By MIKE DUNHAM
Federal prosecutors are seeking forfeiture of five works of art following the last year’s arrest of a Glennallen couple on charges of illegal drug and ivory possession. It's a convoluted tale involving coca plants and undercover work and flim-flam man Bernie Madoff, more fully told in Casey Groves' article on the front page of the Daily News on March 4. As a sidebar, I provided some information about one of the pieces, which I'll expand on here just because I'm fascinated by the idea that such an historic work of art should show up in relatively remote Alaska.
The most prominent of the five pieces by far is the “Study of Alexa Wilding” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, both because of the artist and the woman in the drawing.
Rossetti (1828-1882) was in the front ranks of British artists in the 19th century. He was instrumental in forming the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an aesthetic movement that sought to reassert the perceived simplicity and directness of medieval and early renaissance painting styles. A reaction to moralizing and sentimentality in grand European paintings of the time, the movement garnered controversy, intellectual esteem and enormous popularity. The Pre-Raphaelites were the Bohemians and the Beautiful People, the elites and the radicals of their day. Rossetti was their undisputed leader and taste-maker, the Andy Warhol of his generation. In the words of his friend James McNeill Whistler, the most important American-born artist of the era, “He was a king.”
Rossetti was the brother of poet Christina Rossetti, best known for “The Goblin Market,” an important poet in his own right and a respected photographer. But his depictions of women — exquisitely beautiful yet serenely self-assured, placid in expression yet powerful in presence, equally capable of virtue or vice — carved out new artistic territory.
Rossetti’s ladies paved the way for both the lurid sexuality of the Decadent movement and the celebratory independence of the Gibson Girl. Their studied, neutral glamour is still copied by contemporary Hollywood starlets. The cold stare of Lucy Lawless as Xena, Warrior Princess, a blank face that didn't reveal whether she might laugh or kill you, was basically born in Rossetti's studio.
The woman in the study, born Alice Wilder, was one of Rossetti’s favorite subjects. In some cases he superimposed her “commercial” face onto figures in canvasses he’d already completed using different women as models. He is said to have paid the red-headed working-class girl a retainer with the understanding that she would pose for no other artist but him. The arrangement allowed Wilding to quit her job as a seamstress and die in 1884 — at the age of 35 — a woman of property.
Among the famous Rossetti paintings in which the red-headed Wilding is featured are “Lady Lilith,” Monna Vanna,” “The Bower Meadow,” Veronica Veronese” and “Dante’s Dream on the Day of the Death of Beatrice.” She was the model for the cover art of his best-known poem “The Blessed Damozel.” That picture is perhaps the Rossetti image with which most people are familiar.
Although he painted several other women more often (especially Joan Morris, the wife of a friend), Wilding is somewhat unique in that there is no evidence of a family or romantic connection between her and the artist, though they are said to have established a friendship.
Scholars have expressed frustration over how little is known about her compared to the other women in Rossetti’s life, particularly since his treatment of her in his art suggest that she was a major inspiration and muse to him. But, though literate and apparently aware of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, she may not have been a natural fit in the Rossettis's immediate circle of well-heeled, well-traveled, multi-lingual and sexually adventurous intellectuals.
A rare photograph of her shows a pleasant looking young woman with fine features, but hardly the ripely romanticized figure in the paintings. The drawing now housed in Anchorage as court proceedings unfold, looks like a far more accurate depiction of her.
I suppose what makes me catch my breath is the idea that this paper and the chalk on it were held by Rossetti as he sat or stood in the same room with Wilder, and that a remarkable series of peculiar incidents brought it to an attic in a tiny Alaska settlement and ultimately to a courthouse next to the Anchorage Museum, a facility I frequent almost weekly.
It would be wonderful, though probably impractical, if the U.S. Attorney and the owner - whether that be Nicolette Wernick of Connecticut, from whom it was stolen, or the company that insured it - could arrange for a little show at the museum before Alexa leaves the state.
The other four artists mentioned in the court document are relatively obscure. The best-known is Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), the son of the noted Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. The court documents report an estimated value of $3,000-$5,000 on his watercolor painting, “Milton,” and 10 times that for Rossetti’s black-and-white chalk study of Wilding.
I would guess the estimate is a bit on the low side.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.