Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Il Barbagianni

About a week ago or so I came across this lovely artwork by Valentine Cameron Prinsep, entitled Il Barbagianni, which means The Barn Owl. I thought in passing at the time that it looked a lot like Lizzie Siddal. A friend pointed me to it the other day again, and I did a bit more digging. I am pretty much convinced now that this painting is a posthumous tribute to Lizzie, even though I couldn't for the life of me find an article on the topic anywhere online.

First of all, compare her profile to Lizzie's:

It's hardly worth arguing any further. But it's further interesting that the artwork was painted in 1863, a year after Lizzie died in 1862. Prinsep was apparently a good friend to Rossetti, and was the artist of one of the Oxford Debating Hall murals, before he went his own artistic way in the mid-60s. It appears this artwork may have not only been an homage to Lizzie, but to a time that was ending.

The artwork features a barn owl, a creature who is considered a symbol of death in many cultures. The Barn Owl in particular is associated with death, and is sometimes called the Death Owl for this reason.

The plant in the corner appears to be either an orange or a pomegranate tree. The orange tree was a symbol of true love and marriage. Prinsep also chose to pose Lizzie in a position that seems to intentionally show her wedding ring on her left finger.

For all these reasons, I would speculate that Prinsep painted this artwork as a posthumous memoir to Lizzie, but also as a comfort to her widower, his good friend Rossetti. The symbolism emphasizes her devotion as a true loving wife, and the calm with which she embraces the symbol of death shows that she wasn't afraid of her own passing. What a beautiful symbol of comfort from one genius friend to another!

I'd love to know what your take is on this artwork...the above is ALL my own speculation based JUST on the facts as presented in the artwork. Do you agree? Disagree? Have information to shed new light on this gorgeous piece?


Stephanie Pina said...

Interesting. It's not just her profile that is similar. Her hair is styled so much like Lizzie's. There is a letter that Georgiana Burne-Jones wrote that describes how Lizzie wore her hair: she wore her hair very loosely fastened up, so that it fell in soft, heavy wings. You can see this quite well in the second painting you posted, the portrait by Rossetti. I've seen the original in person, just once. It surprised me that it was much smaller than I had imagined. But the small size made it seem all the more intimate. My fingers itched to touch it.
Oh, here's a link to Georgiana's letter:

Perhaps Prinsep was inspired by Rossetti, whether intentionally or not. She looks similar to Lizzie, but I have to tell you the owl definitely commands my attention!

Amanda said...

enjoy your blog a lot. If it's a pomegranate tree, that would tie in nicely with the death imagery of the barn owl. The pomegranate is associated with Persephone, wife of Hades, god of death, wealth and the underworld in Greek mythology.

Grace said...

Hi Amanda, and thanks! I agree that the symbolism would work well with pomegranate too. I wish we could tell which the plant is...one of the fruits appears to be split, and might have little seeds inside...that's why I suspect it might be pomegranate.

Bernd Brunner said...

Hello Grace,
I wonder if you first saw this painting in print somewhere. I would like to use it for a book cover, but couldn't find it in volumes on Pre-Raphaelite painting. Many thanks, Bernd bbrunner@gmx.net www.berndbrunner.com @BrunnerBernd