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83 “OfVenus and of Cupid,— Strange OldTales” in the Work of D. G. Rossetti D. M. R. Ben tley • The quotation from “A Last Confession” that furnishes the title of this essay may be Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s earliest written reference to the Roman goddess of love and her winged minion who, as the poem’s speaker explains to the young girl whom he has adopted,“could rule the loves / Of men and women” (Collected Poetry and Prose 77–78).1 In its immediate context, the quotation is part of a sexually charged incident in which the“little image of a flying Love / Made of coloured glass-ware” shatters; and its “dart ... enter[s] deeply” into the girl’s“hand” and“draw[s] blood,” prompting her to cry and the speaker to exclaim “Oh! ...That I should be the first to make you bleed, / Who love and love and love you” (78). In its wider context, it reflects and anticipates the interest inVenus, Cupid, and the closely related figures of Paris and Helen of Troy that came to prominence in Rossetti’s work in the midD . G. Rossetti (1828–82), Venus Verticordia (1864–68). Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. victorian review • Volume 34 Number 2 84 1860s and remained there until the mid-1870s. It was during this period that he painted Helen ofTroy (1863) and Venus Verticordia (1864-68), and wrote “Troy Town” (1869-70) and the six sonnets in whichVenus and/or Helen appear(s): the two sonnets for Cassandra (1869), the sonnet for Pandora (1869), “Death’s Songsters” (1870),”“VenusVictrix” (1871),” and, of course, the sonnet for Venus Verticordia (1868). His plan to make a painting of“Venus surrounded by mirrors” probably dates from this period,2 as may his acquisition of the statues of Cupid and Venus Victrix and the plaster casts of Venus de Milo and another antique Venus that were in his studio at his death (Valuable Contents 12, 13). The earliest of Rossetti’s works to emerge from his interest in Venus and related figures is Helen of Troy, which he first mentions in a letter, of circa February 1863, to his mother requesting“the photograph of‘Old Cairo’ which hangs in ... [her] parlor, and ... any stereoscopic pictures ... which represent general views of cities ... or anything of a fleet of ships” for“use ... in painting Troy at the back of ... Helen” (Correspondence 3:39). David Rodgers has suggested that a factor in Rossetti’s choice of Helen as a subject is her presence in the “Good Women” series of decorative embroideries for the Red House, which Morris and Burne-Jones conceived and Jane and her sister Bessie executed in 1863 (24).The fact that Joan of Arc also appeared in the series and became the subject of an 1863 painting by Rossetti adds credence to this suggestion.3 In subject as well as design, however, Helen of Troy is a descendant of Bocca Baciata (1859): both paintings are bust-length portraits of Fanny Cornforth; they are very nearly the same size (31 by 27 cm. [Helen ofTroy],4 and 32.2 x 27.1 cm [Bocca Baciata]) ; and in each the figure holds a symbolic object—in Bocca Baciata a marigold5 and in Helen of Troy a medallion depicting a flaming torch, a conventional emblem of ardent love, suggesting Paris’s desire for Helen that resulted in the burning of Troy. Inscribed on the back of the painting in Rossetti’s hand is a line fromAeschylus’s Agamemnon and its English translation: “Helen of Troy ... destroyer of ships, destroyer of men, destroyer of cities” (qtd. in Surtees 1: 92). With her elaborate necklace and hair ornament and her lavish, provocatively unbuttoned gown, Fanny Cornforth is very much the courtesan in Bocca Baciata. In Helen ofTroy, she is less bedizened and at once more modestly and colourfully dressed.The symbolic medallion that she holds is attached to a three-strand necklace of simple green and grey beads, and her dress is a loose-fitting garment with white and red-gold striped sleeves that is hemmed and sparsely decorated with designs suggestive of the Levant. In Bocca...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 83-102
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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