The Blue Closet

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1856-1857
Model: Elizabeth Siddal is the model for the queen on the right.


◦ Doughty and Wahl, Letters, vol. 1, 312.

◦ Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 102-103.

◦ Lourie “The Embodiment of Dreams”, 193-206.

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 81.

◦ Mégroz, Painter Poet of Heaven in Earth, 244-245.

◦ Stephens, , 41-42.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, 50.

The Pre-Raphaelites, 280.

Scholarly Commentary


There is only one version of this picture, a small watercolor in the Tate Gallery (13 1/2 x 9 3/4 inches). It describes, against a striking background of blue tiles, two queens playing on a clavichord with one hand each while their other hands play a set of bells and a lute. Two other ladies stand singing from sheet music. A red lily rises in the lower foreground.

DGR's brief comment supplies a useful, equally enigmatic gloss on the picture's abstract quality: “its subject is some people playing music” (see DGR's letter to his aunt Polidori of 20 September 1869, Fredeman, Correspondence 60. 38 ). When Stephens says the picture is “intended to symbolize the association of colour with music” (Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 41), he underscores the formalism of the work, as well as its ideal character.

The picture represents a series of balanced relations: the queen on the right plays the clavichord with her right hand, the queen on the left with her left, and their other hands are symmetrically playing the bells and lute. At the back we see the left arm of the woman on the right, the right of the woman on the left. A like set of balanced relations governs the arrangements of the colors, including the colors on the musical instruments (which are themselves organized in a set of double balances). The holly at the top balances the red-orange lily at the bottom, and the latter's color rhymes with the soil in which it grows. The blue tiles, visible at the back wall and the floor, argue that the entire “closet” is indeed enclosed in their blue; and the pair of blue emblems on the bells and lute define another symmetry. In a sense, the crossed legs supporting the clavichord are a visual emblem of all these symmetries; in another sense, the predominance of quaternary relationships connects to the square tiles which enclose the entire space.

Production History

No studies for the picture are known to survive. It was executed for William Morris in 1856-1857.


DGR's works often use emblems of sun and moon as signs of time passing, as here on the musical instruments. The instruments themselves are neo-platonic emblems. They stand for the Pythagorean understanding of perfect harmony (at once a musical and a mathematical idea); see The Monochord, where DGR engages this subject most directly.


Alastair Grieve suggests that “The symmetrical grouping and echoed poses recall the composition of medieval scenes of the flagellation of Christ or of angels making music (e.g., Orcagna's panel of ‘Musical Angels’ in Christ Church, Oxford” (see The Pre-Raphaelites 280 ).


The painting was the inspiration for Morris's splendid and equally strange poem of the same title, published in 1857 in his The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems volume. Morris had finished his poem in mid-December 1856 (see DGR's letter to Allingham of 18 December 1856 where he describes Morris's work as a “stunning poem” ( Fredeman, Correspondence 56. 59 ).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: s90.raw.xml