Rossetti explained the subject of Proserpine in a letter to W. A. Turner, who bought a version of the picture in 1877: 'The figure represents Proserpine as Empress of Hades. After she was conveyed by Pluto to his realm, and became his bride, her mother Ceres importuned Jupiter for her return to earth, and he was prevailed on to consent to this, provided only she had not partaken of any of the fruits of Hades.
It was found, however, that she had eaten one grain of a pomegranate, and this enchained her to her new empire and destiny. She is represented in a gloomy corridor of her palace, with the fatal fruit in her hand. As she passes, a gleam strikes on the wall behind her form some inlet suddenly opened, and admitting for a moment the light of the upper world; and she glances furtively towards it, immersed in thought'. (W. Sharp, 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Record and Study', London 1882, p.236)
The subject was suggested to the artist by William Morris, whose wife Jane was the model for this and many other works by Rossetti. Her own life bore similarities to that of the captive goddess, and the painting could be seen as much a portrait of Jane as a representation of Proserpine. By all accounts, Mrs Morris was not a happy woman and Morris was a cold husband. Jane enjoyed an intimate relationship with Rossetti which spanned decades. Rossetti painted 'Proserpine' while staying with the couple at Kelmscott. Eight oil versions were made, most meeting with disaster of one sort or another. This, the seventh, was painted for the Liverpool shipping magnate F. R. Leyland, as a replacement for a previous version which was damaged in transit. Various symbols contained in the painting include the pomegranate, which signifies captivity and marriage, and the incense-burner, the attribute of a goddess.
The decorative quality of the picture is accentuated by the curve of the ivy spray, a symbol of clinging memory, which is echoed in Proserpine's arm and the rich folds of drapery. The painting is inscribed with the artist's signature and date on a scroll at lower left: 'DANTE GABRIELE ROSSETTI RITRASSE NEL CAPODANNO DEL 1874' ('Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted this at the beginning of 1874'). Rossetti, who was also a poet, wrote a sonnet for the painting, inscribing it in Italian on the picture and in English on the frame: 'Afar away the light that brings cold cheer Unto this wall, – one instant and no more Admitted at my distant palace-door. Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here. Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey That chills me: and afar, how far away, The nights that shall be from the days that were. Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign: And still some heart unto some soul doth pine, (Whose sounds mine inner sense in fain to bring, Continually together murmuring,) – "Woe's me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!" The frame, designed by Rossetti, is decorated with roundels which resemble a section through a pomegranate.
Further reading: Virginia Surtees, 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828–1882. The Paintings and Drawings: A Catalogue Raisonné' – 23, Oxford 1971, I, pp.131–134 Leslie Parris (ed.), 'The Pre-Raphaelites', exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.231–232 Terry Riggs February 1998