Jane Morris: An Enigmatic Muse

Jane Morris
Drawing of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In 1857, Rossetti and a small group of artists that included William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were working in Oxford, painting the Union Murals.  One night, they attended a performance put on by actors from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.  Seated in the gallery below were Jane Burden and her sister.  Rossetti, struck by Jane’s appearance, asked her right away to pose for the murals.  She did not show up, probably being wary of Rossetti’s proposal.  After later seeing Burne-Jones by chance,  she agreed to model and a  Pre-Raphaelite star was born.

The Roseleaf

Jane posed mainly for Gabriel at first as his main model and muse, Lizzie Siddal, was away at the time.  Gabriel was soon called away to join Lizzie, who was often ill and had possibly heard through the grapevine about Rossetti’s new model.  Jane then began to sit for William Morris.  Morris was a great admirer of Rossetti’s – he looked upon him as a mentor and it seems hero worship may have been a dynamic of their friendship.

la donna della finestra
La Donna Della Finestra, painted by Rossetti

Morris was quite interested in Arthurian legend and chivalry.  He began to paint Jane as Queen Guenevere and it is said that while she posed for him, Morris had written on the back of the canvas “I cannot paint you, but I love you” — a shy, sweet, romantic gesture.  By all accounts, Jane was probably in love with Rossetti from the beginning, but he was already betrothed to Siddal.  So Jane found herself engaged and eventually married to William Morris.

The home of William and Jane Morris, The Red House,  is famous for its architecture and for the collaborative efforts used to decorate it –decorations which led to the Arts and Crafts movement.  Both William and Jane, as well as Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Elizabeth Siddal and others worked together painting murals, creating furniture, tapestries, and other artistic masterpieces.

Jane and William had two children, Jenny and May.

Jane Morris
Jane Morris

Her affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti after his wife died is infamous.  She began to pose for Rossetti again in 1865, which began a series of Rossetti masterpieces familiar to many Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts. He painted her repeatedly until his death.  Due to Rossetti’s possible hydrocele, their affair may not have been as physical as many believe, however, the physicality is immaterial.  They were definitely intimate emotionally and it was incredibly painful for William Morris.  In order to keep the affair a private matter, Morris and Rossetti entered into a joint tenancy of Kelmscott Manor.

Rossetti captured something in his paintings.  Was it her?  Or some element in his own mind that her face inspired?  She appears enigmatic and brooding with an almost inscrutable quality.  The works are not to everyone’s taste and I frequently read criticism of Jane’s features on canvas.  I happen to love them.  She’s strong and fierce and beautiful.

Astarte Syriaca, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Astarte Syriaca, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In viewing actual photographs of Jane, it is obvious that Rossetti glamorized her a great deal.   I have to wonder how she felt about this.  How did she feel when she saw a painted version of herself? On canvas, she seems quiet and contemplative.  A mystery.  Perhaps she was a mystery even to Rossetti.

Jane Morris photo
Jane Morris photo
Reverie, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘I cannot say that Rossetti’s presence was enlivening [in his later years]. My most representative recollection of him is of his sitting beside Mrs. Morris, who looked as if she had stepped out of any one of his pictures, both wrapped in a motionless silence as of a world where they would have no need of words. And silence, however poetically golden, was a sin in a poet whose voice in speech was so musical as his – hers I am sure I never heard.’
R.E. Francillon, Mid-Victorian Memories

More Jane Morris posts:

Rossetti’s Day Dream


Those Rossetti Lips

The Hour Glass:  On Jane Morris and Aging

100 years after her death, Jane Morris continues to inspire

The Handwriting of Jane Morris

Reflections on Jane Morris

What is the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Woman’?

Unconventional Beauty



External links:

Writing Jane Morris via The Kissed Mouth by Kirsty Stonell Walker

Jane and the Wrongs of Women via The Kissed Mouth by Kirsty Stonell Walker

Portraits by Rossetti and photographs at the Liverpool Museum

Jane Burden @ wikipedia

Pre-Raphaelite Women

POSSESSED, A musical about the life of Jane Morris

The William Morris Society

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

41 Replies to “Jane Morris: An Enigmatic Muse”

  1. I’d just like to recommend a book I have on Jane Morris. It’s called Jane Morris – The PreRaphaelite Model of Beauty by Debra N. Mancoff. It has many paintings and photos of Jane.
    Incidentaly Stephanie, it’s great to see my favourite drawing of her above. ‘The Roseleaf’ is a little gem.

  2. Jane Burden-Morris was probably the figure that really attracted me to Pre-Raphaelite art in the first place. I always thought she was so beautiful! Isn’t it interesting that Morris’ picture of Jane is actually quite a bit more realistic, while Rossetti’s are more idealized? Anyway, she’s certainly a haunting character, much like Lizzie Siddal. Great post!

