PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848)


1880 England

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Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
Unto this wall, - one instant and no more
Admitted at my distant palace-door.
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.
Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
That chills me: and afar, how far away,
The nights that shall be from the days that were.

Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
(Whose sounds mine inner sense in fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring) -
"Woe's me for thee, unhappy Proserpine?".

D. G. Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti became, of his generation, one of the finest exponents in the medium of coloured chalks. From his Medieval watercolours of the 1850s to his symbolic female figure subjects in oil, his technical prowess reached its apex toward the end of his life in his series of highly finished pastel drawings. He had started to make images in chalk in the mid 1860s under the guidance of Frederick Sandys.( See Rossetti's Portrait of Alexa Wilding, Profile to the Right (6) and Sandys's The Laurel Wreath (37)) Three versions of Proserpine exist in oil: the primary version dated 1877 (Paul Getty Jnr), (Bought at auction for £1.5 million in 1982) the second dated 1874 (Tate Gallery) and the final version of 1882 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery). The present work is the only recorded full-scale version of Rossetti's Proserpine composition in chalks made by the artist himself.

Of all Rossetti's depictions of Jane Morris, Proserpine perhaps most strongly conveys Rossetti's infatuation with her archetypal Pre-Raphaelite looks; rich, raven hair and long, elegant neck, and his ideals of spiritual love, nurtured by his constant reading of Dante. Unable to decide as a young man whether to concentrate on painting or poetry, his work is infused with his poetic imagination and an individual interpretation of literary sources.

His accompanying sonnet to this work is a poem of longing: And still some heart unto some soul doth pine, carrying an inescapable allusion to his yearning to seduce Jane from her unhappy marriage with William Morris. Proserpine had been imprisoned in Pluto's underground realm for tasting the forbidden pomegranate. Jane, trapped by convention, was tasting another variety of illicit fruit.

On Prosepine, Rossetti wrote: She is represented in a gloomy corridor of her palace, with the fatal fruit in her hand. As she passes, a gleam strikes on the wall behind her from some inlet suddenly opened, and admitting for a moment the sight of the upper world; and she glances furtively towards it, immersed in thought. The incense-burner stands beside her as the attribute of a goddess. The ivy branch in the background may be taken as a symbol of clinging memory. (Stephen Wildman, Rossetti, 1990, page 140)

The working methods of both Rossetti's and Burne-Jones's studios, as of those of the old masters, were such that it was common practice that the studio assistants were employed to block in the under-drawing for finished works. The Master then drew or painted the finished work over the studio assistant's cartoon. The following of this practise in relationship to the present work is borne out both by the letter quoted above (Doughty and Wahl, 1967) and the evidence of a condition report provided by June Wallis, where it is stated that the drawing in pastel was executed over a graphite underdrawing. The report goes on to state the fact that both the primary support and the surface of the work are in very good condition, with evidence of only minor restoration in the upper parts of the work and around the edges. This, for the most part, relates to the area where the original sheets of paper were joined together, which was Rossetti's normal practice.

The replica (wholly by Rossetti's studio assistant, Henry Treffry Dunn) referred to in Rossetti's letter to H.T. Dunn of 17 February, 1880 is now in a private collection in Scotland.
William Graham Esq.; his sale at:
Christie's, London, April 3rd 1886, number 100 (£147); bought in by his daughter
Lady Horner (on her behalf by Agnew, Robson & Co.)
Robson & Co. 1895
Barbizon House by 1922 (There is some evidence of the Graham family using Barbizon House to discretely sell paintings from the collection at this time.(Conversation with Hilary Morgan Underwood, 2000))
Mme Jane Benachi; her sale:
Christie's, London, 20th October 1970, lot 165; sold to:
Private collection (purchased on their behalf by the Stone Gallery, Newcastle); to the present day.
London, Barbizon House, 1922, number 27, illustrated in the catalogue
Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Alfred Hitchcock. The Exhibition, November 2000- January 2001
Williamstown, Massachussetts, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute,The Blue Bower. Rossetti in the 1860s, February- May 2001
Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Alfred Hitchcock. The Exhibition, June-September, 2001
H. C. Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Bell and Sons, London 1899, possibly under number 260.
Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl (editors) Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1967, volume IV, page 1713: a letter to Henry T. Dunn (the artist's studio assistant) dated 17th February, 1880, I have had already to sacrifice to him [William Graham] (and it came very conveniently) the Proserpine you commenced and I carried on, to meet a debt which he proved (to my surprise) of £100 to be met by chalk work, and which had got quite overlooked for years. This Proserpine I must finish, and would finish at some time the replica I now propose for him, if I know when you could set about the commencement;
Virginia Surtees, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Catalogue Raisonné, Oxford at the Clarendon Press 1971, numbers 233, 233A-D. (Not the same work tentatively listed under number 233C from the collection of H. D. Lyon.) (Both Virginia Surtees and H. D. Lyon have confirmed that this is not the damaged pastel described in 233C. However the first part of the provenance in 233C, from William Graham to Agnew is the correct provenance for this work.)
Paul Spencer-Longhurst, The Blue Bower. Rossetti in the 1860s, Scala Publishers in association with the Barber Institute, London 2000, illustrated figure 13, page 24
Height 119.50 cm (47.05 inches)
Width 56.00 cm (22.05 inches)
Stock Code
Coloured chalks on paper
Signed and dated 1880; inscribed Proserpina and with the artist's sonnet in Italian.

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