What you see: Proserpine, a watercolor painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1878. Christie’s estimates it at $3 million to $5 million.
The expert: Laura Mathis, specialist, 19th century European Art at Christie’s, and head of this European Art sale.
First off–do we know why Rossetti calls the goddess Proserpine rather than Persephone? Not sure. He might be the same as me–it’s what he learned in school, and that’s what he stuck with.
A colleague of yours in London calls this “the most important and beautiful painting by a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to appear at auction in a decade.” What makes it so? There’s a couple of different factors that go into that. The iconic status of Proserpine in Dante’s oeuvre and 19th century painting in general, and Jane’s [Jane Morris] importance as a model, and the technical virtuosity on display by the artist.
Rossetti was particularly excellent in watercolor, yes? What shines through is he’s an extraordinarily innovative watercolor artist. When people think of watercolor, they think of thin washes of color. That’s not how he’s working. He captures a texture in watercolor that’s almost like oil paint. He’s able to capture an almost 3-D quality. It’s really exceptional.
Could we talk about why Rossetti painted Proserpine, and the meaning that the subject had to him? Proserpine is the first subject Rossetti takes up after his breakdown in 1872. It was a reinvigoration of his artistic energy and definitely a reflection of his longing for Jane. [In the context of the Proserpine myth] he saw himself in the role of Ceres, who fell into anguish over her lost daughter, who had to spend six months on Earth and six months in Hell [Hades] every year. It was summer when he was with her [Jane] and winter without her. He saw himself in that role of Ceres–probably not literally as Ceres, but more a feeling of loss tied into his relationship with her, their time together and apart. The duality is key.
Could we talk about how he chooses to portray Proserpine, and the details he surrounds her with? It seems like almost everything is charged with meaning… The ivy is symbolic of life after death, and memory. It’s also thought of as a symbol of faithfulness. It might reflect his faithfulness to her. The cramped composition space is very typical of the artist and gives you an overwhelming sense of the underworld as well as the real sense that she’s trapped there. The pomegranate is taken from the myth, and considered the fruit of Hades. Because she ate six seeds, she’s bound to the underworld for six months a year. It also represents the idea of life after death.
Why is the incense there in the lower left? It indicates the figure is a goddess.
How does Rossetti’s Proserpine show his mastery as an artist? Rossetti viewed Proserpine as — it’s described as his very favorite design. He said to a friend that he wanted to make it the best thing he could do. It seems to be a preoccupation, and he returns to the idea [throughout his life]. This is wonderful because it’s one of his favorite designs, done in a technique that he had largely abandoned at this point in his career.
Do we know why this Rossetti Proserpine is in watercolor, and only this Proserpine? Was it a commission? It was commissioned, but we don’t know if he was asked to do it in watercolor.
Rossetti seems to have chosen to paint Jane Morris as Proserpine because the goddess was trapped in a bad marriage, and he saw Jane as being trapped by marriage also. But do we know how Jane actually felt about her marriage to William Morris? Do Rossetti’s Proserpines accurately reflect her feelings as well as his own? There’s no sense of her own feelings, but he makes his very clear. It’s clear that it’s his point of view. A friend described William Morris as tempestuous and exacting company. He was definitely known to have a temper. It was pretty common knowledge he was not a great guy to live with. When Jane broke off the affair with Rossetti, it was of her own accord.
What do we know of the affair between Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, beyond the fact that there was one? And did William Morris know about it? William Morris was fairly liberal. He didn’t view Jane as his property, as other men of the time did. He knew he was not making her happy. The manor [Kelmscott Manor, located in the Cotswolds] was leased dually by William Morris and Rossetti. There were two summers where William Morris went to Iceland and left Jane with Rossetti. Because he owned the house, it was perfectly acceptable for him to be there. They worked together to keep an air of propriety.
What other evidence of the affair survives? Victorian propriety means that any specifics were not preserved. Jane insisted to the end of her life it was not a physical relationship, but we know Rossetti definitely loved her. She did an interview at one point after his death saying she loved him at one point, and what drew her apart was his addiction. She wanted to get away from that for the sake of her daughters.
There are at least eight versions of Rossetti’s Proserpine in oils. Do we know how many times he depicted this subject? He began eight oils, but that doesn’t mean there are eight extant copies with clear and exact provenances. The catalog raisonné is not exactly clear. More than one was left unfinished, and one was turned into another composition altogether. There are three key oils: The 1874 version in the Tate; the Birmingham version, which was the last one he worked on, up to his death in 1882, and an 1877 oil in a private collection.
Is this Rossetti Proserpine in watercolor typically counted among the eight? I don’t know how closely we can cling to eight. There are versions in chalk and pastel. It makes giving an exact number a bit complicated.
Is it possible to know if Jane Morris posed for Proserpine just once, and Rossetti burned it into his memory, or if she modeled for him for Proserpine many times? It’s hard to know. She spent extended periods of time with him. She could have sat more than once.
This Rossetti Proserpine is in an original Rossetti-made frame. Is that unusual, or do most Rossetti paintings with Rossetti frames tend to survive with their frames intact? Generally, when there’s a Rossetti-made frame, they remain together.
Does the Rossetti-made frame add any value in this context, or is a Rossetti Proserpine so desirable on its own that it’s hard to say? It’s a bit of a tricky question, but they make a lively package together.
Does the fact that this Rossetti Proserpine is done in watercolor, and is the only Rossetti Proserpine done in watercolor, make it more interesting to collectors? I think it does, because he was such an innovative watercolorist. It’s great to have an iconic composition in watercolor, especially when he largely had stopped doing it [by 1878]. It makes it special.
What is this Rossetti Prosperine like in person? It is incredibly beautiful. The thing the camera doesn’t capture is the texture of the watercolor technique. It’s subtle, but it’s a wonderfully thick application. Look at the curl of her hair, the way it adds textural elements to the drapery. It makes it ever so slightly 3-D.
What is your favorite detail of the Rossetti Proserpine? The strength of the figure, and the power of her expression. The female figures at the center of Rossetti’s later works have thought behind their eyes, and they have an agency I find truly compelling.
You can see the gears of Prosperine’s mind turning. Exactly, but she’s not a victim. She’s thinking about her predicament, but she doesn’t feel trapped. There’s a power and an intelligence that’s wonderfully captured.
It’s hard to do. It’s not easy to get that intelligence in an expression. [Rossetti was able to] because he spent so much time with her.
When was the last time a Rossetti Proserpine came to auction? There was one in London in 2013, a version done in chalk, which sold for $3.2 million. Prior to that, a pastel version came up in 2007.
So it’s thinkable that this Rossetti Proserpine could beat it. I hope so. I think it deserves to.
Did the chalk Rossetti Proserpine set a world auction record for the artist? No, the world auction record is one that sold in London at Sotheby’s in 2013. It was called A Christmas Carol, and it sold for £4.5 million, or just over $7.4 million.
Why will this Rossetti Proserpine stick in your memory? Too often, the originality of Victorian paintings goes unrecognized. When you look at Proserpine, you’re bowled over by how strikingly modern it is–that expression, and the inherent power in her figure. He’s really sort of creating a new idea of beauty. Those who don’t know the Victorian era well may not associate Prosperine with that era. That’s what’s so modern about it.
Laura Mathis appeared on The Hot Bid once before, discussing a John Atkinson Grimshaw painting that ultimately sold for $362,500.
Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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