Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Veronica Veronese (1872).I admit it – I have a penchant for a good painting of an attractive woman. I also like expressive hands. Veronica Veronese has both, executed with uncommon grace and vision, so it’s no wonder I like it as much as I do.

I became a fan of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood1 co-founder Dante Gabriel Rossetti when I was a pre-teen, upon seeing Ecce Ancilla Domini: The Annunciation, an early work, in Charles Wentinck’s The Art Treasures of Europe.2 A few years later, almost certainly via the Sacramento Public Library system, I was introduced to Rossetti’s later paintings, including Veronica Veronese. I was definitely already familiar with the piece in 1982, when Bryan Ferry chose it as the sleeve image for the Roxy Music UK single “More Than This.”Eventually, when I started painting and formulating ideas for what I wanted my work to be, Rossetti was one of the artists who provided a foundation for that endeavor. The romantic, hallucinatory quality of his work was something I wanted to imbue in my own paintings.

I am fortunate enough to have seen Veronica Veronese during the summer of 2018 in the exhibition Truth & Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. It was my first experience seeing Rossetti’s actual work, 4 and I was quite enamored with the show, which included, among other artists, Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, Sandro Botticelli, and Jan van Eyck. Even in such lauded company, I found myself looking at Rossetti’s work for the majority of my visit to the museum, and much of that time was spent in front of this particular painting.

The strong verticals and horizontals in the piece provide the basis of the deceptively simple-looking composition. I particularly like how her right wrist is bent forward in such a manner that the forearm and hand form a ninety-degree angle – it appears to be an awkward way to casually hold a bow, but is visually striking and compositionally effective. The implied grid is offset by the skewed fashion in which the figure is holding her head; parallel to this is the diagonal which goes from the bird in the upper left, down the figure’s upper arm, to the flowers in the bottom right. Running perpendicular to these lines, balancing the whole, are the figure’s left hand and her long, columnar neck.

The figure, modeled by Alexa Wilding, who sat regularly and exclusively for Rossetti, delicately touches the strings of a violin with her left hand and holds the bow in her right. Her skin has a glowing, almost otherworldly quality, and her red hair stands out against the green of her dress and of the brocade drapery in the background. The painting is filled with details which add to the lushness of the scene: the ribbon on the scroll of the violin, the sprigs in the birdcage, the silver necklace and bracelet. Her velvety dress is particularly luxurious, and the tassel and feather fan hanging from the waist contribute more texture. The Lady Veronica has left off after writing one staff of music on the paper in front of her – with her heavy-lidded, faraway eyes and somewhat languid expression, she seems transported, possibly by the bird’s song. One of the Pre-Raphaelite’s early tenets was art should be reliant on nature, which here is set free – although there is a cage, the bird is outside of it, perched on the open door. Rossetti also often utilized floral adjuncts in his paintings – in this piece, the daffodils could have some meaning, as he employed both traditional and personal symbolism in his work,5 or they could be included simply for their color, which echoes the yellow of the canary.

Standing before Veronica Veronese was an enthralling experience, one I had looked forward to for most of my life. I may have swooned.


1 A group of young, idealistic nineteenth century British artists, the Pre-Raphaelites were the radicals of the Victorian art world. On the whole, contemporaneous critics found their work, which didn’t conform to the Royal Academy of Art’s teachings, assaultive and vulgar. Although the group was only together from 1848 to 1854, and the principal painters William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti all went on to have long careers, their respective later styles continued to be thought of as “Pre-Raphaelite.”

2 Simon & Schuster (1974).

3 EG/Polydor Records. In the US, the painting appeared on the sleeve to the “Take a Chance with Me” single, EG/Warner Brothers Records (1982). In their respective countries, each was the first single from the album Avalon, which I love.

4 There were eleven Rossettis total in the show, including another favorite, La Pia de’ Tolomei (1868-1881), and a watercolor version of Proserpine (1878), both modeled by Jane Morris.

5 Illustrator Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers lists “regard” as the meaning for daffodils. The book was originally published in 1884; my copy is the Avenel Books reprint (n.d.). In her illustration, Greenaway was heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

When I was maybe ten or twelve years old, an uncle gave me the book The Art Treasures of Europe by Charles Wentinck,1 which was my introduction to a lot of artists, some of whom would become favorites of mine. At the time, Rembrandt was my art hero2 – there are two of his pieces in Wentinck’s book: The Night Watch and Portrait of Jan Six, but as I was familiar with both, I turned my attention to the rest of the tome, which covers prehistory all the way up to the 1960s.

