Just as Rossetti did with Elizabeth Siddal, he painted Jane Morris obsessively. It may seem fitting that he posed Jane in the classic myth of Proserpine in this painting, which can be considered one of his most recognizable works. Proserpine was the daughter of the goddess Ceres (personally, I prefer the Greek version, in which their names are Persephone and Demeter). Proserpine was kidnapped by the god of the Underworld, Hades. Her distraught mother searched for her frantically. Once she discovered Proserpine’s fate, she pleaded with the god Jupiter to allow Proserpine to return. Jupiter consented with the provision that Proserpine had not eaten any fruit of the Underworld. Since Proserpine had eaten six pomegranate seeds, she was then doomed to spend six months each year with Hades and return to Earth for the other six.
In this painting Rossetti casts Jane Morris (his lover and wife to his friend William Morris) as the goddess Proserpine. So we can safely assume that Morris is placed in the role of Hades, king of the underworld. Kidnapper of Proserpine. And the obstacle that stands between Jane and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Like Proserpine, Jane divides her time between the two of them.
I notice several things when I look at this painting. First, Rossetti clearly has a tendency to elongate the female neck and this painting is no exception. He lengthens and twists her neck and (perhaps it’s all the green) but when I see Proserpine, the word “serpentine” is always conjured into my mind. Secondly, Rossetti has a talent for hands. He depicts them gracefully, always with long, elegant fingers. Her lips are painted the same exact shade as the pomegranate, the same lips that supposedly sealed her matrimony to Morris with a kiss and prevented her being with Rossetti.
If you look at photographs that Rossetti posed of Jane Morris, you can see that she has the features that he captured on canvas, but he glamorized her a great deal. Which raises the question, did he paint her as he saw her or as he wished her to be seen?
More on the myth of Proserpine/Persephone: