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The Timeless Pre-Raphaelite Art Model: Alexa Wilding

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An Arts Major and Published Indie Author who writes on various subjects pertaining to Humanities.

Colored chalk portrait of Alexa Wilding by Pre-raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  circa 1874

Colored chalk portrait of Alexa Wilding by Pre-raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. circa 1874

Alexa Wilding was born an only child into a working-class family. Her father was a piano artisan and her uncles were all butchers. Their trades attested to the fact that her life had not been poverty-stricken.

Alexa learned to read and write at an early age. By the time she reached the age of employment, she had taken up work as a dressmaker despite her calling of becoming a stage actress. Although she never graced a theater’s stage, the world would still come to know her, the outline of her classical beauty thanks to Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The two would cross paths while walking along the Strand.

Women are important in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. But while their faces are seen everywhere – in oil paintings, watercolors, drawings – their voices are never heard.

— Jan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (Quartet Books, 1985) about the Pre-Raphaelite Muses

Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti c. 1871, by George Frederic Watts

Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti c. 1871, by George Frederic Watts

Scouting for a Muse

On the prowl for his next great muse, Rossetti spied Wilding as she walked down the strand. Overcome with excitement, he jumped out of his cab and hailed her. The artist begged the young woman for a sitting. Despite her agreement, she never showed up the next day. Disappointed and scrapping any hopes of ever painting the alluring Wilding, he soon gave up hope. However, fate had decided their paths would cross once more.

Of all his art models, Rossetti seemed to have treated Alexa with the utmost respect, as is clear in a letter of correspondence that she had sent him explaining that of mother’s permission to sit. The message made the situation proper, platonic, and businesslike given the artist’s known penchant for feline philandering:

23 Warwick Lane, Newgate Market. 8 April 1865. Miss Wilding presents her compliments to Mr. Rossetti and will feel obliged if he will send any letters to the above address, as she has obtained her Mamma’s permission to sit for any picture after the specified time of three weeks. I am, Sir, yours respectfully,

A. Wilding.

P.S. If you should require me to sit, let me know, and I will come if possible.

The Strand where Dante Gabriel Location where Rossetti came across Alexa Wilding. Print Published by Ackermann & Co in 1836. Artist Unknown.

The Strand where Dante Gabriel Location where Rossetti came across Alexa Wilding. Print Published by Ackermann & Co in 1836. Artist Unknown.

Alexa's Modeling Years

Alexa Wilding may not have been the wife or a lover of Rossetti, but he seemed to favor her versatile features more than any other Pre-Raphaelite muse, including the other modeling contemporaries such as his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, or Annie Miller. Perhaps the cordial, platonic relationship between Rossetti and Wilding provided a haven. The artist’s lack of romantic or sexual interest in his muse may have helped him to concentrate on his subject without deterrence from a lover’s persuasion or strife, thus achieving the ultimate freedom of expression and inspiration.

Alexa was the only art model with whom Rossetti abstained from any romantic involvement. Though she resembled another of Rossetti’s muses, Jane Burden Morris—in the singular way that she carried herself with comportment—soft-spoken and somewhat refined in manner although not as stimulating as often described by other acquaintances within the artist’s circle. The historical record shows that Rossetti found Wilding to be a classical beauty, yet somewhat dull and uninteresting. Nevertheless, the two remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Alexa Wilding as Veronica Veronese by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1872

Alexa Wilding as Veronica Veronese by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1872

Boarding House Mistress

After her modeling stint, Alexa invested her earnings into a boarding house she ran, which seemed to be a plight for Rossetti as he mentions her in a letter written in 1873, complaining that he had to help Wilding with her financial burden. Forever indebted to his kindness and inspired dedication to making her unknown facade one of the most talked about classical faces in the movement in such as the painting Veronica Veronese as pictured above.

Alexa remained ever grateful and a faithful friend to the core. To attest to her devotion, she had traveled more than once to Birchington-on-Sea to place a wreath at his grave after his passing in April 1882.

The grave of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the churchyard of All Saints, Birchington-on-Sea

The grave of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the churchyard of All Saints, Birchington-on-Sea

Alexa's Final Years

Throughout the course of her modeling career, Alexa had suffered bouts with a mysterious illness that had kept her from sitting. In hindsight, Rossetti had recognized Alexa’s discomfort. Most likely, he had felt guilty over his neglect of his wife, Elizabeth, and her untimely death. These feelings might have caused him considerable concern for Wilding, causing him to send the young woman home for care when predisposed of pain.

Not long after Rossetti’s death, medical experts diagnosed Alexa with a splenic tumor, and within 16 months she would succumb to peritonitis. She died on April 24th, 1884 at the tender age of 39 years, and forever immortalized as one of Rosseti's greatest beauties whose timeless face graced the Pre-raphaelite movement.

Highly Suggested Read

I’ve come across a wealth of information which has helped further my series on artists and art models of the Victorian Era. By chance, if you’re interested in learning more about Alexa Wilding, then might I suggest a book that I’ve purchased and downloaded myself, which covers the entire spectrum of inspiring females who connected with the unconventional art movement, including Wilding: Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: Fifty Makers, Shakers and Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era by Kirsty Stonell Walker.


Cited Sources and Works

  • Clifford, David and Roussillon, Laurence. Outsiders Looking In: The Rossettis Then and Now. London: Anthem, 2004.
  • Grylls, R. Glynn. Portrait of Rossetti. London: Macdonald, 1964. Pg 114
  • Kirsty Stonell Walker. Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: Fifty Makers, Shakers and Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era – Unicorn Publishing Group, February 15, 2020
  • Rossetti Papers:1862 to 1870, ed. W. M. Rossetti, pp. 95-96.
  • Dunn, Henry Treffry, ed. Rosalie Glynn Grylls Mander (1984) Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle (Westerham) p. 46.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 ziyena

Comments

ziyena (author) from the Somewhere Out There on April 20, 2021:

Shauna ... History shows that he seemed inclined toward the red heads, but in truth, the muses varied. Though I think he may have been really drawn to androgenous figures like Jane Burden Morris or Fannie Eaton. As far as Alexa Wilding, she exemplified the classic medieval beauty, the angelic face and willowy frame.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 19, 2021:

Ziyena, I can't help but notice that the Pre-Raphaelite models all look as if they could be related. Rossetti definitely had his type, didn't he?

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