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Proserpine

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Proserpine

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • Date: 1874
  • Style: Symbolism
  • Genre: mythological painting
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Dimensions: 61 x 125.1 cm
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Proserpine (1874) depicts the goddess as the Empress of the Underworld. According to Greek and Roman mythology, Proserpine was the beautiful daughter of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. She was abducted by the ruler of the Underworld, Pluto, who brought her to his realm to marry her. Ceres pleaded with Jupiter, the king of gods, for Proserpine's return, and Jupiter agreed under the condition that she had not consumed any of the fruits of the Underworld. However, Proserpine ate six grains of pomegranate, thus she was forced to accept her new role and destiny: her punishment was to spend six months of the year on earth, and six months in the Underworld. In Rossetti's painting, Proserpine is in a gloomy corridor of her palace; she seems pensive and sullen while holding a pomegranate, a symbol of her captivity. Next to her is an incense burner, the attribute of a goddess.

Rossetti, both a poet and a painter, often paired the two arts by creating accompanying poems for his paintings. For Proserpine, Rossetti wrote a sonnet and inscribed it in Italian on the picture and in English on the frame:

Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
Unto this wall, - one instant and no more
Admitted at my distant palace-door.
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.
Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
That chills me: and afar, how far away,
The nights that shall be from the days that were.
Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
(Whose sounds mine inner sense in fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring,) -
"Woe's me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!"

The sonnet plays a complementary role, revealing to the viewer the symbolic meaning of the figure in the painting. Through the poem, Rossetti not only draws attention to the myth of Proserpine but also reveals to the viewer the inner thoughts behind her silent expression.

The model in the painting is Jane Morris, the wife of artist William Morris. Jane was one of Rossetti's favorite muses, who embodied the ideal of Pre-Raphaelite beauty. She modeled for many of Rossetti's paintings, including The Day Dream (1880) and Pia de' Tolomei (c.1868). The two also had a romantic relationship, that spanned in various degrees over nearly two decades, until Rossetti died in 1882.

Rossetti painted Proserpine while staying with the couple at Kelmscott. Many have drawn a connection between the myth of Proserpine and the personal life of Jane Morris. By all accounts, Jane was in an unhappy marriage, which was further complicated by her work and relationship with Rossetti. The artist probably viewed Jane as Proserpine, another beauty trapped in a sad situation, unable to free herself from her destiny.
Rossetti often created replicas of his paintings, and Proserpine is one of the most famous examples. A total of eight oil versions were created, this was the seventh, and it was painted for Rossetti's patron, Frederick Leyland. The picture replaced an earlier version that was damaged in transit. Today, Proserpine is part of the collection of Tate Britain, London.

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Proserpine (also Proserpina) is an oil painting on canvas by English artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted in 1874 and currently housed at Tate Britain.

In his Proserpine, the artist illustrates in his typical Pre-Raphaelite style the Roman goddess who lives in the underworld during Winter. Although Rossetti inscribed the date 1874 on the picture, he worked for seven years on eight separate canvases before he finished with it. His Proserpine, like his model Jane Morris, is an exquisitely beautiful woman, with delicate facial features, slender hands, and flawlessly pale skin set off by her thick raven hair. Rossetti painted it at a time when his mental health was extremely precarious and his love for Jane Morris was at its most obsessive.

Rossetti wrote about Proserpine

Unable to decide as a young man whether to concentrate on painting or poetry, his work is infused with his poetic imagination and an individual interpretation of literary sources. His accompanying sonnet to this work is a poem of longing: "And still some heart unto some soul doth pine," (see sonnet below) carrying an inescapable allusion to his yearning to seduce Jane from her unhappy marriage with William Morris. Proserpine had been imprisoned in Pluto's underground realm for tasting the forbidden pomegranate. Jane, trapped by convention, was also tasting forbidden fruit. There is a deeper meaning in the painting as Rossetti stayed with Jane at Kelmscott Manor during the summer months each year and in winter she returned to stay with William Morris, thus paralleling Proserpine's freedom during summer.

In Greek and Roman mythology, Proserpine daughter of Ceres, was carried off to the Underworld (Hades) by Pluto, who married her despite her love for Adonis. When Ceres begged Jupiter to return her daughter to Earth, he agreed, on condition that Proserpine had not eaten any fruits in Hades. As Proserpine had eaten six pomegranate seeds, it was decreed that she should remain in Hades for six months of the year and be allowed on Earth for the other six.

The symbolism in Rossetti's painting poignantly indicates Proserpine's plight, as well as Jane Morris's plight, torn between her husband, the father of her two adored daughters, and her lover. The pomegranate draws the viewer's eye, the colour of its flesh matching the colour of Proserpine's full lips. The ivy behind her, as Rossetti stated, represents clinging memory and the passing of time; the shadow on the wall is her time in Hades, the patch of sunlight, her glimpse of earth. Her dress, like spilling water, suggests the turning of the tides, and the incense burner denotes the subject as an immortal. Proserpine's saddened eyes, which are the same cold blue color as most of the painting, indirectly stare at the other realm. Overall, dark hues characterise the color scheme of the piece.

On the top right of the canvas "Proserpina" is inscribed by the artist, followed by his sonnet in Italian. The same sonnet in English is inscribed on the frame:

The painting is signed and dated on a scroll at lower left: 'DANTE GABRIELE ROSSETTI RITRASSE NEL CAPODANNO DEL 1874' (in Italian) (Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted this at the beginning of 1874). The frame, designed by Rossetti, has roundels which resemble a section of a pomegranate, reflecting the sliced pomegranate in Proserpine's hand.

This is a part of the Wikipedia article used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). The full text of the article is here →


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