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Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sensual paintings of women

Photo of Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Lewis Carroll in 1863.

Photo of Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Lewis Carroll in 1863.

Self-portrait painted in 1847.

Self-portrait painted in 1847.

The Girlhood of Mary (1849).   His sister, Christina, was the model for Mary.

The Girlhood of Mary (1849). His sister, Christina, was the model for Mary.

Ecce Ancilla Domini.  The Annuciation (1850)

Ecce Ancilla Domini. The Annuciation (1850)

Dante's sister


One of the most beautiful painters of women over the centuries is Dante Gabriel Rossetti who lived during the Victorian Age in England and was an English painter and poet. His given name at birth was Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, but when he reached adulthood he legally changed his name to Dante Gabriel Rossetti to give a nod to his favorite of Italian poets - Dante Alighieri.

Yes, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was of the famous Rossetti family living in and around London during Victorian times. His sister was the poet, Christina Rossetti, a well-known and respected Victorian poet in her own right. His family was intelligent and artistic and his father originally born in Italy. Therefore, there were famous Italian writers and artists at the home as he and his siblings were growing up. It was an intellectual and stimulating household with a large library full of books of poets and artists.

He is best known for his sensuous portraits of women painted during the later half of his life. He is also known for helping to found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters treating religious, moral and medieval subjects in a nonacademic manner.

Rossetti's general education was done at King's College (1836-41) and during this time he couldn't decide whether to focus on poetry or painting. After his time at King's College, he attended a drawing school in Bloomsbury (central London) at about age fourteen. Then he moved on to the Royal Academy School in London as a full time student.

Like his sister Christina, Rossetti read romantic and poetic literature and such writers as - Shakespeare, Goethe, Byron, Scott, Poe, Blake - and he read them voraciously. By age twenty, Rossetti had written a number of translations of Italian poets and written some of his own poetry.

It was in 1848 that he helped to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There were seven members all Royal Academy students except for his brother, William Michael Rossetti who served as editor of The Germ magazine that the brotherhood published. This group's aim was at "truth to nature" in painting and poetry. In painting there was minuteness of detail and painting of nature outdoors. This group also linked poetry, painting, and social idealism and made brotherhood synonymous with a romanticised medieval past that figured prominently in their paintings and poetry.

Rossetti's first paintings, The Girlhood of Mary (1849) and Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annuciation; 1850) are very simple in style but full of symbolism and painted in oils. In fact his sister, Christina was the model for Mary in The Girlhood of Mary.

For the most part these two paintings were highly criticized by art critics and Rossetti became so enraged that he switched from oil painting to watercolors. He also turned away from painting traditional religious themes to painting scenes from Shakespeare, Robert Browning and Dante Alighiere. This was good because it gave him more freedom of imagination in his paintings.

When Rossetti switched to watercolors, he created his own method of mixing watercolors. He used a thick pigment mixed with gum so that he could give the rich effects as in medieval illustrations. You will notice the dark but vibrant colors he uses in his paintings. They are bold and very reminiscient of paintings from the Italian Renaissance.

After 1856, Rossetti's paintings were influenced by the imaginary Arthurian era with a heraldic glow and a pattern of color and romantic medieval accessories and dress. He began painting these scenes after reading Malory's Morte d'Arthur and Tennyson's Idylls of the King.

By this time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had come to an end as the group had splintered and fell apart. Rossetti initiated a second phase of the movement and instead of the realism of "truth to nature" he initiated a romantic enthusiasm for the legendary past. Hence his influence of the readings of King Arthur by Malory and Tennyson.

During this time he met Elizabeth Siddal, considered quite a beauty at the time, and she began modeling for his paintings and sketches. They fell in love and were married in 1860. This was a true love match and Rossetti was devoted to her and she to him.

Tragically, Elizabeth was quite ill during the marriage and in 1862, the marriage ended with her death from an overdose of laundanum. Rossetti was devastated. He then painted Beata Beatrix (1863) a very mystical and idealized painting of Elizabeth. He compared his love for Elizabeth as similar to Dante's love for Beatrice in the Divine Comedy.

Rossetti's Later Paintings

After Elizabeth's death, Rossetti's life and art greatly changed. He moved to Chelsea in London and came under the influence of James McNeill Whistler, the American painter. This is when his paintings of women lead to a more aesthetic and sensuous approach to art.

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His literary themes ended and he began to paint portraits of mundane beauties. There were always gorgeously dressed and he began painting in oils again. At this time he also took a mistress and she became a model for many of his painting of women.

These sensuous females were based on the Italian High Renaissasnce artists of Venice, Titian, and Veronese. All his sensuous female subjects beat a distinctive Pre-Rafaelite facial type. They are painted in luxuriant, bold colors and have a rhythmic design. They are close up images using dense colors.

These painting became very popular with collectors and Rossetti became very wealthy from selling these paintings. Most of these paintings are today in English museums in the Tate Britain, Birmingham, Manchester and Salford Museum and Art Galleries.

Also during this time of painting he also began writing poetry again. He had stopped when Elizabeth died and had gathered all his poetry manuscripts and had them buried in the casket with Elizabeth. When he began to write poetry again, he had Elizabeth exhumed to retieve the poetry manuscrips he had buried with her. This was a traumatic experience for him, but he took these poems plus the ones he had just written and published, Poems, in 1870.

This collection of poems was well received except by one critic who singled out Rossetti for attack. Rossetti responded vociferously to this critic and this combined with chloral and alcohol he was taking for insomnia, he suffered a mental collapse in 1872. From then on his life was that of a semi-invalid and recluse. He continued painting and writing poetry and in 1882 he died not having produced anything great since his collapse.

I have always enjoyed these paintings of women that he painted and I consider them beautiful. Not everyone does, I know. I have seen some of these paintings on loan to The Cleveland Museum of Art when they have been there for art showings. There is a vulnerability and sensuality to these paintings and at the same time the colors he uses creates bold women. I hope you enjoy these next several paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The Roman Widow

The Roman Widow



The Blessed Damozel

The Blessed Damozel

Beata Beatrix (1864-1870)

Beata Beatrix (1864-1870)


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 26, 2012:

PneilR: Thanks so much for reading. This is really a coincidence as I had no Idea the Tate was opening a showing of his paintings. Perfect timing but I'm over here on the other side of the pond. Thanks for the info-I'd love to jump the pond and see it.! And thanks for the web site-I checked it out and I love it-great suggestion. Thanks for stopping by and reading!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 26, 2012:

Break of Dawn: yes, every ten or fifteen years I clean. Lol. How nice of Epi to suggest my hubs to you. I am honored by your comments after reading yours on the first woman Nobel prize winner- that was excellent! And winning Sept. new Hubbers award. Thanks so much for stopping by and reading this . Dante's use of color in his paintings is unique to me and I think is one aspect that makes them so stunning. Thanks for the insightful comments!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 26, 2012:

prasetio: I'm so glad you enjoyed reading this and discovered a new artist. Thank you for your comments-most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 26, 2012:

Curiad: Thank you for your insightful comments. I like how you describe his paintings. I agree with you-tone of serious calm. Thanks so much for reading and I'm glad you enjoyed this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 26, 2012:

And vice versa Epi. You along with a few others bring the sensuous out in me. How could you not with your delightful, quality poetry. and your subject matter always is so zippy, tender and wistful (sp?) at the same time. You are truly amazing and I always look forward to reading your work! Thanks so much for stopping by again-I love your visits!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 26, 2012:

cat on a soapbox: Boy, you said it all. The lighting etc. just make this paintings jump out at me. I think they are stunning. I am so glad you enjoyed reading and viewing this. Thanks so much for reading and for your insightful comments.

PNeilR on September 26, 2012:

Nice article and very timely with the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition just opened at the Tate. You will probably enjoy this newly launched Gabriel Dante Rossetti wall calendar which incorporates a broad cross section of his paintings: -

Break of Dawn on September 26, 2012:

First of all I must thank my friend Epi for sending a shout out about this hub to me, otherwise I may have missed reading this outstanding hub. I have always admired Dante Gabriel Rossetti works, but never knew much about this great painter. I always found the rich, deep and vivid colors he used to be so beautiful, and it was interesting to find out that he used his own method of mixing the watercolors. Thank you for a most wonderful and interesting hub. Suzette, I'm so glad that you decided to clean out that cupboard that day, lol!

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on September 25, 2012:

I love art and this hub as well. I had never heard about Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Thanks for writing and introduce him with us. Voted up!

Best wishes, Prasetio

Curiad on September 25, 2012:

very interesting, His work was very moody and has a tone of serious calm. Thank you for sharing this.

Nell Rose from England on September 25, 2012:

I had a senior moment today, so that's fine! lol!

epigramman on September 25, 2012:

....yes it's true I am made senusous by passionate, intelligent, articulate ladies like yourself, Audrey and Sannel ........

