Text by Geoffrey Smith
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One of the most gorgeous Rossetti portraits you will ever see was commissioned by a dealer as Rossetti wrote in April 1865: ‘I’ve begun an oil-picture all blue, for Gambert, to be called “the Blue Bower”’. It features his housekeeper and mistress, Fanny Cornforth whose famous shock of flame-golden hair is set off against her emerald green garment (a fur-lined cloak?) and a background of oriental hexagonal blue tiles, featuring white blossom - the combination is stunning. In the extreme foreground one can see a posy of cornflowers - a reference to her name. Passion flowers can be seen growing over the blue tiles as well as a single convolvulus bloom. Critics have seen these flowers as a reference to Fanny’s supposed passionate nature. One moralising nineteenth century critic observed that the painting ‘exhibits fires which… are not those of chastity’. To this viewer, Fanny seems to stare out of the picture as if to say ‘any problems’?
Fanny is plucking a Japanese stringed instrument called a Koto – possibly a strange inclusion in such a portrait – but the painting was made at the height of Japonisme when all things Japanese were wildly fashionable in artistic circles. Rossetti’s friend Whistler was perhaps one of the most fervent evangelists of Japonisme but they were both also at the forefront of a groundswell of opinion among many artists that a work of art should stand as a beautiful object in its own right, free from the moralising subject-matter which had been the norm in much nineteenth century art. In other words Art for Art’s sake. Rossetti has certainly succeeded in making this work a ravishingly beautiful object.
1865 William-Adolphe Bouguereau: The Indigent Family, Birmingham, Museums and Art Gallery
1865 Ford Madox Brown: Work, Manchester, City Art Gallery