C Rossetti In An Artists Studio Analysis Essay

In An Artist’s Studio
(by Christina Rossetti)

One face looks out from all his canvasses,
    One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
    We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
    A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
    A saint, an angel; – every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
    And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
    Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
    Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

When coming to a poem for the first time, it’s tempting just to plunge in and start reading. The trouble with this approach is that you risk overlooking a major part of the poem: its title. Consider Rossetti’s title here: ‘In An Artist’s Studio.’ Without looking at the poem, what can we immediately gather from the title? Let’s close read it word for word and find out.

 

TITLE
1. In: This is an important word. Why? Because it tells us where the poem takes place, and alerts us that this poem’s location will be significant. Rossetti could have chosen to call her poem ‘On an Artist’s Studio’, letting us know that this would be a meditation on or about the subject of a studio. But by choosing ‘In’, she alerts us that the poem’s location is as important as its subject. This poet is inviting us to come In to the studio.

2. An: At first glance this word seems very general, but consider it closely, and you realise it is very specific. This will be a poem about a particular artist: ‘An’ artist, not just any artist.

3. Artist’s Studio: Now the title gets down to business. This poem will take place in a professional environment: the studio where artistic work is created. This would be a very different poem if Rossetti had chosen to call it ‘In An Artist’s Parlour’ or ‘In An Artist’s Boozer’. We now can surmise that the poem’s subject will be about the artist’s creative (as opposed to domestic or social) life.

FORM – Petrarchan Sonnet
It is tempting now to start charging around looking for meaning, but first, it is worthwhile to have a look at the poem as a whole, and see what we can determine about its form. It has 14 lines, so immediately we know it is a sonnet. But to determine what kind, we need to look at the rhyme scheme, which is: abba abba cdc dce. This tells us that the poem is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. (A Shakespearean or English sonnet would have a different rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg).

Traditionally, Petrarchan sonnets can be divided into two sections: the first eight lines (the octave) and the final six (the sestet), with the ‘turn’ or (volta) occurring around line 9. The octave is different in character than the sestet. It normally sets up an problem, presents an argument or makes a generalization, which is then resolved or challenged in the sestet. The volta is the line that ‘turns’ the poem, both in terms of mood and direction.

RHYME SCHEME
What should catch our attention here is the sestet’s rhyme scheme; the sestet is where the Petrarchan sonneteer can really get creative, as the final six lines can employ various combinations of cde rhymes, such as: cdc cdc; cdd ece; cdd cdd. Rossetti closes her sonnet with a new rhyme that appears nowhere else: ‘dream’. But is this a true e rhyme? After all, ‘Dream’ echoes both the ‘b’ rhymes (‘leans’ / ‘screens’) and d rhymes (‘him’ / ‘dim’). This unconventional variation in the rhyme scheme alerts us that Rossetti wants us to notice this word. This word will be important to our understanding of the poem.

VOLTA
The volta in line 9 here is so startling that it literally gives the reader a ‘turn’: ‘He feeds upon her face by day and night’ (line 9).  What?! We thought we were in the professional, creative environment of an artist’s studio and now someone’s face is being eaten? Sheesh! What next? 

Even before we have properly begun, the form (Petrarchan sonnet) has given us some important clues about this poem. We know that the word ‘dream’ is important, and that at some point, someone is feeding on someone else’s face. It’s a pretty good bet here that the kind of ‘dream’ the sonnet presents is going to be a bit of a nightmare.

A summary of one of Christina Rossetti’s most famous poems

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was still in her mid-twenties when she wrote this classic sonnet about male art and the way it uses and depicts women. ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ is a widely (and rightly) praised poem, but a few words of analysis might help to shed light on this canvas.

In an Artist’s Studio

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

In summary, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ is about the male artist’s tendency to objectify his female sitters or ‘models’ for his paintings and sculptures; indeed, in one interpretation, the woman is merely a passive object on which the artist projects his fantasies and ‘dreams’. No particular artist is intended; Rossetti is speaking in general terms about the male artist and the female model. However, it is worth noting that Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a painter. The artist’s model is made to dress up and pose as all sorts of different women – the exotic queen, the saint, the angel – in order to fulfil the male fantasy of women as pure saints or virginal angels, or sensual and seductive queens. As Simone de Beauvour and Gilbert and Gubar have pointed out, throughout much of history – and especially in nineteenth-century art and literature – there is a tendency for men to depict women as either virgins or whores, angels or monsters, pure or corrupted. The artist’s model is made to perform all these roles as she sits for the male artist’s pictures. But all of these different roles mean essentially the same thing: they are a version of the male objectification of women, men’s need to possess and control the way women are represented and, through this, the way women should be.

The artist is seen as a sort of predator or parasite, ‘feed[ing] upon’ the face of the female model – ‘by day and night’, we learn, the odd mention of ‘night’ suggesting some sort of male monster or demon, like an incubus, which visits women at night and feeds upon their bodies and souls. The woman accepts this predatory feeding with ‘true kind eyes’, looking back on him (why on him rather than at him, though?), much as the mirror earlier in the poem ‘gave back all her loveliness’. The woman is not conceived as a person in her own right, merely a reflection of what the man wants to find.

Yet is this the only way to analyse this poem? We might alternatively see the relationship between artist and model as a more positive symbiotic relationship, allowing the woman to live out various lives through the artist’s depictions of her, and enabling the artist to imagine different identities for the female model. The word ‘dream’ with which ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ ends certainly allows for such an interpretation; but does the rest of the poem? It remains difficult to imagine that vampiric reference to the artist ‘feeding on’ his model as wholly positive.

The rhyme scheme of the poem is abbaabbacdcdcd, marking the poem as a Petrarchan sonnet, which is apt for a number of reasons, but chiefly because the Petrarchan form is associated with the medieval idea of courtly love, whereby the male poet admires from afar the beautiful woman. The woman usually remains silent in such poems (well, after all, the poet can’t get near her to speak to her), so she is no more than a mute object of the male gaze. (Petrarch, after whom this form of sonnet is named, wrote a number of sonnets in the fourteenth century in praise of Laura, the woman who represented ideal beauty.) So the Petrarchan sonnet is a rather apt form for the female Rossetti to use and appropriate here, in her poem about the male habit of objectifying the silent woman. Yet as above, ‘objectifying’ need not, perhaps, be seen as altogether bad here: the woman becomes an exotic queen, a holy angel or a saint: more than she will ever attain in reality. Like the Petrarchan sonnet that embodies courtly love, Rossetti’s sonnet can be read as a Victorian take on the idea of the woman being raised and celebrated through art.

One final analysis of the poem’s masterly use of rhyme: if the progression from ‘night’ to ‘light’ to ‘bright’ suggests a brightening (a moving towards enlightenment?), the movement from ‘dim’ to ‘dream’ is more uncertain: it is the one rhyme in the poem that is altogether less than perfect, more an off-rhyme (‘him’ and ‘dim’, by contrast, fit perfectly together; ‘dim’ and ‘dream’, although they begin and end with the same letters, just miss their mark). This suggests that there is indeed something amiss with the artist’s way of viewing women: there is, perhaps, something unsatisfactory about his ‘dream’.

If you’d like to learn more about Rossetti’s poetry in the context of Victorian literature, we include Christina Rossetti in our short history of English poetry. And see here for some helpful tips for how to write an English Literature essay.

Image: Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Wikimedia Commons.

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