‘In an Artist’s Studio‘ by Christina Rossetti is a standard Italian or Petrarchan sonnet that is made up of fourteen lines and can be separated into one set of eight lines, called an octave, and one set of six lines, called a sestet. The first collection of lines presents the basis of the story or problem, final the final six provide a conclusion or answer.
In this particular instance, the first part of the poem describes the visual depiction of the artist’s obsession over a woman, while the second set shows how he has been consumed mentally by her image and by a happier time in his life.
The poem begins with the speaker describing what the inside of the studio looks like. All around the room are innumerable canvases, each bearing the face of a particular female model. She is portrayed in every possible variation and shown as a “queen, “saint,” and common girl. No one way that the painter paints her is any more important than another. She is to him all things at the same time.
The artist is completely obsessed with this unknown woman. Her face serves as sustenance for his soul and he stares endlessly at her image. Her painted portraits stare right back at him, as if she too is obsessing over him. The speaker makes clear that these images of the girl are not true to life. They are representations of how he sees her in his dreams. These happy moments are from another time that is long since passed but that the artist cannot let go.
Analysis of In an Artist’s Studio
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
The speaker of ‘In an Artist’s Studio‘ begins the poem by describing what the inside of an artist’s studio looks like. From where she is standing she can look around, and take in each canvas that she sees as well as the way the light falls, and the obsession that must be inherent in his practice.
While looking around there is one element of the painter’s art the sticks out most to her, the presence of a single face, repeated endlessly throughout his studio. It is clear that this artist does not spend time painting portraits of anyone other than “her.” She, the subject of his art, “looks out from all his canvases.” The sitter appears in different forms throughout the work but she is always “One selfsame figure,” whether she is “sit[ting], walk[ing] or lean[ing].” While searching for the repeating female figure, the speaker finds her “hidden” throughout different canvases, each time she is spotted, she is lovely.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
The artist is able to render her differently each time he paints such as, “A queen in opal or in ruby dress.” He has painted her elegantly, like royalty, a number of times. She is shown in red and white dresses.
Additionally, the artist has shown her as a “nameless girl,” a common girl, “in freshest summer-greens” and as an “angel” and “saint.” It is clear that the artist finds every type of inspiration in his model and is able to perceive her in every conceivable form. She is his muse and obsession.
In the final line of this section, the speaker states that no form in which he has portrayed her, “saint,” “queen,” or peasant girl, is any more important or meaningful than any other. He would love her in whatever form she took.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
In the concluding lines of ‘In an Artist’s Studio‘ the speaker makes clear to the reader how obsessed and dependent this artist has become on his muse. She is more than just a passing love or beautiful face, he actually takes sustenance from her presence and time spent admiring her. The artist “feeds upon her face” at every hour of the day and night, and she is always there, looking out from the paintings with “true kind eyes.” It is as if she is looking back at him, admiring him in kind.
She is, the speaker states, “Fair as the moon and joyful as the light.” She is all things, and seems to be more important to the speaker then life itself. Although time may pass in the artist’s life, her face and beauty will never wan as she is “waiting” around in his studio. His paintings will never be inflicted with “sorrow” so that her face “dim[s].” She will remain immortalized, just as he sees her, for all time.
It is important to distinguish, in the last lines of the poem, the way that the artists perceive her, from the way she actually is. The speaker makes this separation clear as she states that the way that the artist portrayed her is not the way that she is now. She is no longer filled with “hope” that shines “bright.” She is not painted “as she is, but as she fills his dreams.” The artist is longing for a time when things were the way they used to be, not as they are now, and the paintings are a reminder of that time.
About Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830. As a young girl, she enjoyed studying classics, as well as novels and fairy tales. Her writing career began when she was twelve years old, and she published her first poems in 1848 when she was 18. Her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published in 1862 and was widely praised.
She became known as the greatest female poet of her time, with much of her critical acclaim coming from the title piece of the book, Goblin Market and Other Poems. As well as being known for her writing, her political and social beliefs made her even more notorious. She was openly opposed to slavery, which was still being widely practiced in the American South, as well as cruelty to and experimentation on animals. Rossetti developed breast cancer in 1893 and died in 1894. Her grave can be found in Highgate Cemetery in London.