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The Modest Life of Pre-Raphaelite Art Model Alexa Wilding


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Alexa Wilding was born an only child into a working-class family. Her father was a piano artisan and her uncles all butchers. Their trades attested to the fact that her life had not been poverty stricken.

Alexa learned to read and write at an early age. By the time she reached the age of employment, she had taken up work as a dressmaker despite her calling of becoming a stage actress. Although she never graced a theater’s stage, the world would still come to know her, the outline of her classical beauty thanks to Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The two would cross paths while walking along the Strand.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti  Alexa Wilding 1774

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Alexa Wilding 1774

Women are important in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. But while their faces are seen everywhere – in oil paintings, watercolors, drawings – their voices are never heard.

— JaJan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (Quartet Books, 1985)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Scouting For a Muse

On the prowl for his next great muse, Rossetti saw her and jumped out of his cab to hail her. He begged for a sitting, and she agreed, but never showed up the next day. Of course, the artist ended up disappointed. Weeks went by and he in his misfortune had scrapped any hopes of ever painting the alluring Wilding, but fate had decided their paths would cross once more.

Of all his art models, Rossetti seemed to have treated Alexa with the utmost respect, as is clear in a letter of correspondence that she had sent him explaining that of mother’s permission to sit. The message made the situation proper, platonic, and businesslike given the artist’s known penchant for feline philandering:

23 Warwick Lane, Newgate Market. 8 April 1865. Miss Wilding presents her compliments to Mr. Rossetti and will feel obliged if he will send any letters to the above address, as she has obtained her Mamma’s permission to sit for any picture after the specified time of three weeks. I am, Sir, yours respectfully,

A. Wilding.

P.S. If you should require me to sit, let me know, and I will come if possible.

The famed Strand where Dante Gabriel Rossetti came across Alexa Wilding.  Print published by Ackermann & Co in 1836. Artist unknown.

The famed Strand where Dante Gabriel Rossetti came across Alexa Wilding. Print published by Ackermann & Co in 1836. Artist unknown.

Alexa Wilding's Art Modeling Career

Alexa Wilding may not have been the wife or a lover of Rossetti, but he seemed to favor her for her versatile features more than any other Pre-Raphaelite muse, including the other modeling contemporaries such as his wife Elizabeth Siddal, or Annie Miller. Perhaps the cordial platonic relationship between Rossetti and Wilding provided a haven. The artist’s lack of romantic or sexual interest in his muse may have helped him to concentrate on his subject without deterrence from a lover’s persuasion or strife thus achieving the ultimate freedom of expression and inspiration.

Wilding was the only art model who did not take part in his many romantic liaisons. Nor did she suffer from salacious gossip over his illicit relationships. In some ways, Alexa resembled another of Rossetti’s muses, Jane Burden Morris – in the singular way that she carried herself with comportment – soft-spoken and somewhat refined in manner although not as stimulating as often described by other acquaintances within the artist’s circle. The historical record shows us that Rossetti found Alexa to be beautiful yet somewhat dull and uninteresting. Even still he had not dismissed her as just a passing fancy. The two remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Alexa Wilding: (Lady Lilith – Study for the Head Dante Gabriel Rossetti circa 1872)

Alexa Wilding: (Lady Lilith – Study for the Head Dante Gabriel Rossetti circa 1872)

Wilding Operates a Boarding House

After her modeling stint, Wilding invested her earnings into a boarding house that she ran, which seemed to be a plight for Rossetti as he mentions her in a letter written in 1873, complaining that he had to help Wilding with her financial burden. Forever indebted to his kindness and inspired dedication to making her unknown facade one of the most talked about classical faces in the movement in such as the painting Veronica Veronese.

Alexa remained ever grateful and a faithful friend to the core. Upon and after his death in April 1882, she had traveled more than once to Birchington-on-Sea to place a wreath at his grave.

Veronica Veronese by Danter Gabriel Rossetti 1872

Veronica Veronese by Danter Gabriel Rossetti 1872

Alexa Wilding's Final Years

Throughout the course of her modeling career, Alexa had suffered bouts with a mysterious illness that had kept her from sitting on occasion. Rossetti recognized Alexa’s discomfort. Most likely, he much felt guilt over his neglect of his wife, Elizabeth, and her untimely death. These feelings might have caused him considerable concern for Wilding, sending the young woman home for care when predisposed of pain.

Not long after Rossetti’s death, medical experts diagnosed Alexa with a splenic tumor, and within 16 months she would succumb to peritonitis. She died on April 24th, 1884 at just 39 years old.

Portrait pf Alexa Wilding 1860s by John Robert Parsons Irish Photographer and Painter 1826 - 1909

Portrait pf Alexa Wilding 1860s by John Robert Parsons Irish Photographer and Painter 1826 - 1909

Cited Sources & Works

  • Clifford, David and Roussillon, Laurence. Outsiders Looking In: The Rossettis Then and Now. London: Anthem, 2004.
  • Grylls, R. Glynn. Portrait of Rossetti. London: Macdonald, 1964. Pg 114
  • Rossetti Papers:1862 to 1870, ed. W. M. Rossetti, pp. 95-96.
  • Dunn, Henry Treffry, ed. Rosalie Glynn Grylls Mander (1984) Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle (Westerham) p. 46.

© 2019 ziyena


diogenes from UK and Mexico on May 25, 2019:

Sad to see such beauty taken at just 39. Life is a lottery for all of us.

I enjoyed reading about her.


Liz Westwood from UK on May 25, 2019:

This is an interesting biographical artical. So sad that she died at a relatively young age.