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This manuscript is one of Christina Rossetti’s poetry notebooks: small, bound and lined booklets used to transcribe, in neat and carefully pencilled or inked handwriting, fair copies of her poetry after initial drafting. This volume, dating from 18 December 1856 to 29 June 1858, contains 'A Birthday', 'Up-Hill', 'Maude Clare', and 'In an Artist's Studio'.
Christina Rossetti’s sonnet, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’, is broadly concerned with the tensions between art and reality. Specifically, these tensions arise from the relationship between the male artist and the artist’s female model, the gazer and the gazed-upon.
Describing an artist who obsessively and repetitively draws and paints ‘One face’, the speaker contemplates the effect this has on the artist, model and viewer. The first lines indicate that the speaker is exploring the studio along with others (‘We found her hidden …’). The artist, reduced to a vampyric state, is shown to ‘feed upon her face by day and night’ from images, ‘Not as she is, but as she fills his dream’. The woman is idealised and objectified on ‘his canvases’, a representation of what the artist wants to see – whether that be ‘A queen’, ‘A nameless girl’, or ‘A saint, an angel’. In doing so, the speaker accuses the artist of tragically neglecting to notice that his muse is, in fact, ‘wan with waiting … with sorrow dim’.
Above all, however, Rossetti wants the reader to question: is it ever possible for the artist or poet to portray a woman ‘as she is’?
Composed in December 1856, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ remained unpublished during Rossetti’s lifetime.
After Rossetti’s death in 1894, her brother William Michael released many of the unpublished poems. ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ appears in his 1896 edited collection, New Poems by Christina Rossetti hitherto unpublished or uncollected, accompanied by the note, ‘The reference is apparently to our brother’s [Dante Gabriel Rossetti] studio, and to his constantly-repeated heads of the lady whom he afterwards married, Miss Siddal’. Indeed, the sonnet is commonly interpreted in this way. It perhaps explains Rossetti’s choice to refrain from publishing the piece – a choice presumably reinforced after Elizabeth Siddal’s death, believed accidental or suicide, in 1862.