Is the Spellbinding 'Proserpine' Rossetti’s Most Perfect Composition?

Jul 15, 2013 8:28PM

By Simon Toll

Each of us has an aspect of our job that gets our hearts racing.  For me, it’s the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the enigmatic ‘bad boy’ of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I first fell in love with his sultry images of women when I bought a print of a picture called Proserpine twenty years ago. There was something mysterious and seductive about that face glaring out from beneath a mane of dark hair, and for me, it remains the most perfect of Rossetti’s compositions – simple, powerful and enigmatic.

As discussed in The Guardian, when we first saw this coloured chalk drawing hanging in the drawing room of the present owner who has cared for it for the last four decades, my colleague Grant Ford and I were almost unable to contain our enthusiasm. Rossetti’s best-known composition, many will know the version of Proserpine at Tate Britain, presently on tour in the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, and with the opening of the Lowry exhibition at Tate, I am reminded that he also owned a version.

In Roman mythology Proserpine was condemned to spend half a year in the Underworld for eating the seed of a pomegranate during her abduction by Pluto. However, the true identity of the petulant woman who looks out through steel-grey eyes is Mrs Jane Morris – the wife of the designer William Morris and the muse of Rossetti’s celebrations of powerful femininity. Rossetti depicted her often, but never with more pathos than in Proserpine. Just as Pluto kept his wife prisoner for half the year, Jane was only allowed to escape London to spend summers at Kelmscott Manor, which Morris and Rossetti shared. There, the two could finally be alone and, though Jane insisted that she‘never quite gave herself to Rossetti,’ the intensity of their love can be seen in Proserpine’s powerful expression – simultaneously melancholic, defiant and alluring.

When Proserpine is offered on 19 November in the sale of British & Irish Art, I have no doubt she will attract new admirers, as spellbound by her beauty as I was 20 years ago.