Painted in 1868, Venus Verticordia shows a radiant young woman with a mane of flame-red hair lit by a golden halo encircled by butterflies, naked amid a bower of honeysuckle and crimson roses, and holding an apple in one hand and the shaft of a golden arrow in the other. Photo: Sotheby’s.
LONDON.- Sotheby’s will sell Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s watercolour version of Venus Verticordia in London on 10 December 2014. The Pre-Raphaelite artist’s obsession with luscious sensuality and female allure reached its zenith in his only major nude subject, and the picture led to the breaking of Rossetti’s friendship with John Ruskin, Victorian Britain’s leading art critic. Last seen in public in the closing decade of the nineteenth century, it will be the centrepiece of Sotheby’s auction of British & Irish Art, carrying an estimate of £1,000,000-1,500,000.
Simon Toll, Sotheby’s British & Irish Art Specialist, commented, “Rossetti, the enigmatic ‘rebel’ of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, had an idea of beauty that continues to enthrall, and I have no doubt that ‘Venus Verticordia’, his most erotic picture, will seduce admirers.”
Painted in 1868, Venus Verticordia shows a radiant young woman with a mane of flame-red hair lit by a golden halo encircled by butterflies, naked amid a bower of honeysuckle and crimson roses, and holding an apple in one hand and the shaft of a golden arrow in the other. She is the epitome of Pre-Raphaelite glamour, a powerful and radical image of confident female sexuality from an age when women were supposed to be reserved and demure. Though the Latin meaning of ‘Venus Verticordia’ referred to Venus’ ability to inspire virtue and chastity, it was Rossetti’s intention to suggest her power to turn men’s hearts away from fidelity. The petals of the roses are almost fleshy and carry an overt erotic symbolism, and Rossetti considered honeysuckle stamen to resemble the human tongue. Both flowers release a strong perfume and are redolent of seduction, in keeping with Rossetti’s theme.
John Ruskin’s prudishness and ambivalence towards the naked female form has been well-documented and features in the film Effie Gray, which opens this week. Ruskin had become increasingly concerned by what he perceived to be sensuousness in Rossetti’s art. Unable to confront the real reason for his discomfort regarding Venus Verticordia, he focused his critical wrath on the roses that Rossetti had gone to so much trouble to paint – even borrowing money from his brother to have them sent out-of-season from the south of France. In a letter to Rossetti, Ruskin referred to them as ‘awful… in their coarseness.’ Graham Robertson, one of Rossetti’s supporters, responded to Ruskin’s reaction to the painting in a letter to Rossetti: ‘I suppose he is reflecting upon his morals, but I never hear a word breathed against the perfect responsibility of a honeysuckle. Of course roses have got themselves talked about from time to time, but really if one were to listen to scandal about flowers, gardening would become impossible.’
The model for Venus Verticordia was Alexa Wilding, who Rossetti had first seen in 1865 when she was walking in the Strand. He implored her to call at his studio, but she failed to appear. Rossetti was fortunate to see Alexa again, and this time succeeded in persuading her that his intentions were honourable. During the second half of the 1860s and early 1870s, Rossetti relied upon Alexa to be available to him as a model and paid her a small salary to secure her exclusivity. She was considered by most of Rossetti’s circle to be ‘respectable’, even being invited to spend Christmas with the artist, his sisters and his mother at Kelmscott Manor, the country house Rossetti shared with William and Jane Morris. It is therefore likely that she only posed for the head of Venus.
This version of Venus Verticordia was purchased by the current owner almost half a century ago and was last sold at auction in 1886. Its first owner was William Graham, M.P. for Glasgow, who owned thirty-seven pictures by Rossetti.