The Life of Pre-Raphaelite Art Model Alexa Wilding
Alexa Wilding was born an only child into a working-class family. Her father was a piano craftsman and her uncles all butchers. Their trades attested to the fact that her life had not been poverty-stricken.
Luckily, Alexa learned to read and write. By the time she reached the proper age of employment, she had taken up work as a dressmaker despite her calling of becoming a stage actress. Although she’d never physically grace a theatre’s stage, the world would still come to know her, especially the outline of her classical beauty thanks to Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The two happened to cross paths while walking along the Strand.
On the prowl for his next great muse, Rossetti saw her and immediately jumped out of his cab to hail her. He begged for a sitting, and she agreed, but never showed up the next day. Of course, the artist had been disappointed. Weeks went by and he in his misfortune had scrapped any hopes of ever painting the alluring Wilding, but 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 evident in a letter of correspondence that she had sent him explaining that of mother’s permission to sit. The message made the situation entirely 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,
P.S. If you should require me to sit, let me know, and I will come if possible.
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.— JaJan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (Quartet Books, 1985)
The Modeling Years
Alexa Wilding may not have been the wife or a lover of Rossetti, but she seemed to be favored for her versatile features more than any other Pre-Raphaelite muse, including the other modeling contemporaries such as his wife Elizabeth Siddal, or Annie Miller. Perhaps the cordial platonic relationship between Rossetti and Wilding provided a safe haven. The artist’s lack of romantic or sexual interest in his muse may have helped him to fully concentrate on his subject without the deterrence of a lover’s persuasion or strife thus achieving the ultimate freedom of expression and inspiration.
Interestingly enough, Wilding was the only art model that had not been connected to him as part of his numerous romantic liaisons. Most likely, the reason for the limited information on her personal history given that she was spared from the spotlight of salacious gossip. In some ways, Alexa could be compared to 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 intellectually stimulating as often described by other acquaintances within the artist’s circle. The historical record shows us that Rossetti found Alexa to be physically beautiful yet somewhat dull and uninteresting. Even still he had not dismissed her as just a passing fancy to be forgotten. On the contrary, the two remained friends for the rest of their lives.
After her modeling stint, Wilding invested her earnings into a boarding house that 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 at that time in such paintings as Sibylla Palifera or Veronica Veronese, Alexa remained a faithful friend to the core. Upon and after his death in April of 1882, she had traveled more than once to Birchington-on-Sea to place a wreath at his grave.
The Final Years
Throughout the course of her modeling career, Alexa had suffered bouts with a mysterious illness that had kept her from sitting on a few occasions. Rossetti recognized Alexa’s discomfort. Most likely, he much felt guilt over his neglect of his wife, Elizabeth and her untimely death. In turn, these feelings might have caused him considerable concern for Wilding, making sure to send the young woman home for care when predisposed of pain.
Not long after Rossetti’s death, Alexa had been diagnosed with a splenic tumor, and within 16 months she would succumb to peritonitis. She died on April 24th, 1884 at just 39 years old.
Cited Sources & 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
- 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.
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