Displaced Desire and ‘Symbolic Physiognomy’: Alan Davison on Rossetti and Music

‘Rossetti’s use of instruments appears at first glance to be the idiosyncratic approach of an artist with a magpie-like attraction to visually arresting objects.’[1]

The exotic instruments in D.G. Rossetti’s paintings have frequently been remarked upon.[2] A vertically positioned Japanese koto, a harp-lute with exaggerated curvature and a lute with two extra strings are but a few examples of his somewhat whimsical employment of musical instruments amongst his compositions. It is easy to dismiss this as ignorance, but Alan Davison’s fascinating article stresses the intention behind these discrepancies. Drawing largely upon the thesis of Lorraine Wood, Davison examines these often bizarre depictions from a new perspective.

Wood’s thesis asserts that ‘the very unplayability of Rossetti’s instruments is deliberate rather than accidental, and is central to his goals’.[3] This is Davison’s point of departure. He argues that Rossetti prioritised the physical form of the instrument, ‘as symbolic parallel with non-musical associations’.[4] Extracting the instrument from context, Davison examines its function within the pictorial composition of Rossetti’s works, and constructs two rationales which form the basis of his argument:

1. Musical instruments as ‘symbolic physiognomy’

What does the physical form of the musical object contribute to the musician who wields it? Davison draws upon the 19th century practice of Physiognomy to examine the instrument as a physical extension of the musician’s body.

Rossetti, ‘Girl with a musical instrument’, c.1870
Pen and Brown Ink on Paper, 21.6 x 14.9 cm
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, UK

In Girl with a Musical Instrument (Fig.1), Rossetti demonstrates the symbiosis of player and instrument. His model cradles a harp-lute in a manner which, while giving the scene a tender feel, is wholly impractical for playing. Davison examines the excessive curvature given to the instrument’s neck, which echoes the long and graceful neck of the model:

The oneness of musician and instrument underlies the composition, and the resulting strange instrument is a direct reflection of the physiognomic – and so inner – qualities of the player.[5]

This a convincing example of Davison’s ‘symbolic physiognomy’ in which the instrument serves as an extension of the musician’s body. My own thoughts turned to the maternal aspect of the model’s demeanour. I felt – with reference to the revelation of inner essence – the model’s posture and the cradling of the harp-lute resembled the cradling of a baby by its mother. An additional layer of tenderness, perhaps, to an already sensual image.

2. Displacement of desire

Davison argues that Rossetti’s depiction of musical instruments allowed for metaphorical suggestions of tactility and erotic desire.

He likens the plucking of strings to stroking, touching and weaving; all actions which are overtly linked in Rossetti’s poetry. The juxtaposition of the playing of strings with an amorous subject, Davison argues, provided a visual tool for the artist to represent agonised desire.

Rossetti, ‘Morning Music’, 1864
Watercolour on Paper, 29.5 x 26.7 cm
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Morning Music features a musician playing a lute-type instrument with two additional strings to the left of the soundboard (Fig.2). Physically, these strings add nothing to the instrument’s playability. Davison argues that by juxtaposing the instrument, abundant with evenly spaced, golden strings with the long, golden hair of the woman, Rossetti displaces the musician’s desire onto the instrument itself. As his hand tenderly strokes the strings of the lute, we catch a glimpse of his longing to stroke the woman’s hair.

Davison asserts that this displacement not only constructs meaning, but endows the image with power. It becomes ‘about’ the music:

… the overall scene becomes a macrocosm of the instrument and presumably the power of its player.[6]

Rossetti, ‘A Sea Spell’, 1877
Oil on Canvas, 109 c 91 cm
Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA

Sea Spell from 1877 encapsulates both Davison’s rationales (Fig.3). It features a Japanese koto incorrectly positioned vertically, while the musician’s fingers look as though they are more likely to be weaving than plucking. The poem accompanying this painting refers to weaving, causing this image to echo ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in its union of artistry and agony:

Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,

While flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell,

Between its chords; and as the wild notes swell,

The sea-bird for those branches leaves the sea.[7]

This painting substantiates Davison’s (and Wood’s) claim that Rossetti deliberately depicted instruments conversely to their proper use. The koto has adjustable bridges, which enabled him to imitate the strings of a loom, combining plucking with weaving. Not only does this play upon the sensuality of the poem’s assertion, ‘…flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell between its chords’, it also alludes to Davison’s first rationale: ‘the loom/weaving motive [is] now embedded within the physiognomy of the instrument’.[8]

Davison concludes that Rossetti’s attraction to associating music with action reveal in his works an underlying desire illustrated by the stroking and plucking of strings. The incorrectly positioned and often bizarrely adapted instruments do not expose the artist’s carelessness, but rather his penchant for visual metaphor. In the author’s words, ‘the instrument plays a much greater role than merely a decorative prop; it provides both the compositional and symbolic backbone of the painting.’[9]

* * *

A. Davison, ‘Woven Songs and Musical Mirrors: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘symbolic physiognomy’ of Music’, The British Art Journal, 13.3, 89-94

Dr Alan Davison is Senior Lecturer at the School of Arts, University of New England.

[1] A. Davison, ‘Woven songs and musical mirrors: Dante Gabriel Rosseti’s ‘symbolic physiognomy’ of music’, The British Art Journal, 13.3 (2013), 89

[2] E. Helsinger, ‘Listening: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the persistence of song’, Victorian Studies 51.3 (2009); D. Macleod, ‘Rosseti’s Two Legeias: Their relationship to visual art, music, and poetry’, Victorian Poetry 20.3 (1982); K. Powell, ‘Object, symbol, and metaphor: Rossetti’s musical imagery’, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 2 (1993), are but a few examples.

[3] Davison, ‘Woven songs’, 89

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 90

[6] Ibid. 91

[7] Rossetti, quoted in Ibid., 92

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 91


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