Astarte Syriaca (Venus Astarte)

DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI PRB (1828-1882) Biography
PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

Astarte Syriaca (Venus Astarte) (England, 1875)

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Coloured chalks on pale green paper
Signed with monogram and dated 1875


49.50cm high
35.50cm wide
(19.49 inches high)
(13.98 inches wide)
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The Artist;
His sale, Remaining Works of the Painter and Poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Deceased, Christie, Manson and Woods, London, Saturday, 12 May, 1883, Lot 44;
G. F. White


Virginia Surtees, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 A Catalogue Raisonne, page 147, catalogue number 249F

Description / Expertise

‘Mystery: lo! betwixt the Sun and Moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite was. In silver sheen
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof Heaven and Earth commune:
And from her neck’s inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the spheres’ dominant tune.

Torch-bearing, her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty’s face to be:
That face, of Love’s all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle, -
Betwixt the Sun and Moon a mystery.'

This fine life-size chalk drawing is an early study for the right-hand attendant in Astarte Syriaca. This extraordinarily powerful oil painting with its over life-size central figure was commissioned by Clarence E. Fry for £2100, the highest sum Rossetti ever obtained for a painting; the picture is now in the Manchester City Art Gallery. Jane Morris, the wife of Rossetti's friend and protegee, William Morris, was the model for the central figure of Astarte; the two figures of attendant spirits are also more stylised portraits of Jane. There are three finished drawings for the three heads in the picture, of which this is one; the other two are in public collections, one in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the other in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Jane Burden provided the inspiration for much of Rossetti's poetry and painting from the late 1860's until his death in 1882. He first met her in Oxford in the summer of 1857. After Rossetti's wife's death in 1862 he and Jane, by then married to William Morris, became close friends, and he fell in love with her. He lived for their meetings and wrote passionate love-letters to her; Jane returned his feelings and between 1871 and 1874 they spent long periods together at Kelmscott Manor, a house in Oxfordshire, which Morris and Rossetti took on a joint lease. Jane gradually brought the affair to an end around the time that Rossetti painted Astarte Syriaca. She remained on affectionate terms with him, and he was in love with her until the end of his life.

Astarte Syriaca was one of the last portraits for which Jane personally sat. Astarte was the Greek name for the Babylonian fertility goddess, Ishtar, a goddess of love with antecedents more ancient than Venus. Rossetti told Fry in 1875 that the Venus Astarte, as he first called the painting, had 'been some time in my mind, and some time even in preparatory progress, and I am sure that in possessing it when finished, you will possess my best picture'.(1)

In the autumn he went to stay at Aldwick Lodge, near Bognor, hoping that Jane would come and model for him there. He hung on there all winter, waiting for her and putting off other visitors; eventually she came in the spring of 1876. He returned to London in June, there were more sittings at his home in Cheyne Walk in the autumn, and the picture was finally completed in January 1877. In 1879 Rossetti made replicas of the drawings for attendant figures for the newly established Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery.

There is no doubt that Astarte Syriaca had intense personal significance for Rossetti, who often dealt with subjects, which reflected his own emotional state.

Christine Poulson, April 1990.

1. The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited by Oswald Doughty and J. R. Wahl, 4 vols, Oxford, 1965, vol III, page 1344