In 1859, Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted Bocca Baciata and it was a radical change in style. Afterwards his work gravitated towards images of a single female, quite often depicted from the bust up and surrounded by flowers, jewelry and other symbolic objects.
Why the change? In the late 1850’s Rossetti had definitely matured as an artist, compared to the young idealist he was in 1848 when he helped to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It can also be assumed that changes in his personal life had an influence on his work. Rossetti had been involved with Elizabeth Siddal for several years–she was his main model as well as his pupil. Their relationship was off and on for many reasons: her frequent illness and his brief interest in Annie Miller are just two examples. But for the most part, Lizzie remained the primary face seen in his work. However, in 1858 he met Fanny Cornforth. Fanny was unlike any model he had ever used. Almost always described as a prostitute, she was carefree and I think Rossetti was attracted to her charming combination of beauty and humor. He first engaged Fanny to pose for his unfinished ‘fallen woman’ painting, Found. A year after meeting her, he created Bocca Baciata. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that after meeting Fanny, who in all likelihood was his first sexual partner, his work develops a new and startling style.
Why am I talking so much about Bocca Baciata when this post is about Regina Cordium? I don’t think I can talk about one without the other, because as Kirsty Stonell Walker puts it in this post about Fanny,”she provides a bridge between the water-coloured maidens of Lizzie Siddal’s time and the dark brooding damsels of the reign of Jane [Morris].” His work on Bocca Baciata has a definite influence on Regina Cordium.
In 1860, Rossetti rushed to Hastings to visit a gravely ill Elizabeth Siddal. He was shocked at her condition, which must have been quite serious since he had seen her through various degrees of ill health for almost a decade. Whether out of guilt or because he was afraid of losing her, Rossetti suddenly proposed marriage. After postponing the wedding several times due to the severity of her illness, they were wed on the 23rd of May. When she was well, the couple honeymooned in Paris where Rossetti began his design for How They Met Themselves.
After their marriage, Rossetti began Regina Cordium. How much can we read into the title? Is it an attempt to reassure his new bride of the place she holds in his heart? Or to affirm his new commitment to her? Whatever the meaning, Regina Cordium marks the first work featuring Lizzie that emulates the new style he discovered with Bocca Baciata.
Following the ‘hearts’ theme, Regina Cordium mimics the design of a playing card.
Rossetti was not done with the Queen of Hearts theme, however. He was commissioned by Textile manufacturer J. Aldam Heaton to paint his wife as Regina Cordium.
In 1866, Rossetti reworked Regina Cordium with model Alexa Wilding. The hearts in the playing card background has been replaced with a botanical motif.