So, now that you know Rossetti’s Silence is on view for a limited time in the Museum’s Beaux-Arts Court, let’s enhance your visit by getting to know the artist, his model, and the story behind this late Victorian masterpiece.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was born in London, where he attended Henry Sass’s Drawing Academy and the Antique School of the Royal Academy. Bored with the Academy’s traditional program, he joined the progressive studios of Ford Madox Brown and later William Holman Hunt. In September 1848 Rossetti, Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais challenged the Royal Academy’s hold on young artists by founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters seeking to revive the simplicity and realism of early Italian Renaissance art. Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite pictures were criticized for their crude design, proof according to critics of the painter’s lack of technical training. Fearing future censure, Rossetti vowed to never exhibit publicly in London again, and by 1852 the original Brotherhood had ceased to exist.
In the 1860s, while painting his first pictures of single female figures, Rossetti fell under the spell of Titian, Palma Vecchio, and the great Venetian masters of voluptuous female flesh. His brushstrokes broadened, replacing what he had described as the “stipple in the flesh” of his earlier, painstakingly detailed Pre-Raphaelite compositions. His head-and-shoulders portraits in chalk like Silence sold well, and by 1870 he was devoting himself almost entirely to representations of the ideal woman, often in the form of Jane Morris. Rossetti’s later works were embraced by the Symbolist painters, who shared his interest in painting dreamy, introspective women lost in silent meditation and mystical inwardness.
Jane Burden Morris (1839-1914), the face of Silence, inspired numerous works by Rossetti and his friends, among them the painter-poet William Morris whom she would marry in 1859. Jane was a remarkable beauty, destined to play a major role in Rossetti’s idealized and symbolic portraits of “stunners”—beautiful women shown at close range in often exotic settings. In 1869, the American writer Henry James described her as having “a thin pale face, a pair of strange, sad, deep, dark Swinburnish eyes [a reference to the poems of the late Victorian writer Algernon Charles Swinburne], with great thick black oblique brows, joined in the middle and tucking themselves away under her hair.” Jane, the daughter of a humble stableman, was discovered by Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones in an Oxford theater. Thanks to her captivating looks, she was spared a life of poverty and a future in domestic service. Through Morris she was educated privately, mastering French and Italian as well as the piano.
In Silence, Rossetti captures Jane’s beauty as well as her character; she was, according to contemporary accounts, an unusually silent woman.