and needing a walking stick thereafter. He continued to suffer from addictions, delusions, and bouts of despair, and he died of kidney disease less than ten years later, at age fifty-three. As an older woman—she outlived Rossetti by more than thirty years—Janey was asked if she had loved him. She said yes but that she fell out of love when he began “ruining himself with chloral.” Yet he was, she reflected fondly, “unlike all other men.”
The couple’s professional relationship survived the end of their romance. After Janey broke things off, she continued to model occasionally for her former paramour, and they kept up an affectionate correspondence. In a telling series of letters from May 1878, Janey wrote to say that, after a bout of illness, she wasn’t looking her best and wished to delay coming to see him. Rossetti’s response was immediate and affronted:
I cannot help saying your letter is no less than a shock to me. Is it possible that mine could have contained anything by which you could really suppose that the question as to your looks influenced in the least my great desire to see you again? The supposition would be an outrage to my deep regard for you;—a feeling far deeper (though I know you never believed me) than I have entertained towards any other living creature at any time of my life.
Janey was far more to him, in other words, than a mere visual spur to his creative and sensual impulses. The intimacy of response likewise indicates that their connection pushed well beyond the utility of a model-artist relationship.
I cannot weigh the exact meaning of every word before writing, nor can any human being foresee what construction you will put on the most ordinary phrasing. Surely you know as everyone else does what a violent influenza cold does for one’s appearance, you have sometimes refused to be seen under such circumstances, and you must pardon a woman if she has the same dislike of being seen with a red nose and the rest.
Rossetti’s final paintings were of Janey, and it was only after he died that she became involved with another man: Wilfred Scawen Blunt, an adventurer and former diplomat whom she met in 1883. A fan of Rossetti’s, he initially viewed seducing his idol’s muse as a conquest. But the affair became serious and lasted for around seven years. After one visit from Blunt, who lived part of the year in Cairo, the usually reticent Janey wrote to him, “Are you sure you have brought no magic arts from Egypt, and have employed them against a poor defenceless woman?” Morris’s biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, goes so far as to suggest that Blunt made Janey happier than she had ever been.
Of course, this momentous episode is eclipsed in the eyes of posterity by the gallery exhibitions, postcards, calendars, and prints that grant Janey—or, at least, her two-dimensional alter ego, the celebrated object of Rossetti’s gaze—a remarkably resilient afterlife. And it cuts both ways. “There is probably no record of a painter,” wrote the art critic Harry Quilter the year after Rossetti’s death, “whose personality grew to be so submerged in the form and face of one woman.” Unusually in the case of a male artist and his female muse, the passing of time only seems to amplify, rather than fade, that perception.
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words Without Borders, and other publications.