Bocca Baciata

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two excellent paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in its collection. I have been in Boston this week and paid a visit to the MFA, as I always do on such trips.

The highlight for any admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites is Rossetti’s 1859 painting Bocca Baciata. This work marked a transition in the artist’s career, away from the narrative Medieval paintings of his youth and toward the sensuous female portraits of his mature period. The title comes from a line in Boccaccio’s Decameron, which is written on the reverse of the canvas:

Bocca baciata non perde ventura, anzi rinnova come fa la luna.

‘The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its good fortune:
rather, it renews itself just as the moon does.’

Bocca baciata means, “The mouth that his been kissed,” or “the kissed mouth.”

The model was Fanny Cornforth, who lived with Rossetti at the time. She also sat for the the second painting in the collection: Belcolore, or Girl with Rose, from 1863. It is a fitting companion piece as the subject is likewise drawn from the Decameron. The character of Monna Belcolore is a married woman who is courted by her village priest in one of the stories within the story.

Western Philistinism

The celebrated Russian conductor Valery Gergiev has been fired from his position at the Munich Philharmonic because he declined to repudiate Vladimir Putin. He is likewise banned by The Scala in Milan and the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden. The Metropolitan Opera in New York has blacklisted all Russian performers. The Royal Opera House in London will no longer host the Bolshoi Ballet.

I have never in my life seen such naked bigotry so piously held. I doubt this stings our Russian friends any less for the absurd hypocrisy and pettiness of it. Can you imagine an American or a British artist being told to—what?—appear in a televised hostage video denouncing his country?—or else be fired?

Obviously I am not so naive or idealistic as to believe that the arts are some rarified sphere, capable of bridging cultures when even diplomacy fails. At this point even classical art in the west is buried under propaganda. But more than ever our cultural institutions seem small. They are not only run by ideologues, they are run by philistines.

See also: The New World Order in Crisis.

Update: The Telegraph reports: “Daniil Medvedev told he will be banned from Wimbledon unless he denounces Vladimir Putin.” Medvedev is the No. 1 tennis player in the world.

Update: Not even the Russian masters are safe! The Cardiff Philharmonic has cut Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” from its forthcoming program. Bicocca University of Milan cancelled its course on Dostoevsky, only reversing the decision after facing public ridicule.

The Snow Queen

The image above is taken from a print in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it is described as: “photograph of man making a snow sculpture resembling Queen Victoria, unknown photographer, ca. 1890.” The sculptor is quite talented. Can he be identified?

The only account of Her Majesty sculpted in snow that I could find was in The Harmsworth London Magazine from December of 1901. An article describes the “young art students of Brussels…moulding statues in the snow.” The previous year “some twenty-six different statues were on show at the Royal Park in Brussels.” The entries were judged and “the moulder of the statue of the late Queen Victoria was awarded a prize.”

Beatrix Potter and The Pre-Raphaelites

In her youth the author Beatrix Potter knew Sir John Everett Millais as a family friend. Her father Rupert Potter was a member of Millais’s social circle. His photographs of the Pre-Raphaelite artist are the subject of a previous post.

Beatrix Potter was herself an accomplished illustrator, principally of her own Peter Rabbit stories. She was a prolific watercolorist whose landscapes and studies of mushrooms, animals, plants, and insects will be displayed at the Victoria and Albert early next year in the exhibition, Drawn to Nature.

On his death in August of 1896, Potter wrote in her journal that she would “always have a most affectionate remembrance” of Millais, though she was “unmercifully afraid of him as a child” on account of his teasing “schoolboy manner.” Despite this fact she was not afraid to show him her drawings. He gave her “the kindest encouragement” and complimented her, saying, “plenty of people can draw, but you and my son John have observation.” She concluded, “He was an honest fine man.”

Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature opens at the V&A on February 12, 2022.

Rossetti’s Wombat

At his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a menagerie of exotic animals. This included peacocks, owls, parakeets, armadillos, kangaroos, a Brahmin bull, donkeys, and a raccoon who lived in a chest of drawers.

Most of the animals were purchased through Charles Jamrach, a dealer of wild animals with premises in Ratcliffe Highway. Jamrach was well known, mentioned by name in Dracula by Bram Stoker: a wolf that escapes from the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park is “one of three grey ones that came from Norway to Jamrach’s, which we bought off him four years ago.”

In September of 1869, Rossetti acquired the jewel of his collection: a wombat. His interest in the marsupials had evidently been cultivated at the same Regent’s Park Zoo, where several were exhibited. In a letter to Ford Madox Brown in July of 1860, he wrote, “Dear Brown: Lizzie [Siddal] and I propose to meet Georgie and Ned [Burne-Jones] at 2 pm tomorrow at the Zoological Gardens—place of meeting, the Wombat’s Lair.”