  3. Of the Pre-Raphaelite models, Jane Morris is my favorite, and “Proserpine” is my favorite of the paintings of her. She has an air of somber contemplation and I imagine it probably veiled a passionate inner life. This is a wonderful site; glad to have found it. d:)

  4. I believe poor Janey Morris had fibromyalgia.
    The excellent biography cited above, Jane Morris: the Pre-Raphaelite Model of Beauty, mentions her “…chronic and sometimes debilitating complaints that were to plague her for the rest of her life…recurrent backaches,, as well as unpredictable problems with digestion, drained her energy…her pain was genuine…excrutiating…” There is a cartoon of her desperately “taking the waters” at Bad Ems. Most of her photographs have that melancholic, angry yet hopeless look of someone abused by chronic unexplained pain, and often associated with other abuse at at much younger age. There is little information on her childhood. Does anyone know anything about that?

  5. Oh my, it was a thrill to see the photo of Jane next to Rossetti’s painting of her in the same pose. I love comparing the actual person to the artist’s representation

  6. Not sure how to say this without appearing completely mad as I have no explanation for this just a theory based on my own experience. The reason the painting does not bear an exact resemblance to the photo of Jane Morris as shown above could be due to Rossetti super imposing / projecting the girl of her dreams onto what he painted as Jane, whether it was Pandora or Prosperine.

    As a teenager, I used to dream the same dream of a woman whose face I later discovered in the paintings by Rossetti of Jane Morris in The Day Dream and as Pandora. What is really strange is that I did meet my “dream girl”, someone who looked like the painting years later. Not to mention that I dare not tell her as she would most certainly think of me as a demented fool.

    My theory is that the face I saw and perhaps dreamt by millions of other men folks including Rossetti is the face of an angel (if there is such a thing) only Rossetti being an artist was able to remember and paint her image.

    Maybe all Angels have the same face or maybe all men dream of the same girl – not sure what I am trying to impart here or even if I am making sense.

    I have no other plausible explanation; I suppose my hypothesis is only a rational attempt to make sense of my experience.

  7. I feel great sympathy for Hussain’s dilemma – as a young post-graduate doing a Masters thesis on TS Eliot in the early 1990’s – I resided in Guildford street near Red Lion Square where William Morris and Jane Burden lived for a time – there I encoutered an intensively but disburbingly beautiful woman who appeared to me as a mixture of Sargeant’s Lady Agnew and Rosetti’s idealised Burden/ Morris- (I must add that I became possibly as obsessed with this latter-day avatar as Rosetti with Janey). Years later (1999) in an airport departure Lounge a book on the Pre-Raphaelites described a comtemporary observer commenting that Janey had a terrifying beauty which was certainly my peception of my Belle Dame Sans Merci – can anyone help with the source? It was a coffee table size book with RPB patterns on the cover.

  8. Just a post script to the last entry – one evening in 1994 I came across Peter Ackroyd reading in the local pub – the Lamb on Lamb’s Conduit Street – for those who dont know Ackroyd is a London mystic who believes those in the present are haunted by the ghosts of London’s past – certainly the obsessive neuroticism of the Rosetti Morris liasion and the TS Eliot /Valerie Eliot relations seemed to influence my experience of the area – I also had the ghostly experience in the Birkbeck College Library of picking up a book in my reseach and it opening on exactly the page I needed with accompanying psychic frisson! This was a stone’s throw from Eliot’s famous Faber offices on Russel Square.

    I certainly felt pleasantly and unpleasantly haunted by the ghosts fo the place. I also cannot but feel that Morris’s idealist revolutionary fervour also touched me!

    I must agree with Hussein that Rosetti’s paintings of Janey capture something mythic and archetypal – angelic in his terms – perhaps a part of what Jung called the collective unconscious.

    I was reading AS Byatt’s Possession at the time of my experiences, so I was very open to these influences – I want to write a novel on this London phase – a gothic blend of Byatt, Ian McEwan, Ackroyd and the Thomas Mann of Death in Venice.

  9. Men have always been known for their chivalry. If they are treated well by women, they get treated better in return. If women want to be taken good care of by their men, they need to respect and treat their men with dignity.

  10. It is interesting that with the exception of Liz Siddell, the pre raphaelite portraits often resemble each other to a greater degree than they do their models. There seems to be a common idealization. Along that line, any ideas yet on model or artist for Millais attributed work from James Julia Oct fine art auction? I’m counting on some sleuth to figure it out. I cannot seem to identify it, although the sensuous presentaion seems consistent with Rossetti moreso than Millais.

  11. I loved the image of this beautiful woman so much that I downloaded it as my avatar on another, wholly unrelated website. Then I did some Googling and what I discovered knocked me for six. It appears that Jane and I are related through her mother. I still have to dig further to discover how closely, but as somebody pointed out, it all now smacks of incest…

  12. Derek, what a fascinating story! How interesting that you were drawn to her, only to find out that you are related! Will you be studying your family tree?

