Beginning today, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Silence, one of the Brooklyn Museum’s finest European works on paper, will be on view for the first time in nearly 40 years in the third-floor Beaux-Arts Court (the European paintings gallery).
The Pre-Raphaelite painter-poet described Silence, a large scale drawing of a beautiful brunette deep in thought, in a letter to his model-and rumored mistress-Jane Morris: “Silence holds in one hand a branch of peach, the symbol used by the ancients; its fruit being held to resemble the human heart and its leaf the human tongue. With the other hand she draws together the veil enclosing the shrine in which she sits.” In Victorian England, the abstract idea of silence was often linked to mysticism, Neoplatonic philosophy, and even death (Eternal Silence), themes that preoccupied Rossetti later in life, particularly after 1862 when his wife and principal model Elizabeth Siddal took her life with an overdose of laudanum.
In 1865 Rossetti commissioned a series of photographs of Jane Morris posing in the garden of his London home, Tudor House. Three years later, he began a series of formal drawings of her, often for future paintings. Silence, however, was executed in 1870 as a finished, independent work of art. In 1872 the drawing was sold behind Rossetti’s back while he was convalescing from a breakdown in Scotland. Four years later he bought back Silence and sold it for £210 (today $6,500). By 1946 it was with one Luke Vincent Lockwood, who presented it to the Brooklyn Museum, where it was last exhibited in 1971.
For the next six months, New Yorkers will have a rare opportunity to see a Rossetti masterpiece on paper, nestled in the Beaux-Arts Court’s north wall between paintings of equally reflective women-Mary Magdalene and Catherine of Siena-from Renaissance Europe and America. (In 1870 Rossetti was looking at Renaissance portraits of Venetian women for inspiration.) Because of the sensitive nature of the drawing’s medium (dry, crumbly pastel or colored chalk) and support (two sheets of horizontally joined wove paper), Brooklyn’s Senior Paper Conservator Toni Owen has approved the presentation of Silence in the Court for no more than six months; it will be shown under significantly dimmer lights than those employed for paintings.