‘Proserpine’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Accession number: 1927P7

Date: 1882

This is one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s most famous paintings, of which there are eight versions. The subject is taken from classical mythology: Proserpine (or Proserpina) is a Roman goddess based on the Greek myths of Persephone. Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, is abducted by Hades, king of the underworld, and marries him. As her mother mourns, the earth becomes dark and cold, but eventually a bargain is struck: Persephone can go home for six months of the year, but must remain with Hades for the remaining six months as she ate six pomegranate seeds (though there are several versions of the myth). The myth provides an answer for the seasons of the year, and the Romans appropriated Persephone/Proserpine as a fertility goddess. Presumably Rossetti’s Italian heritage might have persuaded him to use Proserpine rather than Persephone as his inspiration here.

Each version of Rossetti’s painting is inscribed with his sonnet ‘Proserpine’ (seen in a scroll in the top right corner). The poem and painting describe each other: the ‘Tartarean grey’ dull light is apparent in the gloomy monochrome of the background in the painting, for example:

Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
Unto this wall, – one instant and no more
Admitted at my distant palace-door
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.
Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
That chills me: and afar how far away,
The nights that shall become the days that were.

Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
O, Whose sounds mine inner sense in fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring) —
‘Woe me for thee, unhappy Proserpine’.

Proserpine (modelled by Jane Morris) is holding the pomegranate, looking regretfully past the viewer. The reflections in her mind are represented clearly by the poem, making this one of Rossetti’s many ‘double works’ in which his painting and poetry complement each other. The ivy in the background represents fidelity in Victorian cultures of plants, indicating perhaps her relationship with her mother (rather than her husband) but also echoing the lines of her body and its neo-classical draperies.

Proserpine is a highly evocative image, not least owing to the way it conflates the fleetingness of a moment, as symbolized by the physical patch of light, with the eternal despair of the figure. Combining iconicity with transience, the world of light fractures the darkness by way of its projection onto the wall.[1]

The topic was a popular one, with other poets of the period exploring it. Swinburne, whose poetry Rossetti knew well, wrote ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ which again depicts the reflections of the trapped goddess as she mourns her lot; his poem is longer and explores a wider range of imagery, but particularly in its contrasting of the world she has left and the world she inhabits, is relevant for Rossetti’s double work.

[1] Lindsay Smith, Pre-Raphaelitism: Poetry and Painting (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2013), p. 103.