About the artwork
Black History Month
'The Beloved' (on loan from the Tate) is one of a series of half-length portrayals of women painted by Rossetti during the 1860s. The celebration of woman and through her the power of love was central to Rossetti's art. He believed that women enshrined the mystery of existence. All of his work concerns women in different aspects - female virtue, ideal love, beauty, sexuality and the power of women over men. It was the theme of female beauty that came to the fore in the paintings of the 1860s.
All these paintings depict women arrayed in luxurious clothing, with jewels, flowers, musical instruments and other accessories designed to show off their beauty. The paintings are also beautiful objects in themselves, with carefully considered compositions and colour harmonies. Many of them retain their original frames, designed by Rossetti to enhance the aesthetic effect of the paintings. All these women were painted from individual models, but they are not strictly speaking portraits. Their subjects are beautiful women from myth, history and literature.
'The Beloved' is unique in Rossetti's series of beauties of the 1860s. It shows many figures, not one. It also shows a black figure, the only one ever painted by Rossetti. The purpose of studying this picture during Black History Month is to answer the question - why?
The answer starts with the subject, which comes from the Song of Solomon. This is a love poem from the Bible that has a dual interpretation; it is phrased in erotic imagery, describing passionate feelings of physical love, but it can also be interpreted as religious love, the love of God. Rossetti had two passages from the Song of Solomon written on the frame.
My Beloved is mine and I am his.
(Song of Solomon, 2:16)
Let him kiss me with the kisses of the mouth: for thy love is better than wine.
Rossetti, as a writer of poetry with erotic content, must have known the Song of Solomon well. He may also have come to the subject through his obsession with the Florentine poet Dante and Dante's love for Beatrice. In Dante's 'Divine Comedy' when Beatrice appears, her handmaidens sing lines from the Song of Solomon 'Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse', comparing Beatrice's beauty with that of the Biblical bride.
Also written on the frame is an extract from one of the Psalms of David.
She shall be brought unto the King in raiment of needlework: the virgins her
companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee.
The subject of the painting combines the eroticism of the Song of Solomon with the scene described in the Psalms. Rossetti depicts a bride (the Beloved) brought by her bridesmaids (the virgins her companions) before the bridegroom (the King). According to the Middle Eastern custom, her face is unveiled for the bridegroom so that he sees her for the first time. This is the exact moment shown in the painting - she draws back her veil to reveal her beautiful face.
This still does not explain the black figure, but the Song of Solomon famously includes the lines, spoken by the beloved, 'I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.' This may have given Rossetti the idea for the black figure, which was originally going to be a little girl. But Rossetti, unlike the writer of the Song of Solomon, did not show the bride as black - she is fair-skinned and red-haired (the sitter was a professional model, Marie Ford). Thus Rossetti could not or would not break away from the traditional Western European canon of beauty.
See more of Rossetti’s works in our special exhibition feature.
Black History Month
Rossetti was certainly open to challenging prevailing ideals of beauty, and did this most notably through his paintings of Jane Morris. Her distinctive features did not correspond to the conventional Victorian ideal. These however date from slightly later in his career. In 'The Beloved', he also looked beyond the Caucasian type of beauty. Each of the bridesmaids has a darker skin than the bride. We do not know who modelled for the two on the left, but the one centre right, half-hidden, was painted from a Mrs Eaton, who sat for Jewish subjects by other artists. The bridesmaid on the extreme right was modelled by Kiomi Gray. She was a Romany woman who was a model and mistress of the artist Frederick Sandys. Rossetti attempted to portray a range of different racial types of beauty - but with an accepted Western European type at the centre, implying its superiority.
Quite early on in the planning of 'The Beloved', Rossetti wrote to the man who commissioned the picture (the Birkenhead banker, George Rae) of his wish to include a little black girl carrying a cup before the Bride. This was later changed to a black boy, when Rossetti spotted on the steps of a London hotel a slave boy travelling with his American master. He came to Rossetti's studio in Chelsea to pose. This was the period of the American Civil War and the questions of slavery and abolition were hot topics in the newspapers. Rossetti's brother William, his sister Christina and other artist friends came out on the abolitionist side but Rossetti's views on the issue are not clear. Was the black boy an attempt to allude obliquely to the slavery question in his picture? (Ford Madox Brown might well have been doing the same in 'The Coat of Many Colours' showing Joseph sold into slavery, painted at roughly the same time for the same patron, George Rae).
Rossetti's primary purpose in including the black boy seems to have been aesthetic. Rossetti wrote to Rae 'I mean the colour of my picture to be like jewels, and the jet would be invaluable.' The inclusion of black figures as a purely decorative device to set off fair-skinned, Western European beauties was common in Venetian Renaissance painting, which Rossetti admired. There was also a more immediate source for the inclusion of a black figure with a white one: on a recent visit to France Rossetti had visited the studio of Manet and seen his shockingly nude portrait of the white-skinned prostitute, 'Olympia', accompanied by a black maid.
In addition to the array of racial types of the figures, there are references to different ethnic cultures in the picture - the bride wears a Japanese robe, her hair ornaments are Chinese feather-work and the pendant worn by the black boy is North African. Rossetti deliberately created an eclectic ideal of beauty that was meant to distance itself from any particular place or time - this is not meant to be a literal representation of the Bible of the kind that Holman Hunt created in paintings like 'The Scapegoat' and 'The Triumph of the Innocents'. But the ambiguity remains - is 'The Beloved' a celebration of racial diversity, or does it embody the assumption that Western European beauty is superior?
See more of Rossetti's works in the special exhibition feature.
Find out more about the other Pre-Raphaelite works in our collection