When I stumbled upon Russell-Cotes Museum and Art Gallery some time ago, I thought to myself: what a treasure, what a gem! The museum and gallery is a wonder itself and it contains many other, smaller wonders within its Victorian walls. One of them is Pre-Raphealite oil painting Venus Verticordia, 1864-1868, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I have always liked this painting. The first time I saw it in an art magazine it has captured my attention and imagination. I was captivated by its brilliance and vividness of color, the sitter's lush copper hair, full cherry-coloured lips and pensive yet somewhat wistful expression. And I knew from the very beginning, from the first time I laid my eyes on it, that there was something intriguing behind this painting - a mystery perhaps,a dark secret or a fascinating story. I did some research regarding the history of the painting as I wanted to know who the artist's sitter was. Her name was Alexa Wilding. She was an independent woman, a dressmaker, a seamstress, artist's model and muse, and latterly a landlady, who never married (WoW!). She became Rossetti's model and a silent witness to the most turbulent years in his bohemian life. I highly recommend a fascinating and a beautifully written novel A Curl of Copper and Pearl by Kirsty Stone Walker available on Amazon.co.uk. In her outstanding narrative and a magical evocation of Alexa Wilding's story, Walker charmingly mixes facts and fiction. Kirsty Walker fictionalises the life of Alice Wilding, whose beauty and mass of copper red hair led Rossetti to approach her in the street and request her to to sit for his painting.
Plucked from the street by the artist and taken completely aback by his offer, Alexa's life turned upside down. Rossetti transformed her life of drudgery and poverty into one of art and beauty.
"As his muse, she witnesses infidelity, madness, forgery, lust, theft and death. A Curl of Copper and Pearl is memoir of the lives of others in a world where truth is reliant on who is painting the picture". A Curl of Copper and Pearl, Kirsty Walker.
The gallery is full of paintings, mostly female portraits, but Venus Verticordia does stand out from the crowd and the moment you enter the gallery you can't take your eyes off her, like you are connected by an invisible cord and can't break free. She is mesmerizing. She will hold your attention as if you were under hypnosis, she will have you under her spell. She is a magnet painting, a magnet face. Her regal bearing makes her look like a queen. She is the queen of the gallery. She radiates so much sensuality and powerful female sexuality. She is Venus after all, goddess of love and 'turner of men's hearts'.She is a vision, madly beautiful vision
Stand in front of her, and you are aware that you are looking at something deeply contemplated. Every object is intimately described, every motif freighted with meaning. The viewer is drawn in by an uncertainty or a puzzle. She is shown with one of Cupid's arrows and the Apple of Discord awarded to her by Paris of Troy. There is a butterfly, a bird and a festoon of honesuckle flowers. Rossetti complained that buying fresh flowers daily to paint left him penniless. The honey suckle flowers were meant to represent the fleeting nature of love. The title of the painting refers to a quotation from the Roman poet Ovid. He describes one of Venus' attraibutes as being able to assist Roman women to turn their hearts towards virtue and modesty. This does seem contradictory for such a heavily sensual and sexual image, but perhaps it is a warning of the dangers of sexual obsession.
When I look at Alexa's portrait, I am not surprised that she turned Rossetti's head in the street. She was a Victorian stunner - tall and voluptuous, with distinctive lips and a mane of glorious red hair. Her long strong neck, her angular jaw, nose and cheekbones, and her flexible fingers established the androgynous appearance that would become the Pre-Raphaelite 'type'. Alexa became the archetype of Pre-Raphealite canon of beauty.
It took Rossetti four years to complete this painting, which is his only nude work in oils Originally, the model for Venus was a cook who worked in Chelsea. However, when the work failed to sell, Rossetti replaced her face with his new model - Alexa Wilding.
An x-ray of the painting taken in 2003 has shown that Rossetti used two, or possibly even three models for the painting. The first model was tall, striking woman who worked as a cook for neughbouring family. Rossetti met her in the street, where he found several of his models. Dissatisfied with this portrait, he painted over it using the face of Alexa Wilding. It is also possible that Fanny Cornforth modelled for this painting.
'Venus Verticordia' was acquired by the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum via the Art Fund in 1945, and has been loaned for many contemporary exhibitions. These include two at Tate Britain, and other international venues including Germany, Holland, Italy, USA, the Canary Islands and Japan. The museum regularly receives loan requests from museums and galleries in the UK and abroad. Most of these requests have to be declined to allow the picture to be shown in its home gallery; to minimise the inevitable risks and deterioration caused by travel; and for other reasons, such as high insurance costs for borrowers.