Define the theme of "In An Artist's Studio" by Christina Rossetti.  

The theme of "In An Artist's Studio" by Christina Rossetti is the objectification of women by a male painter. He paints his model according to his own "dream" of what he wants a woman to be, "not as she is." The sonnet's speaker objects to this false depiction of women.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "In the Artist's Studio's" the theme is the objectification and distortion of women under the male gaze. This is sonnet, a poetic form from its beginnings given to projecting male fantasies and idealizations about women. In it, the speaker speaks of a "face" or "figure" (body parts rather than...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

In "In the Artist's Studio's" the theme is the objectification and distortion of women under the male gaze. This is sonnet, a poetic form from its beginnings given to projecting male fantasies and idealizations about women. In it, the speaker speaks of a "face" or "figure" (body parts rather than a person) that a male artist paints. The woman in his paintings, whether in an "opal" or a "ruby" dress, is always the same. She is always a "nameless girl," always depicted as "a saint, an angel."

The speaker notes the painter "feeds" on this figure as if he were a cannibal. She is reduced to an object he uses for his own needs. The reality of who she is—"wan with waiting...with sorrow dim"—is erased as the artist depicts her to fulfill a fantasy of what he wants a woman to be. She is painted:

Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

The repetition of "not as she is" emphasizes the theme of the slippage between reality and fantasy.

This sonnet, seemingly simple and straightforward, is actually more complex. The speaker gazes at man gazing at a woman, and in so doing, exposes the dishonesty of his art. By beautifying a woman to fulfill his fantasy image of a saint or angel, he creates a false image of a woman's life.

The speaker calls out the artist out for his indifference and self-absorption. She suggests he should tell a more real story about the women he paints.

The issue of how women were depicted by men in art became an acute issue in the twentieth century, though it had a been a running theme since at least the seventeenth century. Rossetti, however, is ahead of her time in addressing this issue so directly in the Victorian era.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I think the theme of this poem is idealized beauty. The artist paints the same imaginary woman over and over again, always hoping but continually failing to definitively capture the beauty he imagines. In a broader sense, the poem might be interpreted as being about mankind's futile struggle for perfection or for perfect, transcendent beauty.

Throughout the poem Rossetti alludes to the idealized nature of the woman. She is referred to as "a queen in opal," "A saint, an angel," "Fair as the moon and joyful as the light." This is most likely no ordinary woman that the artist has seen but rather an idealized, angelic version of a woman that he has only imagined. And, more to the point, that he can only imagine.

The fact that the artist tries to capture this idealized beauty in the form and figure of a woman might even be considered incidental. The woman is perhaps merely the physical form that the artist chooses to use to try and capture a metaphysical, spiritual beauty. In other words, the female form is merely the closest physical approximation, that the artist has at his disposal, of the metaphysical beauty he imagines.

Whether the female form matters or not, the beauty which the artist tries to capture is something so necessary to him that it is said to sustain him. Indeed, Rossetti writes that, "He feeds upon her face by day and night." As food sustains the body, so too this beauty sustains the mind, or maybe the spirit, of the artist. And just like the satisfaction one gets from food is only temporary, so too the satisfaction the artist gets from his paintings is only temporary, because the beauty inevitably always eludes him. Thus, the artist feels a compulsion to "feed" over and over, "by day and night," in a vain attempt to capture and comprehend a beauty that is fundamentally incomprehensible.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this poem, Christina Rossetti explores a number of key themes. Perhaps the most striking of these is the theme of female objectification. Rossetti demonstrates this through the various female models who appear in this artist's studio. There is the "queen," for example, the "nameless girl" and the "angel." These identities are very limited and one-dimensional and Rossetti does this deliberately. She wants the reader to realize that these identities are a male creation and do not reflect the true range of the female experience.

Similarly, male power is another important theme in this poem and this is shown through the portrayal of the male artist. He is in control of the women he paints, for instance, because he "feeds" upon them and controls how they are appear on the canvas. But, according to Rossetti, the power of this male artist is really an illusion. It is the female figure who is truly powerful because, in spite of the treatment she receives, she is a joyful and happy figure, full of "hope" and optimism for the future.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This poem examines the tendency of men to objectify women in art and the way that women are shown to suffer as a result. The poem presents us with a male artist who has one beautiful muse who is the subject of all of his paintings. We are told that:

Every canvass means

The same one meaning, neither more nor less.

We can see therefore that in his art the male artist objectifies her and limits her to this "one meaning." The poem becomes more sinister as we see that "He feeds upon her face by day and night," which presents us with an almost vampiric image of how the artist treats this unnamed woman. As the poem ends it is clear that in a sense the artist is not strictly painting the woman before him, because the woman he is painting is:

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.

Rossetti thus makes a harsh critical comment on the way that women are treated as "art" by men and how as a result they are objectified and used as a "blank canvas" if you will excuse the pun to allow the artist to "fill his dream" rather than being an object in her own right.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team