Venus Verticordia. (For a Picture.)

Alternately titled: Venus (For a Picture.)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1868 January 16
Date: 1863-1869
Rhyme: abbaaccadedeed
Meter: iambic pentamenter
Genre: sonnet
Model: Alexa Wilding, repainted over the head of DGR's initial model, “a very large young woman, almost a giantess,” whom DGR “noticed in the street” (see Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 99 . But Fanny Cornforth also sat for this painting as DGR was working on it.


◦ Agosta, 93-94

◦ Gregory, Life and Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. II. 116

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study., 204-207

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 98-100 (no. 173)

◦ WMR and Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868, Part II, 47.

Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Watts, [Tate 1997] 152-153.


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the Poems (1881) first edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


Baum's notes on this sonnet expose an interpretive issue of great importance for all of DGR's work: “The title means literally the Venus who turns hearts” away from illicit love; Rossetti seems, however, to use it in the sense of turning hearts towards the indulgence of the senses,—though he afterwards knew the explanation in Lemprière: “because she could turn the hearts of women to cultivate chastity” (see Baum, Poems, Ballads, and Sonnets, 172n ). This reading recapitulates the argument WMR raised against the title Venus Verticordia (see Peattie, Letters of William Michael Rossetti, 220-221 ) in August 1869, and that led DGR to alter it in the 1870 Poems to Venus (see Fredeman, Correspondence 69. 139 , letter to WMR, 27 August 1869). The difficulty of the sonnet is underscored when we remember that the poet put the title back to Venus Verticordia in its 1881 reprinting.

DGR certainly did not mean his Venus to be taken as the Uranian figure—the sonnet and picture are both clear on this matter. On the other hand, she is not an unequivocally demonic figure either: lines 3-5 are particularly important for realizing the ambiguity which runs through the work. The accompanying picture reinforces our sense of the ambiguity of Venus, as Stephens' representation of Venus' face indicates: “her face is that of a woman, young, tender and ardent, but not without the wistfulness of pity which is indicated by the verses” (see Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 66 ).

A key to negotiating this ambiguity lies in the double reference made by the apple held by Venus. It suggests both the apple of discord and the apple of the tree of knowledge: as if to say that whereas Paris gave it to Venus as a sign of her beauty, Eve offered it back as a sign of (forbidden) knowledge. In each case a disaster followed. But in the Judaeo-Christian mythos, the disaster occurs as a felix culpa. DGR's syncretic approach to myth here works to suggest, or even argue, a possible relation between beauty and knowledge—indeed, to suggest that a moral redemption of physical love can be realized and understood when sensuous beauty comes to us in the forms of art.

So while this work represents a prophetic insight to cultural disaster, it also intimates that a grace may operate through such legendary disasters. This comes about when an artistic practice reconsiders and represents the material.

The grace of works like Venus Verticordia, with their dark beauties and erotic challenges, emerges through the knowledge that they bring. In the most literal sense, such works as works of art “cultivate chastity” by turning both their subjects and their audiences toward, and into, art. (In these respects the sonnet clearly works in close relation with the two sonnets that surround it in the 1870 PoemsCassandra and Pandora.)

For further information see the commentary for the Russell-Cotes Gallery oil.

Textual History: Composition

WMR gives two different dates for the sonnet's composition: 1865 (in 1911) and 1868 (in DGR as Designer and Writer). The latter is correct. In fact, WMR's diary for 16 January 1868 records the composition of the sonnet (see WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870, 296 ). The earliest known text is the Ashley Library manuscript, which dates from 1868.

Textual History: Revision

DGR revised the sonnet in small but important ways after both its first (1868) and its second (1870) printings..

Production History

DGR made his first study for the picture in 1863. He worked on the painting in 1864, and completed it in 1869, when it was sent to John Mitchell of Bradford, who had commissioned it.

For detailed commentary see the editorial notes for the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery oil.


The work (both poem and picture) gained some public presence right away because of Swinburne's review of both in the 1868 Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868, Part II (pages 49-50 ).


The fact that this figure of Venus incorporates both Uranian and Pandemian features is emphasized in the way the sonnet comes in the 1868 Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition. It is the third sonnet printed there, mediating (as it were) between the other two (Lady Lilith and Sibylla Palmifera). Also relevant is this comment DGR made to Madox Brown at the end of a letter DGR wrote on 23 August 1864: “What do you think of putting a nimbus behind my Venus's head? I believe the Greeks used to do it” ( Fredeman, Correspondence, 64. 118 ).

Printing History

The sonnet was first printed as part of Swinburne's review in the 1868 Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868, Part II 49 . There it bore the title Venus Verticordia. DGR had this text set in type in August 1869 for the Penkill Proofs of what would eventually be published as the 1870 Poems. There it appeared under the title Venus. The sonnet was then re-collected in the 1881 Poems. A New Edition with the original title restored.


This painting marks an important moment in DGR's work, in several ways. Whereas the painter was enthusiastic about the work, Ruskin was appalled, and his dislike marks the moment of their estrangement (see Doughty, A Victorian Romantic, 326-329 and WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870 132-145 ). Ruskin saw the painting as “coarse” both in execution and, most particularly, in moral vision. He was aware that the work represented DGR's conscious effort to paint in a Venetian manner, and hence to make a radical shift away from his primitivist styles. But while he professed to admire the style and technique of Titian and Correggio, “you are not on the way to Correggio,” he told DGR; “And you are, it seems, under the (for the present) fatal mistake of thinking that you will ever learn to paint well by painting badly, i.e., coarsely” (see WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870, 135 ).

DGR was understandably put off by Ruskin's presumptuous attitude. But the more important issue is not personal, it is artistic. This painting and its associated works (e.g., Bocca Baciata, The Blue Bower, Fair Rosamond, The Beloved, and Monna Vanna) define the shift that DGR's pictorial work undergoes through the course of the 1860s. DGR not only works predominantly in oils, rather than in watercolours, he concentrates on a more rich and even voluptuous expression, and plunges into a series of studies of female portraits that amount to a complex study of the idea of Venus.

An index of the powerful ambiguity at work in the painting and the poem is found in the model DGR chose for his Venus. Initially this was “a very large young woman, almost a giantess,” whom DGR “noticed in the street” (see Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 99 ). That was in 1864. In 1867 DGR repainted the head, and this time Alexa Wilding was the model. The substitution of Wilding, whom he used for idealized figures, in place of the cook he found in the street, glosses the character of the ambiguous work that DGR was trying to realize.


Like Tennyson earlier, DGR read the myth of Troy as a prophetic allegory that bore ominous contemporary political meanings. The sonnet's placement in the 1870 Poems emphasizes its political significance: it forms a group with “Cassandra”, “Pandora”, and “On Refusal of Aid Between Nations”.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 4-1868.s173.raw.xml