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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Donna della Finestra

Photo courtesy of Dave Penman (All Rights Reserved)

Details

Country House
Mells Manor
Title(s)
La Donna della Finestra
Date
1869
Medium and support
Pastel on paper
Dimensions
Overall height: 82 cm, Overall width: 65 cm
Artist
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Catalogue Number
MM62

Description

Dante Gabriel Rossetti had been one of the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded in 1847 but when his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, died of a laudanum overdose in 1862, he grew increasingly detached from the original group. It was in March 1868 that William Graham was introduced to Rossetti, becoming one of the artist’s most important patrons.

In her autobiography, published in 1933, Frances Horner (née Graham) recalled visits with her father to Rossetti’s London studio in the 1860s. ‘He was’, she stated, ‘the first man of genius I had ever known well, and it was a great excitement going to his home in Cheyne Walk’.1 Of her experience as his model,  she noted: ‘I went to sit for him, my eldest sister [Alice] coming as chaperone (considered desirable in those Victorian days) and he made her read aloud, The Ring and the Book, which was then coming out’.2

Here Frances, aged fifteen, is depicted as ‘La Donna della Finestra’ (‘The Woman at the Window’). Frances is turned to the right, leaning her right arm on a ledge in front of her; with her left hand she holds the loose end of a scarf which is tied round her hair and falls forward over her shoulder. A small scroll with almost indecipherable writing is attached to a curtain in the right background. On it is a canzone in Italian from Dante’s La Vita Nuova of 1294, a collection of poems dedicated to the expression of courtly love:

Videro gli occhi miei quanta pietate

Era apparita in la vostra figura

Quando guardaste li atti e la statura

Ch’io faccio per dolor molte fiate

Allor m’accorsi che voi pensavate

La qualità de la mia vita oscura,

Sìcché mi giunse ne lo cor paura

Di dimostrar negli occhi mia viltate.

E tolsimi dinanzi a voi, sentendo

Che si movean le lagrime dal core,

Ch’era sommosso da la vostra vista.

Io dicea poscia ne l’anima trista:

‘Ben è con quella donna quell’Amore

Lo qual mi face andar così piangendo.’3

In this poignant scene, the poet Dante, grieving the death of his beloved Beatrice, sees ‘a young and very beautiful lady’ looking at him ‘from a window with a gaze full of pity.’4

Frances, in her autobiography, recalled the moment when Rossetti’s drawing was brought to the family home in Grosvenor Place: 

It was supposed to be the lady at a window whom Dante saw and to whom he lifted his eyes when Beatrice was most unattainable. I was rather ashamed, because I thought the hands were so large; I felt everyone would look at them and say, ‘What enormous hands she has.’ It hangs now at Mells, but he never painted the picture from me, for which it was a study.5

In a letter dated 19 February 1869 to Rossetti, William Graham affectionately refers to Frances as ‘La donna della finestra’.6 Rossetti returned to the same subject again with several versions using Jane Morris, wife of William Morris, as the model for the lady in the window (for instance, La Donna della Finestra, 1870, Bradford Art Gallery). In 1871, Graham acquired Rossetti’s large-scale oil Dante’s Dream (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), based on Dante’s Vita Nuova, which the artist had translated in the late 1840s.

Many years later, when the picture hung in the White Room, Frances Horner recorded dispassionately: ‘The chalk drawing over the mantelpiece was done by D. G. Rossetti from Lady Horner when she was fifteen – as Frances Graham. It is supposed to represent a lady to whom Dante lifted his eyes when pining for Beatrice, and was a study for an oil painting he intended to paint’.7

by Devon Cox and Martin Postle

Bibliography

Frances Horner, Time Remembered, London : WIlliam Heinemann, 1933, p. 22, ill. p. 26


Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1828–1882: A Catalogue Raisonné, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1971, p. 318


Maria Teresa Benedetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Florence : Sansoni Editore, 1984, p. 330


Oliver Garnett, 'The Letters and Collection of William Graham: Pre-Raphaelite Patron and Pre-Raphael Collector', The Walpole Society, vol. 62, 2000, cat. no. a15, p. 284


Footnotes

  1. Horner, 1933, p. 9.

    1
  2. Ibid., p. 8. Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book was published in four volumes from 1868 to 1869 by Smith, Elder & Co., London. For Rossetti’s friendship with and admiration for Browning see Rosalie Glynn Grylls, ‘Rossetti and Browning’, The Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 33, no. 3, Spring 1972, pp. 232–50.

    2
  3. Dante, Vita Nuova, trans. D. G. Rossetti, in The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 2 vols, London: Ellis and Scrutton, 1886, vol. 2, p. 85: Mine eyes beheld the blessed pity spring/ Into thy countenance immediately/ A while agone, when thou beheldst in me /The sickness only hidden grief can bring;/ And then I knew thou wast considering/ How abject and forlorn my life must be;/ And I became afraid that thou shouldst see/ My weeping, and account it a base thing./ Therefore I went out from thee; feeling how/ The tears were straightway loosened at my heart/ Beneath thine eyes’ compassionate control./ And afterwards I said within my soul:/‘Lo! with this lady dwells the counterpart/ Of the same Love who holds me weeping now.’

    3
  4. Ibid.

    4
  5. Horner, 1933, p. 26.

    5
  6. William Graham to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 19 February 1869, quoted in Oliver Garnett, ‘The Letters and Collection of William Graham: Pre-Raphaelite Patron and Pre-Raphaelite Collector’, The Walpole Society, vol. 62, 2000, p. 188.

    6
  7. Frances Horner, ‘Concerning Mells Manor House and its Contents’, bound typescript, n.p., Mells Manor Archive, D/08/0627.

    7

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