A summary of one of Christina Rossetti’s most famous poems – written by Dr Oliver Tearle
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was still in her mid-twenties when she wrote this classic sonnet about male art and the way it uses and depicts women. ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ is a widely (and rightly) praised poem, but a few words of analysis might help to shed light on this canvas.
In an Artist’s Studio
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
In summary, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ is about the male artist’s tendency to objectify his female sitters or ‘models’ for his paintings and sculptures; indeed, in one interpretation, the woman is merely a passive object on which the artist projects his fantasies and ‘dreams’. No particular artist is intended; Rossetti is speaking in general terms about the male artist and the female model. However, it is worth noting that Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a painter. The artist’s model is made to dress up and pose as all sorts of different women – the exotic queen, the saint, the angel – in order to fulfil the male fantasy of women as pure saints or virginal angels, or sensual and seductive queens. As Simone de Beauvoir and Gilbert and Gubar have pointed out, throughout much of history – and especially in nineteenth-century art and literature – there is a tendency for men to depict women as either virgins or whores, angels or monsters, pure or corrupted. The artist’s model is made to perform all these roles as she sits for the male artist’s pictures. But all of these different roles mean essentially the same thing: they are a version of the male objectification of women, men’s need to possess and control the way women are represented and, through this, the way women should be.
The artist is seen as a sort of predator or parasite, ‘feed[ing] upon’ the face of the female model – ‘by day and night’, we learn, the odd mention of ‘night’ suggesting some sort of male monster or demon, like an incubus, which visits women at night and feeds upon their bodies and souls. The woman accepts this predatory feeding with ‘true kind eyes’, looking back on him (why on him rather than at him, though?), much as the mirror earlier in the poem ‘gave back all her loveliness’. The woman is not conceived as a person in her own right, merely a reflection of what the man wants to find.
Yet is this the only way to analyse this poem? We might alternatively see the relationship between artist and model as a more positive symbiotic relationship, allowing the woman to live out various lives through the artist’s depictions of her, and enabling the artist to imagine different identities for the female model. The word ‘dream’ with which ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ ends certainly allows for such an interpretation; but does the rest of the poem? It remains difficult to imagine that vampiric reference to the artist ‘feeding on’ his model as wholly positive.
The rhyme scheme of the poem is abbaabbacdcdcd, marking the poem as a Petrarchan sonnet, which is apt for a number of reasons, but chiefly because the Petrarchan form is associated with the medieval idea of courtly love, whereby the male poet admires from afar the beautiful woman. The woman usually remains silent in such poems (well, after all, the poet can’t get near her to speak to her), so she is no more than a mute object of the male gaze. (Petrarch, after whom this form of sonnet is named, wrote a number of sonnets in the fourteenth century in praise of Laura, the woman who represented ideal beauty.) So the Petrarchan sonnet is a rather apt form for the female Rossetti to use and appropriate here, in her poem about the male habit of objectifying the silent woman. Yet as above, ‘objectifying’ need not, perhaps, be seen as altogether bad here: the woman becomes an exotic queen, a holy angel or a saint: more than she will ever attain in reality. Like the Petrarchan sonnet that embodies courtly love, Rossetti’s sonnet can be read as a Victorian take on the idea of the woman being raised and celebrated through art.
One final analysis of the poem’s masterly use of rhyme: if the progression from ‘night’ to ‘light’ to ‘bright’ suggests a brightening (a moving towards enlightenment?), the movement from ‘dim’ to ‘dream’ is more uncertain: it is the one rhyme in the poem that is altogether less than perfect, more an off-rhyme (‘him’ and ‘dim’, by contrast, fit perfectly together; ‘dim’ and ‘dream’, although they begin and end with the same letters, just miss their mark). This suggests that there is indeed something amiss with the artist’s way of viewing women: there is, perhaps, something unsatisfactory about his ‘dream’.
If you’d like to learn more about Rossetti’s poetry in the context of Victorian literature, we include Christina Rossetti in our short history of English poetry. And see here for some helpful tips for how to write an English Literature essay.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Wikimedia Commons.