    1. I will try and do as much as I can, but the information available through general records (censuses, birth records etc.) is not as good from the time of her birth in 1839 as it would have been ten years later. The connection is through her mother who was born Ann Maizey – my Great Great Grandmother was Elizabeth Maizey. When I find out more, I will post on here.

  13. Thanks to her marriage to William Morris, Jane Burden was given a comfortable middleclass life. Years later she repaid her husband trust and love by cuckolding him and making of him the laughing stock of Victorian London, not once, but twice; first with Morris’s closest friend, Gabriel Rossetti, and in middle age with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, of all people.
    The idealization of Jane by Rossetti was a sexual fantasy, and although she was unsophisticated, Rossetti portrayed her as wealthy, sexy, mysterious and an unobtainable muse. In reality, Jane was a calculating, cold, cheating wife, ungrateful and vain.

  14. I too loved the image of Rossetti’s Jane, that dark sensuous woman captivated me.
    The torrid affair of Mrs.Morris and Rossetti destroyed William Morris. We shall never know the reasons for Jane’s infidelity, but Morris was tormented by it to the point of contemplating suicide. This chapter of her life has intrigued me for a long time, this”manage a trois” I find contradictory and confusing. How can a man who loves his wife dearly allows her sexual romps under his very nose and with his complete acquiescence?

  15. I think history shows that Jane’s infidelity did not destroy Morris at all. Far from it; he appeared to engage himself totally in his work – travelling to Iceland to research Icelandic mythology – at the point when Rossetti arrived to live at Kelmscott, having taken on a joint tenancy with Morris.
    Subsequently, Rossetti left Kelmscott – Morris having previously offered to withdraw his joint tenancy – and Morris continued what must be one of the most productive lives in modern times.
    Jane Morris and Rossetti both appear unsatisfactory and self-centred individuals. Rossetti was self-obsessed throughout his life, being idolised by his family and appearing never to have moved on from being a spoilt child. Jane Morris was perhaps willingly ensnared in a marriage to a man she must have admired hugely but whom she never loved and thus was never attracted to, but a marriage which had raised her to a life of affluence, surrounded by brilliant talents, in which her own undoubted talents could flourish. She was fortunate that her passion for Rossetti was tolerated by Morris and allowed to run its course; but then perhaps that miserable face she showed to the world reflected the gloom her compromises had left her to grow old with.
    Her apparent melancholia perhaps indicates her passion with Rossetti was not worth it!

    1. I only found out about Jane Morris through writing an essay on William Morris where she was described as an absolute beauty. Although I had seen Rossetti’s paintings of her I have to say I was a little surprised at how anti-climatic it was to see a photograph. Poor Morris, he did have the last laugh in a way however. His architecture will go down as the beginning of the arts and crafts movement. His wife will only go down as an adulterous cow.

  16. I find that I can overcome any disappointment about Jane’s personal life just by looking at photographs and paintings of her singular face. There really was no one like her.

    Recently, in Paris, I was fortunate to visit an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite photographs at the Musée d’Orsay. By far the most interesting exhibits were the photos taken in Rossetti’s garden. Stephanie shows one above (the last one).
    The exhibition is showing until the end of May and is quite wonderful.

    I’m enjoying your web site very much, Stephanie. Thank you.

  17. Rossetti has long been my favorite artist, and his many paintings of Jane Morris are my favorites of his work. They are like icons, bearing great emotional power, and an enduring mystery. I am rather dismayed that even at this far remove in time, some people feel the need to be harshly judgmental about the artist and his model. I don’t have a window that allows me a clear view of the inner hearts of Rossetti or Morris, their motives, pains, or joys- and neither does anyone else. All we have are these beautiful paintings, and for that I am grateful.

  18. I too am fascinated by the whole saga and after much research also feel that the melancholia in Jane’s expressions particularly as ‘Proserpine’ shows a sad woman reflecting on how tasting forbidden fruit can cause great pain to not only herself but to others to, perhaps particularly Morris who she seems to have admired greatly and perhaps never felt worthy of. Morris was an Englishman, they aren’t generally known for great romantic expression, Rosetti likely was a master of charm, perhaps she fell in love without intention and regretted her infatuation. The story of ‘proserpine’ aided my view of the situation, I as well as many other women have perhaps found themselves falling into such a situation and had to spend a lot of time in a dark place. As has been said above, we cannot read hearts and ‘Let him without sin cast the First stone’

  19. The sensual Jane that Rossetti painted was rather different to the real Jane. She was not a beauty. She was flat-chested, with sickly pale complexion, bony body, thin lips and angular features, her hair was wiry and intidy and her eyes had no expression. As a woman she was unfaithful to her good husband, manipulative and cold hearted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.