Although I liked many of the paintings illustrated,3 I had very visceral reactions, which I can still feel today, to five of them. These pieces played a large part in the development of my personal aesthetic.

Parmigianino: The Madonna with the Long Neck (1534-40).                                                                                                      I know next to nothing about Parmigianino, only what I read in this book and that he also painted the lovely Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but this piece continues to captivate me. I was fascinated by the Mannerist proportions – I loved the Madonna’s neck and hands. I loved her gesture and the whole attitude of her posture. I loved the infant Jesus, who appears to be about six years old. I loved everything about this painting except the small figure in the background at the bottom right of the piece. He bothers me now as he did then. I’m not very knowledgeable about religious iconography, but I’m sure he’s a specific person, probably a saint, with a reason for being there – nonetheless, I find he distracts from the breathtaking delicacy and beauty of the Madonna, child, and attendant angels.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Ecce Ancilla Domini: The Annunciation (1850).                                                                                This is an early painting of Rossetti’s, and although I prefer his later work, it was a fine introduction. I had seen enough Renaissance “Annunciations” to know this was different; I’ve forgotten all the others, but this one has stayed with me. I found the color scheme striking – the painting is predominately white with splashes of the three primaries, which was very unusual for the time. The tight composition and vivid palette are indicative of Rossetti’s sensibility – much more modern, I think, than that of the Impressionists, who worked more-or-less contemporaneously.

Gustav Klimt: Salomé (1909).                                                                                                                                                          When I received the book, I had no idea who Salomé was, but I loved the tall thin undulating composition Klimt utilized, which I later learned was related to the “Dance of the Seven Veils” – studies for the painting indicate he arrived at the dynamic pose via sketching a dancing figure. Klimt’s use of ornamentation was also very attractive to me; the integration of the figurative and the decorative in this piece is particularly arresting. In the book, the Klimt segment appears in a chapter titled “Art as Experiment,” and by this time I was ready for the more modern work which would eventually inform my own. Klimt’s evocative imagery did so perhaps as much as anyone’s.

Otto Dix: Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden  (1926).                                                                                              This painting intrigued me to no end. Had it not been for the title, I wouldn’t have known if it were of a man or a woman. Her whole appearance – the mode of dress, the Bryan Ferry hair, the monocle, the positioning of her hands – drew me in. I don’t know that any other portrait, before or since, has made me so curious about its subject. Who was she? What was her life like? Although she sits in a bar or club, she is the only visible figure, alone in a corner with no window. There’s a feeling of liberation in the face of bleakness and desperation, which I would later learn was part of the bohemian culture of Weimar-era Germany, that I found very compelling. 

Francis Bacon: Two Figures (1953).                                                                                                                                                      What made Two Figures so captivating were its dualities. It looked like a photograph, and yet, with its bravura expressionist brushwork, was obviously not one; the bodies were convincingly fleshy, despite the grisaille palette; the private act seemed to take place in an artificial space, as if it were a performance. I loved the blurriness of the faces and how it was offset by the bold strokes demarcating the bed. I was also fascinated by the “space frame,” which I initially thought delineated the edges of the room; upon closer inspection, I found that to be only partially true, while at points it is superimposed on top of the image. 

I don’t know what it was about me that I was so powerfully drawn to these five particular paintings – I do remember I found them all slightly disturbing and strangely alluring, which in retrospect seems like a pretty good combination. I don’t think I analyzed the formal qualities of the work until a little later, but by the time I started painting, I had studied Rossetti, Klimt, and Bacon, and they had become profoundly important to me. All three continue to be among my favorite painters. Had I never been given Wentinck’s book, I’m sure I would have discovered all this work eventually, but seeing it when I did was pivotal in my growth in viewing art, and eventually making it. Thanks, Tom.

1 Simon & Schuster (1974).

2 An aunt had given me the Time-Life Library of Art book of his work. I don’t remember if I was already aware of him, but I loved that book, much more so than the Titian and Van Gogh volumes she also gave me.

3 A list of which includes Velasquez: The Royal Family (c. 1656), Ingres: The Turkish Bath (1863), Degas: The Blue Dancers (1890), Gerhard Richter: Ema, Nude on a Staircase (1966), and Richard Hamilton: Swingeing London 67 (1968).