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