Inspired by classical mythology and reflecting a love triangle that changed British art, Proserpine comes to auction on 28 October in New York
In 1857, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his friend William Morris headed to Oxford, to paint the murals in the new debating chamber of the Oxford Union.
On a break from work one evening, Rossetti went to the theatre — and was captivated by a fellow audience member, a 17-year-old beauty called Jane Burden. This local ostler’s daughter so entranced him that, immediately after the show, Rossetti asked if she’d become his model. Just two years later, it was Morris whom Burden married, rather than Rossetti.
There developed a love triangle that would change the course of British art in the late 19th century. Jane would ultimately sit for a host of works by Rossetti, including Proserpine: a painting the artist himself referred to as his ‘very favourite design’. On October 28, Christie’s offers an 1878 version of Proserpine as part of its European Art Part I sale in New York.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Proserpine, 1878. Estimate: $3,000,000-5,000,000. Offered in European Art Part I on 28 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The image is inspired by Classical mythology: specifically the tale of Proserpine, the beautiful but unwilling wife of Pluto, god of the underworld, who had found her picking flowers in the vale of Nysa, and abducted her.
The king of the gods, Zeus, granted Proserpine’s mother, Ceres, permission for the girl to return to Earth, on the condition that she’d eaten nothing in the underworld. Alas — and this is the moment captured by Rossetti — Proserpine had eaten six pomegranate seeds. The upshot was that she’d spend only half of the year on Earth, and the other half beneath it (one month with Pluto for each pomegranate seed consumed).
Posing as Proserpine, Jane Morris sports long dark brown tresses and a flowing blue robe. Viewed in three-quarter profile, she looks out of the picture enigmatically, holding the offending fruit in her left hand. She seems somehow aware that she has erred, her right hand catching the wrist of her left, as if to prevent the eating of further seeds.
As he does in many single-figure paintings of heroines, Rossetti thrusts Proserpine to the front of a tight, claustrophobic space (other examples include The Day Dream, for which Jane modelled; and Bocca Baciata, for which she didn’t). By compressing the scene like this, he emphasises his subject’s captivity.
The artist worked hard on the picture, telling his friend G.P. Boyce that he had ‘begun and rebegun it time after time’. Each element was painstakingly considered: from the sonnet about Proserpine, written by Rossetti himself and inscribed in the top right, to the spray of ivy curving down the painting’s left. The plant, which typically clings to its support, was said by Rossetti to symbolise the heroine’s ‘clinging memory’ of life on Earth.
As for the shaft of light on the rear wall, this is left ambiguous. Is it the fading light of her beloved Earth, as Proserpine awaits a dark future with Pluto? Or is it actually a symbol of hope, for the happy months of the year she’s allowed back in the world above?

John R. Parsons, portrait of Jane Morris, 1865. Photo: The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images

Although it is derived from classical myth, Proserpine is almost always interpreted autobiographically: which is to say, in terms of the love triangle between Jane, William Morris and Rossetti.
When the two men first met her, Rossetti — the co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement — was already engaged to another woman, Lizzie Siddal. Despite his attraction to Jane, he married Lizzie in 1860. Only two years later, however, Siddal died from an overdose of laudanum.
Jane was by now not just Morris’s wife but colleague, taking charge of textile embroidery at his celebrated design firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The marriage was far from blissful, however. From the mid 1860s on, Jane modelled for a number of Rossetti’s paintings (another famous example being Mariana) — and became his lover, too.
Liaisons were made easier when Morris and Rossetti signed a joint lease on a country retreat in the Cotswolds called Kelmscott Manor. The former was often away — taking extended trips to Iceland in 1871 and 1873, for example — meaning his wife and friend were able to spend large periods of time together alone.
‘Beauty like hers is genius,’ Rossetti claimed. As a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, Proserpine’s predicament neatly reflected Jane’s own — certainly in Rossetti’s eyes. That panel of light might also represent the happiness that might have been, had Jane and Rossetti ever married.
Rossetti made a handful of versions of Proserpine during the 1870s and early 1880s, the best known of which is probably an oil painting at Tate Britain (below).
The earliest version, a chalk drawing from 1871, is in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; the last, an oil painting finished just weeks before the artist’s death in 1882, is in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
The work coming to auction dates to 1878 and is a unique version of Proserpine in watercolour. For much of his career, this was actually Rossetti’s favoured medium, although in the 1870s he all but sidelined it for chalk and oil.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, 1874. Oil on canvas. Tate. Photo: © Tate

Rossetti had pioneered an innovative technique, layering watercolour, bodycolour and gum arabic with hog-hair brushes (usually reserved for oil paint), resulting in deep and strong colour. His pupil, Edward Burne-Jones, would adopt the same technique for works such as Love Among the Ruins, which set the auction record for a Pre-Raphaelite work in any medium, when it sold at Christie’s for £14,845,875 in 2013.
Rossetti’s watercolour version of Proserpine has featured in several exhibitions, most recently Truth & Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites & the Old Masters at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
It’s impossible to map the dates of the various Proserpines onto the exact state of the artist’s relationship with Jane. Some scholars suggest the affair ended in 1875, others 1876, yet she continued to model for Rossetti until shortly before his death.
The fact that he kept making versions of Proserpine till the end is surely telling. Tragic heroines were a beloved subject of countless Victorian artists, and Rossetti’s feeling for Jane inspired one of the most famous examples of all.
‘The work is presented in the original frame designed by Rossetti, too,’ says Harriet Drummond, Director of British Drawings & Watercolours at Christie’s.
‘Quite simply, this is the most important — and beautiful — painting by a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to appear at auction in a decade.’