The Merciless Lady

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

The Merciless Lady (United Kingdom, 1865)

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Watercolour and bodycolour on paper
Signed with monogram and dated 1865 Inscribed on a label verso, The property (since Jany 26 1865) of George P Boyce of West House, 33 Glebe Place, Chelsea


31.00cm high
31.00cm wide
(12.20 inches high)
(12.20 inches wide)
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Acquired from the artist by G P Boyce
Boyce Sale, Christie's, 1st July 1897, lot number 154, bought by:
Charles Fairfax Murray
Sir William Mills
Francis W Nicholls
Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read
Fine Art Society, London
Thomas Stainton
Peter Nahum, London
Private collection


O G Destree, Les Preraphaelites, Brussels, 1894, page 86
H Rossetti, Art Journal Easter Annual, 1902, page 20, illustrated
F Madox Hueffer, Rossetti, London, 1902, page 135
H C Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bell, 1904, pages 94-95, illustrated
A C Benson, Rossetti, Macmillan, 1904, pages 181, 185 and 189
D Sonstroem, Rossetti and the Fair Lady, Wesleyan University Press, 1970, pages 118-120
Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A Catalogue Raisonne, Clarendon Press, 1971, page 102, plate 250, catalogue number 177

Exhibition History

Birmingham, Fine Art Club, 1883, number 30
London, Thomas Agnew and Sons, Annual Exhibition of Watercolours and Drawings, 1923, number 118
London, The Royal Academy, 1972, number B127
London, The Fine Art Society, The Aesthetic Movement and the Cult of Japan, 1972, number 49
London, The Royal Academy, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Painter and Poet, 1973, number 312
London, The Fine Art Society, The Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings from the Handley-Read Collection, 1974, number 67
Tokyo, Bunkamura Museum of Art, Rossetti, 1990, number 31, illustrated in colour
Nagoya, Aichi Prefectural Art Gallery & Kurume, Ishibashi Museum of Art, Rossetti, 1991, number 31
Takamatsu, Takematsu City Museum, Le Symbolisme en Europe, October-December 1996
Tokyo, Bunkamura Museum of Art & Himeji, Himeji City Museum, Le Symbolisme en Europe, December 1996- March 1997

Description / Expertise

This watercolour, as Mrs. Surtees notes, is stylistically closer to Rossetti's work of the late 1850s, but the date that it was painted can be pinpointed exactly by a letter Rossetti wrote on 5 January 1865 to Boyce (University College, London Library):

I have been going on with the watercolour you saw begun (the three figures with the girl playing) and which is not yet disposed of... It will be a stunner.

The label verso in Boyce's hand records its acquisition on January 26 1865. H C Marillier records:

In the midst of his large and sumptuous canvases it is pleasant to find that Rossetti could still turn back to the romantic style of his early watercolours. The Merciless Lady.... is a scene of three figures sitting on a turf-lined couch in a pavilion or arbour. In the centre is a man, cross-legged, his chin on his hand, gazing with rapt admiration at the blonde-haired damsel on his left who is singing to a lute. A vapid, reckless-looking maid as she is, not to be compared to the dark beauty on his right, who with gloomy frown is trying to will back her lover. On the ground beside them her glass only stands untasted; she alone is sad. There is the little tragedy- barring only the oldest I suppose in the world- set in a field of the brightest, sunniest green, all nature rejoicing around it. Much as I admire all Rossetti's watercolours, I know not one that clings in the mind like this, or that produces without effort, from a purely imaginary scene, so profound an impression of actuality.

The poignancy of Marillier's last sentence contains the key to the `actuallity' of this private and personally coded image. Marillier has caught the flavour and tension of the image but seems to have missed its intimate essence. In 1862, Rossetti's first wife, Lizzie Siddal had died of an overdose of laudanum (liquid opium). Rossetti was grief-stricken and almost certainly racked by guilt as he had married Lizzie more from pity than from the burning love that he had for her ten years before. By 1865 he was in love with Janey Morris, the wife of William Morris.

In The Merciless Lady we see a young lover torn between two maidens: a pale titian-haired angel singing sweetly and a darker raven-haired beauty whose hand he tightly clasps. Here is Rossetti at his most intimately revealing. In love with Janey and haunted by the memory of Lizzie, and thus distracted, unable to give his all. Lizzie's glass is empty, as is almost Rossetti's but Janey's is full and yet to be tasted. Rossetti's stability came from Fanny Cornforth and his distraction from various models but the two great loves of his life were Lizzie Siddal and Janey Morris.