This afternoon at Sothebys
in London, Dante Gabriel Rossettis watercolour painting, Venus Verticordia, sold for £2,882,500 / $4,522,931, soaring above its pre-sale estimate of £1,000,000-1,500,000, and establishing the highest price for a watercolour by Rossetti at auction.* Four bidders competed for the work three on the telephones and one in the saleroom with the winning bid placed by a UK private collector.
The Pre-Raphaelite artists obsession with luscious sensuality and female allure reached its zenith in his only major nude subject, and the picture led to the breaking of Rossettis friendship with John Ruskin, Victorian Britains leading art critic. Painted in 1868 and last sold at auction at 1886, Venus Verticordia is the epitome of Pre-Raphaelite glamour, a powerful and radical image of confident female sexuality from an age when women were supposed to be reserved and demure. The apple, butterflies and flowers are all symbols of Rossettis intent to paint the ultimate picture of female sexual attraction.**
Simon Toll, Sothebys British & Irish Art Specialist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the enigmatic rebel of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whose idea of beauty continues to enthral. I had no doubt that Venus Verticordia, his most erotic picture, would seduce admirers. Unapologetically naked and proud of her beauty, this Venus represents a radical new notion of female sexuality in the mid-19th century. Rossetti understood, worshipped and glorified women, and todays price is further confirmation of Rossettis place in the pantheon of Victorian Britains leading artists.
The model for Venus Verticordia was Alexa Wilding, the seamstress daughter of a maker of pianofortes, who Rossetti had first seen in 1865 when she was walking in the Strand. Over a period of several years, Rossetti paid her a small salary that she should model for him exclusively. Fellow artist John Everett Millais also desired to paint her, and Rossettis studio assistant harboured an unrequited love for her. Alexa was considered by most of Rossettis circle to be respectable, and was invited to spend Christmas with the artist, his sisters and his mother at Kelmscott Manor, the country house Rossetti shared with William and Jane Morris. It is therefore likely that she only posed for the head of Venus.
John Ruskins prudishness and ambivalence towards the naked female form has been well-documented. He had become increasingly concerned by what he perceived to be sensuousness in Rossettis art. Unable to confront the real reason for his discomfort regarding Venus Verticordia, he focused his critical wrath on the roses that Rossetti had gone to so much trouble to paint. It is far more likely that rather than the flowers being to blame for Ruskins reaction to the picture, Ruskin was intimidated by the presentation of a woman who gazes out so seductively and powerfully in a way that he found threatening.
*The auction record for a work by Rossetti is £4,562,500 ($7,475,200), set by A Christmas Carol (oil on panel), sold at Sothebys in London in December 2013. Sothebys holds the record for the three highest prices for Rossetti paid at auction (in November 2013, Sothebys sold Rossettis Proserpine (coloured chalks) for £3,274,500 / $5,274,892).
** The oil version of Venus Verticordia is in the collection of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth.