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Gallery Text

A Sea-Spell was painted for Rossetti’s patron Frederick Leyland, a ship magnate who owned a large number of paintings by the artist. Rossetti first planned to illustrate lines from Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan — “A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw” — but the subject was ultimately derived from his own poem, inscribed on the frame that he designed. The musician’s “lashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell” of the siren, a mythological figure whose voice lures sailors to their deaths. Although sirens were traditionally described as women with the bodies or heads of birds, Rossetti’s enchantress retains her human form. The artist evokes all of the senses in his lushly claustrophobic canvas; the siren’s dreamy mien suggests that she, too, has been bewitched by the music and by the fragrance of the surrounding flowers. The subject of the dangerous woman, or “femme fatale,” flourished in the nineteenth century.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, British (London, England 1828 - 1882 Birchington-on-Sea, England)
A Sea-Spell
Work Type
Persistent Link
Level 2, Room 2130, European and American Art, 17th–19th century, The Pre–Raphaelites and Their Legacy
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Physical Descriptions
Oil on canvas
111.5 x 93 cm (43 7/8 x 36 5/8 in.)
framed: 142.2 x 122.6 x 8.9 cm (56 x 48 1/4 x 3 1/2 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: l.l.: D. G. Rossetti 1877
  • label: backing board, paper, handwritten: A Sea Spell painted in oil by Dante G. Rossetti / N.B.-- The Copyright of this Picture is the exclusive property of the Artist.
  • label: backing board, paper, printed and handwritten: [printed:] Scott & Fowles / 667 Fifth Ave / New York / No. [handwritten:] 728
Frederick R. Leyland (acquired from the artist?) sold; [Christie, Manson & Wood, London, May 28, 1892, lot 51]; to [Tooth]. T. F. Wigley. David Croal Thomson. William Hulme, Viscount Leverhulme, sold; [Anderson Galleries, New York, February 17-19, 1926, lot 238, repr.]; to [Scott & Fowles, New York] sold; to Grenville L. Winthrop, 1935, gift; to Fogg Art Museum, 1939
State, Edition, Standard Reference Number
Standard Reference Number
Surtees 248
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Grenville L. Winthrop, Class of 1886
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
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Publication History

William Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Macmillan and Co. (London, England, 1882), pp. 228, 244-246; no. 273 in chronology

Frederic George Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Seeley (London, England, 1894), p. 92

Henry Currie Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Illustrated Memorial of His Art and Life, George Bell & Sons (London, 1899), p. 191, no. 283, repr. opp. p. 195

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Pictures & Poems, ed. Fitz Roy Carrington, R. H. Russell (New York, NY, 1899), repr. in b/w

Elisabeth Luther Cary, The Rossettis: Dante Gabriel and Christina, G. P. Putnam's Sons (London, England, 1900), no. 183 in chronological list, p. 295

Henry Currie Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an illustrated memorial of his art and life, George Bell and Sons, Ltd. (London, England, 1904), pp. 72, 119, 136, 137; no. 364 in chronology

Jarno Jessen, Rossetti, Velhagen und Klassing (Bielefeld and Leipzig, Germany, 1905), p. 88, fig. 66

Henry Currie Marillier, Rossetti, George Bell and Sons, Ltd. (London, England, 1906), p. 93

Ernest Radford, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, G. Newnes Ltd. (London, England, 1908), repr. in b/w as pl. 52

Hippolyte Mireur, Dictionnaire des ventes d’art faites en France et à l’Etranger pendant les XVIIIme & XIXme siècles, Souillé (Paris, 1911-1912), vol. VI

Chefs-d'oeuvre de D. G. Rossetti, A. Perche (Paris, France, 1912), repr. in b/w p. 58

Masterpieces of D. G. Rossetti, Gowans & Gray, Ltd. (London, England, 1923), repr. in b/w p. 58

"Leverhulme Sales Close to $1,000,000, New York Times (February 20, 1926), p. 12

"Gift of Grenville L. Winthrop, Class of 1886", Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum, ed. Edward Waldo Forbes, Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, 1939), vol. 9, no. 1, November, p. 19, p. 19, repr.

