Pre-Raphaelites in The City: ‘In An Artist’s Studio’ Analysis Part 2

Dinah Roe

‘In An Artist’s Studio’ Analysis Part 2 Poetry Workshop

In An Artist’s Studio
(by Christina Rossetti)

One face looks out from all his canvasses,
    One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
    We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
    A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
    A saint, an angel; – every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
    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.

CONTENT
Having analysed the title and form, we are ready to enter the world of the poem. Now that we realise we are in an artist’s studio, we can start to look around, somewhat apprehensively I suspect. What do we see? Unsurprisingly, we see paintings (‘canvasses’). But what is special about these paintings? ‘One face’ looks out from ‘all’ of them: ‘one selfsame figure’ (the same model) is the subject of every single painting. Although the model’s ‘loveliness’ is portrayed differently in each picture (‘girl’; ‘queen’; ‘saint’; angel’), these differences are ultimately superficial. Whether the model ‘sits or walks or leans’, or is dressed as a saint or an angel in the pictures, each work conveys ‘the same one meaning, neither more nor less’. 

But what ‘one’ meaning is that exactly?

And wait a minute: we are supposed to be in an artist’s studio, and we haven’t been introduced to the artist for 8 lines. How rude! But let’s see what we can glean about the artist in any case. Well, it’s a man (‘his canvasses). What kind of man? A man who paints the same figure, over and over again, not just in some, but in ‘all his canvasses’. So we know already that this is quite an obsessive man.

The sestet finally introduces us to the artist in this startling manner: ‘He feeds upon her face by day and night’. This vampiric image of the artist is in unsettling contrast to the ‘loveliness’ of his model. This image requires closer analysis. There is a double-meaning here; the artist ‘feeds upon her face’ in the sense that his paintings of his lovely muse pay the bills and put dinner on the table. The nourishment he is getting is not only literal, but also symbolic. He has an appetite for his muse’s face, and this appetite is parasitic and insatiable. Day and night he feeds on her beauty, but is never satisfied. So this artist is a perfectionist and a parasite.

At this point, we are becoming quite concerned about this muse. How is she really feeling? The poem reveals her surprising reaction to the artist’s vampiric advances: ‘She with true kind eyes looks back on him.’ This seems an unlikely reaction to a parasitic, obsessive boss. This is where we need to read carefully. The ‘true kind eyes’ belong not to the artist’s model, but to his pictures of her. She looks ‘fair’ and ‘joyful’ because this is how he has chosen to portray her. Thus every painting conveys the ‘same one meaning’: what the artist wants to see.

In lines 12-13, we learn what we have begun to suspect; the artist and his muse have a personal history. These two lines tell us that the artist does not see her ‘as she is’, but only as she ‘was when hope shone bright.’ Now she is ‘wan with waiting’ and ‘with sorrow dim’. Why is she sad? What is she waiting for?  It could be a romantic commitment; it seems fairly clear that this relationship is not strictly professional.

But perhaps what she is waiting for is something more fundamental than long-term commitment or sexual fidelity. Perhaps the muse is waiting for fidelity of a different kind, for a faithful interpretation of herself. Maybe she is waiting for the artist to see her ‘as she is’, to accept her not just for the ideal, joyful queen, angel or saint he wants her to be, but for her real, sorrowful human self.

That the artist dodges reality and holds fast to ‘his dream’ is not presented as an imaginative or creative triumph. Here, dreaming is a sinister and dangerous act. This sense of disturbance is conveyed in the closing rhyme word, ‘dream’. This rhyme unsettles because ‘dream’ recalls both the b and d rhymes in the poem (‘leans / screens / greens / means); (him / dim) without ever committing to either. As readers of a Petrarchan sonnet, we are ‘waiting’ for the corresponding c rhyme (night / light’, or d rhyme (‘dim’ / ‘him’) or e rhyme (an independent word rhyming with neither c nor d), but instead we get an end rhyme with is not quite any of these. It sits as uncomfortably at the end of the sonnet as a visitor or model might sit in this artist’s studio.

Please visit again for the next part of the analysis, where we will look at this poem’s tone & speaker.

Responses

  1. I’m enjoying this immensely. Not least as proof that there are always more nuances to consider even in a very familiar work!

    Valerie Meachum responded at 03:52pm on 12/04/2011
  2. The poem struck me as a ploy to reach out to her brother Dante and his treatment of his mistress at the time, which later became his wife. Also maybe it was in response to his own poem “The Blessed Damozel,” trying to explain that the reality his poem portrayed as everything beautiful and easy, was not the case in real life. The way he treated the person he loved, could not be changed into being the poem itself. He was cruel and insensitive and nothing like his writing; therefore, please be compassionate and stop the cruelity his fantasy was causing.

    Dennis Trujillo responded at 01:28am on 03/01/2012
  3. Woah, thanks a lot!! That was a really good analysis!! I enjoyed it!

    Carla responded at 07:04pm on 08/24/2012
  4. It is really a good analysis. It really helps me to understand the poem.

    Indrani Das responded at 03:43pm on 12/26/2013
  5. Thank you for letting me know Indrani. Glad to be of help!

    Dinah responded at 06:26pm on 01/05/2014

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.