Cat's Cradle

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1855
Subject: “Two lovers ocupied with ‘cat's cradle’ seated close together on grass. A boy approaches on tiptoe, seeming to warn them of imminent danger. Two other figures slightly sketched in behind” ( Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, 40 , quoting from the 1883 artist's studio sale catalogue (lot 60)).


◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, 40 (no. 77).

◦ Wade, The Letters of W. B. Yeats, 837.

Scholarly Commentary


The sinister drawing replicates in a contemporary idiom the theme that DGR treated at the same time (1855) in the finished Paolo and Francesca and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The unfinished drawing for the latter, also done in 1855, is particularly close to this picture, which has obvious similarities as well with earlier pictures in the same vein (e.g., “To Caper Nimbly in a Lady's Chamber”).


When Yeats received this drawing in June 1935 as a present from William Rothenstein, he was thrilled to have it. He also assumed that its subject was Lucretia Borgia, presumably because of the similarity between the pose of the figures in this drawing and DGR's Borgia as well as in the related “To Caper Nimbly in a Lady's Chamber”. The woman's dress in all three pictures is also similar. But aside from those iconographic features, there is no reason to identify the woman here as Lucretia Borgia. Indeed, because the drawing is also quite similar to the left panel in the Paolo and Francesca triptych and the British Museum's La Belle Dame Sans Merci drawing, one judges that it fits in this constellation of pictures that take up the ambiguous theme of the seductions and deceptions of love, a situation in which either the woman or the man may be seen as both victim and villain.

In this case, the description of the picture quoted by Surtees from the 1883 sale catalogue is misleading. The boy on the left, who is pointing to a knife imbedded in his heart, balances and opposes the young man at the right: the boy a figure of victimage, the young man a seducing figure. The iconography thus suggests that all three figures are caught in a dangerous net, as the cat's cradle they are playing with suggests.


The cat's cradle that occupies the couple in the picture is a clear emblem of the intricate web they are weaving for themselves. Its literary analogue is the book of romance poetry that led Paolo and Francesca to their sin ( Inferno V. 112-142 ).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: s77.raw.xml