Paintings and Drawings of the Pre-Raphaelites and their Circle, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1946), no. 84

Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné, The Clarendon Press (Oxford, England, 1971), no. 248

Marina Henderson, D. G. Rossetti, Academy Editions/St. Martin's Press (London, England and New York, NY, 1973), p. 101, text p. 100

Helene E. Roberts, "The Dream World of Dante Gabriel Rossetti", Victorian Studies (June 1974), vol. XVII, no. 4, text p. 376, plate 4, p. 383

Gail Lynn Goldberg, "Composition and Correspondence: Rossetti's Sea-Spell Pair", Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, New York Public Library (New York, NY, Summer 1982), pp. 190-207, repr. in b/w p. 201

Maria Teresa Benedetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Casa Editrice G. C. Sansoni (Florence, Italy, 1984), no. 484, pl. 74

[Reproduction only], Yeats and the Visual Arts, Rutgers University Press (Rutgers, NJ, 1986)., repr. on cover

Theresa Byington, "A Technical Study of Five Oil Paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the Collection of the Fogg Art Museum" (thesis (certificate in conservation), Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, 1987), Unpublished, passim

Alicia Craig Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Abbeville Press (New York, NY, 1989), repr. in color p. 16 as pl. 5

Edgar Peters Bowron, European Paintings Before 1900 in the Fogg Art Museum: A Summary Catalogue including Paintings in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1990), p. 128, repr. as no. 72

Kirsten Hoving Powell, "Object, Symbol, and Metaphor: Rossetti's Musical Imagery", Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies (Spring 1993), n.s., 2, pp. 16-29, pp. 16, 20, 22

Maria Teresa Benedetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Charta (Milan, 1998), no. 484, pl. 74

Chikashi Kitazaki and Mina Oya, ed., Between Reality and Dreams: Nineteenth Century British and French Art from the Winthrop Collection of the Fogg Art Museum, exh. cat., National Museum of Western Art (Ueno, 2002), pp. 158-159, cat. #45, color repr.

Kunst og Kultur, Universitetsforlaget (2003), no. 1, 2003, Argang 86, pp. 14-15, repr on p 15.

Stephen Wildman, Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum, exh. cat., Art Services International (Alexandria, Virginia, 2004), p. 196, note 2

Henry Johnson, "Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Japan: The Musical Instrument Depicted in 'The Blue Bower' and 'A Sea-Spell'", Music in Art (Spring-Fall 2005), vol. XXX, no. 1-2, pp. 145-153, pp. 145-153, repr. as fig. 2

Richard Wendorf, After Sir Joshua: Essays on British Art and Cultural History, Yale University Press (New Haven and London, 2005), pp. 78, 92, 97

Linda Phyllis Austern, "Teach me to Heare Mermaides Singing", Music of the Sirens, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN, 2006), pp. 75, 78, ill. p. 77.

Poetry and the Frame: Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel and its Altarpiece Setting, website, The Frame Blog, accessed June 7, 2013,

The Poetic World of the Pre-Raphaelites: New Translations, Tsentr knigi Rudomino (Moscow, 2013), repr. in color pp. 167-168

Linda Gertner Zatlin, Aubrey Beardsley: A Catalogue Raisonné, Yale University Press (U.S.) (New Haven and London, 2016), vol. 1, p. 139

Exhibition History

Pictures, Drawings, Designs and Studies by the Late Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London, 01/01/1883 - 12/31/1883

Paintings and Drawings of the Pre-Raphaelites and their Circle, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/08/1946 - 06/01/1946

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Circle, University of Kansas Museum of Art, Lawrence, 11/04/1958 - 12/15/1958

Pre-Raphaelite and Early French Symbolist Art in the Fogg Collections, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 01/16/1973 - 02/25/1973

The Pre-Raphaelites: Selections from the Permanent Collection, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 06/04/1980 - 07/15/1980

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Centennial Exhibition from the Harvard Collections, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 07/12/1982 - 09/11/1982

Paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Technical Study, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 07/24/1987 - 09/18/1987

Between Reality and Dreams: Nineteenth Century British and French Art from the Winthrop Collection of the Fogg Art Museum, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, 09/14/2002 - 12/08/2002

For Students of Art and Lovers of Beauty: Highlights from the Collection of Grenville L. Winthrop, Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/16/2004

32Q: 2130 19th Century, Harvard Art Museums, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

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