Catherine Tally from Los Angeles on September 25, 2012:

Wonderful hub! There is such a magical beauty and sensuousness to the Pre-Raphaelite Movement w/ beautiful lighting, radiant skin, silken hair, and an obvious love of nature. I'm thrilled to see you write about its founding artist. Thank you!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 25, 2012:

Thank you vocalcoach. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this article. Thanks so much for the votes - much appreciated!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 25, 2012:

Hey Epi - that's because Rossetti painted them all in the 1800's - they're gone! LOL And, where are the senusous men? I guess one of them is in ontario, canada on lake erie. Am I right or am I right?

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on September 25, 2012:

Thank you for bringing this extraordinary painter to the surface. I enjoyed reading about him and his influence to the world. You've done a magnificent job and I will share this and voted up and across.

epigramman on September 25, 2012:'s funny that I can't find any of these women at the Hub with the exception of Sannel who writes for another site and has her own blog - and of course you, the lovely hub author - always love your presentations and I will eagerly share this beauty with my FB group Let's just talk music or cinema (or art) and sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario canada 6:35pm

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 25, 2012:

Nell: So glad you read this and enjoyed it. I discovered Dante Rossetti and his paintings about ten or fifteen years ago. There was a showing of his work at The Cleveland Museum of Art. I hadn't known about him before that and I fell in love with his paintings and the Pre-Raphaelite period of art. Your country has given us so many great artists, painters, writers etc. over the years. I so enjoyed his paintings that I bought a box of notecards with his paintings on them. Well, I shoved the box way back in the cupboard and finally cleaned out a bit (LOL) and voila, found his notecards. Hence, the hub. This is how I come up with my topics for my hub. I just run into something or read something that jogs my memory (when I'm not having a senior moment,) and then I write. Thanks so much for visiting and for your comments. Most appreciated!

Nell Rose from England on September 24, 2012:

Hi Suzette, you have chosen my favorite artist of all time! In fact I was watching a program about Dante the other night and I said that I didn't really know much about him! lol! you mind reader you! seriously the pre

Raphaelites were my most favorite, I never really knew who painted what but they were all great pictures, my favorite is the girl in the pond, I think it must have been his, because I watched a program about him a few years ago and I remember his girlfriend being red haired, and she had to lay in the water for hours to get the picture right, wonderful hub, and thanks! voted up! nell

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 24, 2012:

Ha, thought you were going to see naked women, Alastar? Sorry if I mislead you, but I had a time deciding where to put the word "sensual" in my title. Yes, they are HIS sensual women - you are correct as always. Love your comments, Alastar and thanks for staying with this article even though the women are all clothed LOL

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on September 23, 2012:

Haha suzette, have to admit on first seeing this i thought- Dante drew sensual pictures of women?! Wow. Was quickly set straight and enjoyed getting the inside scoop on Rossetti and HIS sensual paintings.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 21, 2012:

Hi Hyphen: Thanks so much for the compliments. I'm so glad you enjoyed this. I must have been an art history major in another life. LOL Actually, I have hung out at art museums and art galleries all my life. After nature, art is my major destressor. I can just look at paintings and sculture all day long. Actually, I think it runs in the family from my grandfather's side of the family. My cousin in Italy was an artist before becoming an architect. We all appreciate art. Dante like his sister Christina are obscure artists today but were very popular during their lifetimes. But, these artists seem to lead such tragic, sad lives. That part I don't need LOL. Thanks so much for reading and for your comments, Hyph.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 21, 2012:

Ruchira: I know, his paintings are exquisitly beautiful. The detail he paints is amazing. I'm so glad you learned of him from this. That makes me happy. Thanks so much for stopping by to read and comment. Most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 21, 2012:

Hi Carol: Thanks so much for stopping by to read this. I love his work and have known about him after seeing an event of his at The Cleveland Museum of Art some years ago. I didn't know you were a painter. Sometime show us some of your work. I have sketched some, but never painted. I'm glad you enjoyed this.

Brenda Barnes from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on September 21, 2012:

This is a gorgeous Hub. I feel as if I just toured an art museum. Your knowledge is outstanding and love of art apparent. I have always been a fan of Rossetti but never knew much about him. Now that ignorance has been rectified. Thank you so much.

Ruchira from United States on September 21, 2012:

Beautiful pieces of art. I had heard of this painter but, saw his paintings for the first time.

Voted up as useful

carol stanley from Arizona on September 21, 2012:

Thanks for sharing this artist and work. I thought I knew most artists...well the ones in the books. I love art and I need to get back to painting. Thanks for sharing this beautiful hub. Vote UP.

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