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The Goddess of Love and Beauty: Dante Rossetti's Venus

Amanda Stancati and Eva Ho

Commentary for Venus Verticordia. (For a Picture.)
Venus Verticordia. (For a Picture.)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The perception of beauty was quite different in the nineteenth century. In 1868, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an English painter and poet, created Venus Verticordia – a sonnet with a corresponding painting.@ This is an example of one of Rossetti’s “double works of art”, in which he produces a set of visuals and texts that are meant to elaborate upon each other. Rossetti was often criticized for his work because he did not conform to the typical mold, but decided to challenge the Victorian standards of beauty instead. Venus is universally recognized as the goddess of love and beauty. However, beauty is subjective and the ideals of beauty are always changing due to individual tastes. The poem is in the English sonnet form and written in iambic pentameter. It first appeared in the 1868 edition of Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition.@ The associated portrait is an oil painting that features model, Alice Wilding.@ This exhibit will question and explore how Rossetti constructs his Venus through the text and visuals. By analyzing how mythical and biblical influences reflect Pre-Raphaelite artwork, this exhibit will examine how Venus Verticordia reflects Rossetti’s ideal Venus and the representation of the Victorian woman.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was formed by a group of English artists and poets circa 1848. Rossetti was one of the founding members of this movement. The objective of the PRB movement was to deviate from the Victorian standards of aesthetics and to exercise their own definition of beauty. Specifically, they wanted to incorporate nature and realism back into their artwork. Many art critics detested this new style and did not understand why the PRB were so opposed to the Victorian pre-established concepts of beauty. According to "The Third Discourse" theory created by Sir Joshua Reynolds, it is the duty of the artist to fix and improve on abnormal figures found in nature.@ The PRB view this concept as dated and instead, encourages artists to embrace all that is in nature - including these so-called flaws. The brotherhood believed that in order to improve and develop as artists, they must move forward by re-inventing new techniques. Their mandate also served as an acknowledgement to the innovation taking place during the nineteenth century. The world of the arts must evolve alongside the rest of the technological changes. They were visionaries before their time and had an avant-garde approach to their artwork that is still relatable today. This will be discussed later on through the study of Venus Verticordia and how Rossetti's vision of the ideal female beauty resonates with our generation of the modern woman.

During the nineteenth century, British theorist, Mary Anne Schimmelpennick, developed an aesthetics concept. The basis of this concept led to an influx of quasi-scientific classification systems that claim to have the ability to decode an individual’s psychological state based on their physical features@. These ideas were very popular at the time and the physical prejudice strengthened the segregation of social classes in England. There was an increasing fear of the emerging middle-class during the nineteenth century, so as a result, most people would blindly followed these systems. The PRB greatly opposed this concept because it goes against the law of nature.

1860s: Shift in Artistic Direction

Many critics believed that Rossetti produced his best work around the 1860 period. The linear clarity and vibrant colours were some of the techniques from Italian primitive art that he would try to emulate. Upon the encouragement of his artist friends, Rossetti was able to develop his signature style with watercolors throughout the next few years.@ Eventually, his artistic vision changed in the way ideas were portrayed on canvas. In Rossetti’s earliest paintings, such as The Girlhood of Mary Virgin@, the models were composed in a very simple manner – full-length figures placed in linear form. This was very different from his portraits post-1860 where the center of attention would concentrate on the upper part of the body, creating a tighter focus on the subject.@

When Rossetti produced Venus Verticordia in 1868, many art enthusiasts criticized it heavily. The painting, which features a woman with an exposed chest, was said to be coarse and tasteless. However, what the public perceived as vulgarity was actually interpreted by Rossetti as an ideal of how the embodied body of the soul should function. This concept had been on his mind for a long time, but it was not until the 1860s that he took the initiative to explore the idea through his paintings. Art critics did not welcome Rossetti’s new approach and interpreted them as technical flaws. His brother, William Michael Rossetti, wrote that Rossetti was fully aware of the Victorian aesthetic principles, but he purposely went against the norm to develop himself as an artist.@ Rossetti’s favorite subject of choice in his paintings and poetry were women. By featuring women in his work, he was able to explore the different facets of beauty and feminism.@ Venus Verticordia defines the shift in artistic direction that Rossetti went through during the 1860s. In order to create a sensuous and erotic tone, he would focus on close-ups of the models to express female sexuality. This artistic approach was common in Rossetti's later works and it led to a series of paintings that are critical in the complex study of Rossetti’s ideal Venus.
Textual Notes and Glosses for Mary's Girlhood (For a Picture)
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (For a Picture)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti