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The Fascinating Life of English Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti


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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, if you let the name roll over your tongue, you might wonder at such an odd name for a full-blooded Englishman during the Victorian Era. True to its sound, the surname Rossetti (meaning red hair) originated from southern Italy, where Rossetti’s parents, father, Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti, and mother, Frances Polidori, whose scholarly families hailed from the mother country under political exile joined in union.

In 1828, Dante, as some would call him while others knew him as Gabriel, he was born to take his father’s path, and excel and surpass his scholarly accomplishments at half his father’s age.

Rossetti, the young man himself, would become an illustrious name in the circle of arts, but he was not sure which path he should take. Torn between two mediums, painting and poetry, he preferred the paint brush rather than the pen.

Thanks to the devoted friendship and counsel of Ford Madox Brown, a historical painter who convinced Rossetti of his path. Dante might not have been the celebrated and revered artist that he esteems to date. Brown and Rossetti remained close confidants throughout their lives.

Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti at 22 years of Age, between 1882 and 1883

Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti at 22 years of Age, between 1882 and 1883

What is Pre-Raphaelitism?

An artistic movement based on the foundation and principles of the 19th-century artists and writers who sought to recreate and restore the practice thought used in Italian art before the High Renaissance painter Raphael.

The Pre-Raphaelite Conception

It all started in a prosperous London neighborhood on Gower Street, in the home of a known child prodigy, John Everett Millais. A new movement had begun. Three young men destined for greatness formed a tight circle of friends whose passion centered on painting and poetry. Aside from Millais, Rossetti and William Holman Hunt made up the founding three.

This formed Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had a distinct purpose. The union wanted to create an atmosphere of artistic independence centered on developing free thought and interpretation of their ideals, yet each member remaining responsible to its cause.

The Doctrine of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

  • Genuine Ideas to Express
  • Attentive to Nature and Expression
  • Sympathize With Previous Expressions of Art
  • To Produce Quality Art

A Movement Founded on Romanticism

From the beginning, the Brotherhood stood firm on Romanticism. With this ideal, the fellowship worshiped medieval culture and heightened its fascination with a mix of spiritualism and realism. Though Hunt and Millais preferred the path to authenticity, Rossetti remained captivated by Medievalism causing a sense of resentment but did not cause the group any permanent damage because of their beliefs on freedom of thought and interpretation.

The artistic circle centered their paintings around the beauty of glorious women. Rossetti worshiped this ideal and felt that he could find reflections of his soul in the face of women as theorized by writer Richard Cammel in his 1933 work about the artist “Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Philosophy of Love,” which he suggests:

“The soul of a man is incomplete and must seek its complement, in the soul of the one woman, its affinity. Not by all men, in this pilgrimage of life, is the complemental soul found or findable; but somewhere in the mysterious passage of the human spirit to its Eternal Goal will the two half-souls meet and, uniting, create of themselves that Union with the Divine Essence which is the sum of Attainment…Rossetti, an Italian under an alien sky, taught his Pre-Raphaelite friends to paint the souls of women, and to portray each his own soul in the pensive countenance of his Beloved.”

Writer and Social Critic, Charles Dickens 1858

Writer and Social Critic, Charles Dickens 1858

Charles Dickens' Scathing Review

The Brotherhood remained a tight-knit network until around 1850 when famed writer Charles Dickens denounced the group’s credibility by criticizing Millais at an exhibition in which he presented his work Christ in the House of His Parents. Dickens’ rude remarks about Millais’ sister, Mary, and her less than pleasant appearance, created a controversy surrounding the group’s legitimacy.

For Rossetti, there’s no doubt that Dickens’s harsh observation about one of his close artistic associations was quite a blow beneath the belt for their inspirational movement. The critical assessment remained so disturbing that it signified the beginning of the end for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

“Christ in the House of His Parents” John Everett Millais c. 1849

“Christ in the House of His Parents” John Everett Millais c. 1849

The Movement Dissolves

Within three years the Brotherhood dissolved, leaving William Holman Hunt as the sole artist dedicated to its original aim and purpose, while the other members followed Rossetti’s lead. Each artist, on their own, helped to shape the Pre-Raphaelite vision into what it’s known for today, the ethereal tones and romanticized settings of dream-stricken women caught up in a Libertine poses.

