Pre-Raphaelites in The City: ‘In An Artist’s Studio: Analysis Part 3

Dinah Roe

‘In An Artist’s Studio: Analysis Part 3

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.

Speaker and Tone
This is a pretty cynical tour of an artist’s studio, which brings us to another important point for analysis. Who is the speaker of this poem? Who is telling us this story? The only clue is in line 3: ‘We found her’. So the speaker is also in the artist’s studio, is not alone, and he or she is feeling pretty sceptical about the artistic process. This brings us to an irony of this poem: the speaker is criticising the artist for portraying the model ‘not as she is’, but isn’t the poet falling into the very same trap? Isn’t writing a poem about someone roughly equivalent to painting a picture of her? Is it possible for poet or painter to portray any model ‘as she is’?  This is an irony Rossetti wants us to notice, and this irony is the poem’s true subject. In seeking to capture the essence of another person, artists tread a fine line between interpretation and objectification. Can an artist ever portray a subject ‘as she is’? Or will that portrayal always be, in some sense, the artist’s ‘dream’? 

 

Biographical Background
Christina wrote this poem on Christmas Eve in 1856. Traditionally, this sonnet has been interpreted as an expression of Christina Rossetti’s worries about her brother Dante Gabriel’s obsessive relationship with his model Elizabeth Siddal (whom he would marry several years after this poem was written). That she chose not to publish this poem (it appeared only after her death) supports this, as does her brother William’s note in his collection of her poems, The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, that ‘The reference is apparently to our brother’s studio, and to his constantly-repeated heads of the lady whom he afterwards married, Miss Siddal.’ But this doesn’t explain the poem’s enduring popularity and frequent inclusion in anthologies.

As hard as it is for me to fathom this as a Rossetti biographer, the personal affairs of artistic Victorian families do not appeal to everyone. ‘In An Artist’s Studio’ continues to be read, not because it documents a real-life event, but because it articulates timeless and universal concerns about the creation of art from life.

This is just my interpretation of the poem, but there is of course plenty more to say about it.

Tell me: what have I missed? What else can you spot?

Responses

  1. I thought this was a fantastic analysis - Thank you!

    Elizabeth responded at 06:08pm on 11/08/2012
  2. Thanks for the analysis. I’ve always been intrigued by 2 words in the poem: “screens” & “mirror”, which refer to the “canvasses”, I think. A “screen” shows (like a TV screen) and hides (like the folding screen behind which ladies undressed in the 19th century) at the same time, just like a painting, which shows something buy often hides much more. The same for “mirror”, which reflects the person who stands in front of it, in this case, the painter himself. Does this make sense? English is a second language for me, so I may have got something wrong.

    grazia barbero responded at 11:57am on 11/26/2012
  3. Hello Grazia. First of all, your English is fantastic! Thanks very much for sharing your own analysis, which strikes me as quite perceptive. Your focus on those two important words opens up even more possibilities for interpretation which I hope others will think about too, and perhaps comment on.

    Dinah responded at 07:16pm on 12/01/2012
  4. You made my day! I have been reading this poem over and over trying to understand it, and you helped me so much. I wish I could analyze poems the way you do. In my AP Euro Class we took a test on analyzing poems and I am pretty sure I failed it!

    Christina responded at 08:30pm on 01/05/2013
  5. Not convinced about that ‘cynical’; maybe sceptical - but, shouldn’t an artist be following his dream?  How should she be depicted? Christina’s reversion to themes includes some obsession of her own.

    David C Brown responded at 05:30pm on 05/27/2013

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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.