Christina Rossetti’s sonnet “In an Artist’s Studio” was written in 1856, but would not see publication until her 1894 death. Upon the posthumous publication under the guidance of her brother William Michael, he indicated that the inspiration was most assuredly the studio of their brother Dante Gabriel and the model was mostly likely based upon his muse and doomed fiancé, Elizabeth Siddal.
While that may be true, it is evident from the passion with which she infuses the verse that she was after much bigger fish that mere biographical sketching of the relationship between her painter brother and his favorite model. The face looking back at the artist who sees her not as she is but as his fantasy speaks to issues of objectification, gender domination and the predatory nature of the artist. The comparison of the painter to some sort of vampiric entity feeding upon his inspiration for the purpose of creation can in no logical way be contained merely to whatever the sister may have witnessed when visiting the brother at work in his studio with his model.
Within the poem are aspects of the Pygmalion fantasy of an artist falling in love with the fantasy he has created from the raw material of reality, but the suggestion that the paint keeps painting the same face endlessly in a series of ever changing outward appearances also hints at the idea of the creative spirit never being satisfied enough to deem any final result perfect.
“In an Artist’s Studio” stands as perhaps a textbook example of why it may sometimes be a wasted effort or losing wager to try attaching too much significance to the “real life” inspiration behind a creative work of art. Attending too closely to the words of Christina Rossetti’s brother on his observation that the poem seems to be describing the studio of their brother could actually result in ascribing too much biography and not enough philosophy to what the poet is attempting to affirm.