In but published posthumously in 1896. The rhyme

In
an Artist’s Studio was written in 1856 but published
posthumously in 1896. The rhyme scheme follows a slightly deviated pattern of
the Petrarchan sonnet as ABBAABBACDCDCE with the standard fourteen lines and an
iambic pentameter. In accordance with the style of the sonnet form, there is a
clear divide between the octave and the sestet, structurally and thematically.
However, the most significant digression from the Petrarchan sonnet is the
theme itself; originally written to depict an idealised form of love and
elaborate praise for their beloved by men whereas Rossetti chose to explore the
theme of beauty, and female objectification.

The thematic dichotomy is represented through the
portrayal of the woman as the artist’s subject; “One face”, and “One selfsame
figure” depicts the obsession of the artist intent on a monotonous and
superficial representation of the female subject, whether she “sits or walks or
leans”. ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ depicts portraits of the subject of desire as a
“queen” or “a saint, an angel”, this emulates the Petrarchan sonnets element of
high praise for the subject of the poem, typically the beloved of the speaker.
However, the praise is limited to the depiction and colourful imagery
representing the subject as the speaker continues, “A queen in opal, or ruby
dress / A nameless girl in freshest summer greens”. Unlike the hyperbolic
metaphorical praises of the beloved such as in many of Petrarch’s sonnets
written for an unrequited beloved, there is a lack of personality in the
depiction of the figure. “In an Artist’s Studio” is a remarkable example of the
male gaze theory developed by a feminist film critic as the artist in this poem
is the dominant power whilst the subject acts as the subservient female. The
artist fails to transfer a sense of realism and empathy of the “nameless girl” into
his paintings, and the reason that “every canvass means / Neither more nor
less.” is due to the lack of the attributes, a name, personality, or voice of
the subject that the artist overlooks, or ignores to fill the canvas with
outward beauty, and his idea of perfection.

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Rossetti portrays the situation of women in Victorian
society through the poem. As the female subject is “hidden just behind those
screens”, the stereotypical but ideal, angelic figure of the woman was patient,
indifferent, submissive to her husband and infinitely dedicated to him and the
home. Women, their emotions, feelings and identity were heavily censored and
ignored by the society and the artist’s female subject fits the stereotypical
description meticulously. Rossetti explores this theme in poems such as ‘From
the Antique’ and discusses the fate of fallen
women and a female dominated word in the ‘Goblin Market’. “That mirror gave
back all her loveliness”, a metaphor for the artist’s eyes comes across as
perhaps, an ironic remark by the speaker because the image the painter has
drawn is not an accurate portrayal. By removing the imperfections, the artist
takes away the essence of humanity within the portrayal – the flaws. It is the
ideal and unrealistic image of the subject that the artist failed to articulate
on the canvas, and like a mirror, the artists’ eyes and mind only see the
exterior image of the subject which leaves the canvas lacking substance due to
the superficial, surface level involvement. This is also indicative of the
highly prevalent issue of the 19th century, ‘The woman question’
which was widely debated in terms of the position, role and rights of women.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning explored this most significantly in her poem, ‘Aurora
Leigh’ which was coincidentally written during the same time as ‘In an Artist’s
Studio’. The poem is a symbol of women’s rights, female individualism, and Browning’s
protagonist is one who has a voice and personality that she does not need to subdue
in the male dominant society and this is the theme that Rossetti also explores
in her work by ironically inverting the theme and style of the poem.

In
accordance with the title, the poem portrays an image of an artist’s studio,
with images of the same woman on every canvas; Rossetti allows the reader to
glimpse into a studio which is often a private space of creativity and
exploration for an artist. Whether the singular woman depicted on the canvasses
is a source of desire, obsession or love for the artist remains unclear.
William Micheal, Rossetti’s brother, and editor titled the poem posthumously
and revealed that the poem was written about Dante Gabriel’s studio and his
portraits of Elizabeth Siddal, whom he later married. The setting of the poem
is also indicative of Rossetti’s close affiliation with the Pre-Raphaelite
Movement of the 1800’s along with Dante Gabriel who was one of the founding
members of the movement. Rossetti’s decision to use the Petrarchan sonnet to explore the themes
of sexual and female objectification in art by male artists is an ironic
inversion of the style. Petrarch and the Pre-Raphaelite artists view the female
subject of the poem as idealistic and subservient. Rossetti explored this idea
of objectification not only in this poem but also her sonnet sequence, ‘Monna Innominata’
by giving the Petrarchan beloved a voice in 14 of the sonnets. By using and
inverting the typical style and themes of the sonnet, Rossetti rejects the
suppressive role of women in art, and the society itself by establishing women
as unyielding and active beings in the previously male dominated space.

The tone and the theme of the poem becomes sinister with the introduction of
the artist in the sestet, as “He feeds upon her face” can perhaps be
interpreted as sexual hunger, or more definitively as his desire to dominate
and exert his control over the passive, angelic woman that he can possess and
shape as he pleases. He drains her personality and purges her of imperfections
to fulfil his own male fantasies while the female subject of the poem is
confined, symbolically and psychologically within the canvas and within the
role of the subservient woman however the artist and the society is satisfied. In
Metamorphoses by Ovid, Pygmalion falls in love with his own creation, an ivory
statue which can be paralleled with the unrealistically perfect paintings in
the poem that the artist feasts upon.
The thematic irregularity is supplemented by the slight deviation from the
iambic pentameter with “true kind eyes” with three continuous hard syllables
and a spondee, “true kind” which is followed by another hard syllable, “fair”
and an anapaestic foot, “as the moon” and “as the light.”. The former
digression perhaps portrays that the artist believes or depicts his desire for
the subject to look at him with true and kind eyes. “Not wan with waiting, not
with sorrow dim” are the flaws that the artist disregards entirely, and
therefore, disregarding the subject as a person. The alliteration of “wan” and
“waiting” place emphasis upon the idea being discussed; the artist views his
portraits of the female subject as the epitome of faultlessness but rather, the
portraits embody the dehumanising of women in the name of perfection in
Pre-Raphaelite art.

Furthermore, Rossetti’s structural deviation is one
laced with careful intent, and this shows that the artist only wishes to
possess the woman as she is on his canvas, without a voice or identity who is
“Fair as the moon and joyful as the night”. “Not as she is, but as she fills
his dream.” The noun, dream, indicates that the female subject discussed
throughout the poem embodies an illusion of the perfect woman that he has
painted for himself. Dream is also the last word of the sonnet, and is employed
by Rossetti to disrupt the rhyme scheme with a slant rhyme, there is a sense of
finality, and a complete erasure of the female model who is reduced to a mere
object of desire. The repetition of “not as she is” reiterates the divide
between reality and illusion whilst also creating a distinction between the
female model from her own, falsified depiction on the canvas that the subject
might not be able to relate with. The poem ends with a sense of unfulfillment
as the woman is still entrapped within the confined of the frame and mentality
of the Victorian society.

Although, Rossetti could not be considered a typical feminist due to her
religious writings which are perhaps more inclined towards conventional and
religiously appropriate roles for women, she is aware of the unfair inequality
between the male and female gender and clearly, dissatisfied. Consequently, ‘In
an Artist’s Studio’ is a scathing review of the unequal relationship between
the male artist who is at liberty to dehumanise the female subject however he
pleases whilst the woman is viewed as a one dimensional, docile object.