An early appearance of a wombat in Rossetti’s art can be seen in the frontispiece illustration he made for his sister Christina’s book, Goblin Market, in 1865.

The wombat that Rossetti purchased from Jamrach was short lived, as were many of his rather irresponsibly housed pets. Rossetti named the creature “Top,” in what seems to have been a reference to the plump, hirsute William Morris, whom Rossetti was cuckolding. Morris had long been known to friends by the nickname “Topsy.” A sketch by Rossetti of Jane Morris leading the wombat Top by a leash can be seen to underscore the point.

The wombat died on November 6, 1869. Rossetti commemorated the event with a sketch of himself in mourning. As Angus Trumble writes, the portrait “is satirical but was apparently prompted by genuine grief.”

Rossetti wrote a stanza of verse to accompany it:

I never reared a young wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet and fat
And tailless, he was sure to die!

Alas!

The Saint-Gaudens Diana

When Stanford White designed the second Madison Square Garden at 26th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, he commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a statue of the Roman goddess Diana, which would surmount the tower.

The venue opened in 1890 and Diana was installed the following year. Saint-Gaudens made several versions and casts of the sculpture. At eighteen feet and eighteen hundred pounds the original was deemed too large and was replaced. It went on to adorn the Women’s Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where it was ultimately destroyed by the fire that ravaged the fairgrounds eight month after the exhibition concluded.

A second version was installed at Madison Square Garden in November of 1893. A much lighter thirteen feet of hollow gilt copper, it functioned as a weathervane, turning on an orb plinth in the wind. This version became an iconic feature of the New York City skyline, lit at night by electric lights.

When Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925 the statue was moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it remains today.

Diana of the Tower still has a presence in New York, in the form of a 1928 cast. It stands in pride of place in the courtyard of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in front of a fine Neoclassical facade, both pictured below.

Edward Gorey on Cape Cod

In my opinion the high point of television as a medium—even an artform—was the British detective programming of the 1980s through the mid-1990s. I am thinking obviously of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, but also programs that ran for only one or two series like Campion with Peter Davison and A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter.

In the United States these programs were broadcast on public television as part of the Mystery! anthology produced by WGBH in Boston. The episodes were introduced in a wrap-around segment by host Vincent Prince, and later Diana Rigg. Anyone who watched Mystery!—especially if they were growing at the time, like me—will inevitably remember the opening credit sequence designed by illustrator Edward Gorey.

At the time that Mystery! premiered in 1980 Gorey was coming off of his greatest commercial success, the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, which he designed. (I was born three days after it closed in 1980, but my parents saw it.) 

In 1979 Gorey bought a 200-year old sea captain’s home in Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He had been living in Manhattan where he attended every single performance of the New York City Ballet. After the death of NYCB founder and choreographer George Balanchine in 1983, Gorey moved permanently to Cape Cod. He lived the last seventeen years of his life there and it remains a museum and gallery of his art.

His work on Mystery! is represented in a collection of storyboards and animation cells from the title sequence and a poster for the tenth anniversary in 1990. I think Joan Hickson and Edward Hardwicke appear surprisingly recognizable in the artist’s style.

The Edward Gorey House is open April through December at 8 Strawberry Lane, Yarmouth Port Common.

The Ghost of a Leaf

In the Greco-Roman collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art there are frescoed wall panels from the villa of Fannius Synistor which stood in the countryside outside of Pompeii. These were painted sometime between 40 and 30 B.C. and were recovered from the ruins of the villa which was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

One panel from a small bedroom or sitting room has an unusual adornment. The curators write, “A grape leaf sillhouetted against the vertical porphyry surface appears to have blown in mysteriously, bringing a touch of whimsy to the otherwise severely ordered architectural decoration.”

Millais at Home

Rupert Potter was a longtime friend of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. A barrister by trade, Potter was a very talented amateur photographer, as was his daughter, the author Beatrix Potter. He made a series of portraits of Millais during the 1880s in Millais’s London studio and house at 2 Palace Gate, Kensington.

Potter visited Millais in July of 1886, capturing the artist at a moment of leisure during work on the painting Lilacs and a portrait of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, which appear on easels.

Christmastide Divination

Konstantin Makovsky was an accomplished Academic painter of fin-de-siècle Russia. He painted Classical subjects, like the Judgement of Paris, and official portraits of the Tsars Alexander II and Nicholas II. But he also produced interesting, folklorish depictions of life among the peasants and the old Boyar nobility.

Pictured above is the 1905 painting Christmastide Divination which portrays young girls watching a rooster peck at scattered grain, which they hope will portend a marriage in the coming year, a type of fortune telling called alectryomancy. Below is Makovsky’s most famous work, A Boyar Wedding Feast, which won a gold medal at the 1885 World’s Fair in Antwerp.