|Astarte Syriaca, 1875-77, oil on canvas, 183 x 107 cm, Manchester Art Gallery|
"Mystery: lo! betwixt the Sun and Moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite ever was."
- Rossetti (poem on frame)
This claustrophobic painting presents a goddess, bathed in golden, lightflanked by angels gazing heavenward. "One face looks out from his canvases," Christina Rossetti, the artist's sister wrote, "Not as she is, but as she fills his dreams." This frank line eloquently sums up Rossetti's art: A glimpse into his private world, his interior passions, and dangerous sexual fantasies and anxieties.
The 'one face' Christina speaks of is Jane Morris, his muse, his lover, his obsession - the wife of his friend William Morris - and the restrained Venus here. The painting may be somewhat overworked and awkward in execution (he in fact preferred poetry), as much Pre-Raphaelite work can tend to be. But with her held gaze and elegant pose, cloth sensually against her skin and falling from her shoulder, Astarte Syriaca maintains a profound, bewitching presence.
Michael Howard, Upclose: Manchester Art Gallery, Scala, 2002.