Study for La Donna della Finestra (1880)
Coloured chalks on two sheets of buff paper
Signed with monograms and dated 1880
(28.03 inches wide)
The subject of 'La Donna della Finestra' derives from Dante Alighieri's autobiographical Vita Nuova, the book that did most to shape Rossetti's attitudes to love. It tells, in a symbolical and mystical fashion, the history of Dante's love for Beatrice. Rossetti translated it into English around 1850 and published it with other translations from the Early Italian poets in 1861. The Vita Nuova inspired Rossetti's paintings and designs throughout his career. He first treated 'La Donna della Finestra' in 1870 and from this date it became one of his favourite Dante subjects.
The figure of the Woman at the Window appears when Dante is sunk deep in grief for the death of Beatrice. Dante speaks;
'Then, having sat for some space sorely in
thought because of the time that was now
past, I was filled with dolorous imaginings
that it became outwardly manifest in mine
altered countenance. Whereupon, feeling this
and being in dread lest any should have seen
me, I lifted my eyes to look; and then
perceived a young and very beautiful lady,
who was gazing upon me from a window with a
gaze full of pity, so that the very sum of
of pity appeared gathered together in her'.
In the usual allegorical interpretation of the Vita Nuova, the lady represents Philosophy, but Rossetti had no intention of representing an abstract personification and regarded the vision as a real woman. In the words of William Michael Rossetti:
'Humanly she is the Lady at the Window; mentally she is the Lady of Pity. This interpretation of soul and body - this sense of an equal and undefensible reality of the thing symbolized, and of the form which conveys the symbol - this externalism and internalism - are constantly to be understood as the key-note of Rossetti's aim and performance in art.'
The sitter for this work was Jane Morris, with whom Rossetti fell in love in about 1868. It is significant that he chose to represent her as 'La Donna Della Finestra', suggesting that he felt she brought him consolation for the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, whom he regarded as his Beatrice. Yet as Rossetti's love for Jane deepened he represented her as Beatrice also, for instance in the large oil painting 'Dante's Dream at the time of the Death of Beatrice' (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).
The owner of the present drawing was William Graham, who was, with Frederick Leyland, Rossetti's most important patron. He began to buy from Rossetti in the mid 1860s, but was not just important as a purchaser. His fine collection of early Italian paintings (the original Pre-Raphaelites) helped to inspire Rossetti and the other artists whom Graham supported including Edward Burne-Jones. An insight into the scope of Graham's collection is given by the catalogue of his posthumous sale at Christies April 1886, and it is currently being researched by Oliver Garnett. Graham owned a number of works by Rossetti. When they came onto the market, in 1874 and 1885 respectively, Graham grasped the opportunity and bought his two Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood oils, 'Ecce Ancilla Domini' (1850) and 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin' (1849) both now in the Tate Gallery. He also commissioned the large 'Dante's Dream', although this ultimately proved too big for his London House. Graham regarded the present drawing with particular affection, writing to Rossetti in 1879, 'I must add one line to say how much I was charmed with the "Donna della Finestra" which I look at as one of your most successful single figures.' The second owner of the drawing, Major C.S. Goldman, was Burne-Jones's neighbour in Rottingdean in the 1890s. His son changed his surname to Monck.