About the artwork
'The Blessed Damozel' is based on the poem Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote at the age of 19. The poem, first published in the Pre-Raphaelite Journal 'The Germ' in 1850, was about the love of a lady who died young; she was thus separated from her lover for ever but the couple prayed to be re-united after death. The painting corresponds to the first verse of the poem:
The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Rossetti's personal life and work were marked by his love for women. This is well reflected in 'The Blessed Damozel', (for which the model was Alexa Wilding, a dress maker of striking looks and an ambition to have a stage career), as well as in his other works at the Lady Lever Art Gallery: 'Sibylla Palmifera' (again Alexa Wilding), and 'Pandora'. Around 1849 Rossetti first met Elizabeth Siddall, a red-haired girl working in a bonnet house who had also served as a model for William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, the other founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti fell in love with Siddall and she became his pupil and model. In 1860 they married but tragically Elizabeth died two years later.
During the late 1850s Fanny Cornforth, a prostitute and a voluptuous beauty was Rossetti's new model and became a metaphor for his representations of carnal love. While spending time with William Morris and his wife Jane Burden at Kelmscott Manor, Rossetti fell for Jane. Her face is easily recognised in works such as 'Pandora'. His unrequited love led to a serious breakdown. Rossetti's turbulent personal life, his early death (he died just before his fifty-fourth birthday) and the romanticism of his work and poetry led to associations with Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde and the notion of the tragic artist.
Works such as 'Sibylla Palmifera' and 'The Blessed Damozel' clearly emphasise the spirituality and mysteriousness of the feminine soul. The elevation of women to a divine and mysterious sphere in Rossetti's paintings contradicts previous representations of women as the object of male desire in works such as Edward Onslow Ford's 'Leda and the Swan' and 'Snowdrift' or Maurice Ferrary's 'Salammbo', all in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. Rossetti did not indulge in a voyeuristic representation of the feminine body; instead he created a cult image of woman, a colossal being with bow shaped lips, lavish hair and an inexplicably powerful gaze as, for example, in 'Pandora' at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.
The artist and poet Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (founded in 1848 by Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt). Rossetti was the son of an exiled Italian patriot and was an authority on the Medieval poet Dante. Rossetti entered the Royal Academy of Arts at a very young age, in 1845, but soon became disappointed with traditional teaching of the Academy and sought a non-conventional way of expressing his talent and creative ideas. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artists opposed the over stylisation and attention to technical perfection of Victorian art and instead proposed a spiritual and moral purpose for art.
Rossetti's works were widely criticised at the Free Society of Artists' exhibition in 1850. These attacks are believed to have led him to retreat from the public domain thereafter. Rossetti met William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in 1856 when they collaborated on the Arthurian legends decorations of the Oxford Union. After the establishment of Morris's firm, 'Fine Art Workmen' in 1861, Rossetti provided designs for stained glass and furniture decoration. Among Rossetti's enthusiastic patrons were George Rae, the Birkenhead stockbroker, and the famous ship-owner Frederick Leyland.
In 'The Blessed Damozel' the separation of the two lovers is also one between life and death, and the only hope for their reunion is in their love. Rossetti's paintings and poems were always invested with a deeper meaning. Women and art share one important quality: beauty. It is easy to see why women often served as personifications of art in Rossetti's work. In 'The Blessed Damozel' Rossetti could well be suggesting that the love for art is the only link between life and death.
The separation of the two lovers also corresponds to Christianity's division between the mortality of the flesh and the eternity of spiritual life. This complicates further the meaning of 'The Blessed Damozel'. The lilies in the Damozel's hand are symbols of purity and remind us of the Virgin Mary, while the seven stars, also found in the frame of Holman Hunt's 'The Scapegoat' (Lady Lever Art Gallery), allude to Pre-Raphaelite artists' fusion of legends and classical ideas with Christian beliefs. The deep, rich colours of the painting together with the altar shape of the frame also allude to Christian iconography. Rossetti further accentuated the separation of the two lovers and the division between life and death by drawing from the example of Renaissance altarpieces and physically dividing the painting into a lower part (known as a 'predella') and an upper one.
The painting originally belonged to Frederick Leyland and it was hung in the living room of his house in London next to 'Proserpine' (1877, Tate Britain) and among extravagant gilt furniture. The voluptuous frame may well have been particularly designed to match the overall style of Leyland's drawing room. Lord Lever, who in the latter part of his life had learnt a lot more about art and become a keen collector of Pre-Raphaelite artists, bought the painting in 1922.