Rossetti's Various Works

In the years following the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Dissolution, Rossetti continued his famed romantic art expression, although his once close friendships with the brotherhood had waned. Despite the disappointing breakup, he mastered other roles besides his illustrious paintings, talents which included stained-glass windows, the book arts–writing poetry, designing illustrated book covers, and binding.

Original manuscript of Autumn Song by Rossetti, 1848, Ashley Library

Original manuscript of Autumn Song by Rossetti, 1848, Ashley Library

A Tragic Love Immortalized

To Rossetti, feminine beauty exemplified fine art and beauty was none other than the often androgenous or voluptuous muses that he encapsulated in his paintings. He preferred the red-heads, the crimson flowers or the “stunners” as he so glorified his subjects.

Above all, Elizabeth Siddal was his first renowned model, his obsession, and the woman with whom he fell in love and married. She had a wild-earthly tumble of flaming copper curls, and a heart-shaped face likened to the goddess Venus. Though after Siddal’s tragic passing, no other woman muse had pierced his heart in such a fragmented way than Elizabeth, who left him a tortured soul. Full of grief and remorse from dubious rumors, Rossetti created a masterpiece, immortalizing Elizabeth and naming the work Beata Beatrice, a haunting memorial to his wife’s last hours.

One of Rossetti’s Most Compelling Works: Beata Beatrice (Model Elizabeth Siddall Immortalized as Beata Beatrix) 1864-1870

One of Rossetti’s Most Compelling Works: Beata Beatrice (Model Elizabeth Siddall Immortalized as Beata Beatrix) 1864-1870

A Sisterhood of Stunners

After his wife’s untimely death, Rossetti continued with his painter’s ambition and found inspiration in his next muse, Fanny Cornforth. Though unconventional for its day, the painter and his muse lived together despite social norms where they worked together on over 60 portraits.

Although Rossetti lived with Fanny, he still used other models for his inspiration. One muse, in particular, Jane Burden Morris was the wife of a friend and textile artist, William Morris. Rossetti and Jane carried on an unusual friendship that ran deep and emotional although platonic. Known for her incredible figure, Rossetti considered Jane the perfect model and the epitome of his Pre-Raphaelite vision. Other notable models used for Rossetti’s painting included Annie Miller, Alexa Wilding, Marie Spartali Stillman, and even his sibling, Christina Rossetti, as shown in the list below:

  • Beata Beatrice (1870) Elizabeth Siddal
  • The Day Dream (1880) Jane Morris
  • Lady Lilith (1867) Fanny Cornforth
  • La Ghirlandata (1873) Alexa Wilding
  • Water Willow (1871) Jane Morris
  • A Vision of Fiammetta (1878) Maria Spartali Stillman
  • Pia de’ Tolomei (1868) Jane Morris
  • A Sea-Spell (1875) Alexa Wilding
  • Proserpine (1874) Jane Morris
  • Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850) Christina Rossetti
The Salutation of Beatrice circa 1869 Model:  Jane Burden Morris

The Salutation of Beatrice circa 1869 Model: Jane Burden Morris

Rossetti's Final Years

In 1872, Rossetti suffered a major mental breakdown because of depression and pressure from critics after the release of his first collection of poetry. Drugs and alcohol spiraled the painter into despair, which not even longtime friend Jane Burden Morris could help him.

A few years later, he walked away from everything, everyone, and for the next decade, he lived the life of a recluse in his home at Cheyne Walk. After a long-standing battle with Brights Disease, many historians believe that the famed painter tried to medicate his pain with drugs and alcohol, which most likely caused his death on Easter Sunday, 1882.

Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1904) frontispiece, oil painting portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, by Henry Treffry Dunn

Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1904) frontispiece, oil painting portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, by Henry Treffry Dunn

Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell.

— Dante Gabriel Rossetti

A Writer's Perspective

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was nothing less than an inspired genius. We cannot underestimate his prowess as an artist given his legendary paintings, or his wide range of other talents including stained-glass, the book arts, or literary achievements in lovelorn poetry. One could spend hours arguing over why Rossetti might be the most celebrated Pre-Raphaelite artist to have ever existed, considering he was co-founder of this controversial artistic movement and revered around the world.

In the eyes of-the-art world, Rossetti remains an undeniable talent. However, researchers continue to examine the artist’s character with furious debate. Illicit love affairs, a neglectful marriage, rumors of homicide, betrayal and back-stabbing of good friends, manic depression and addictions to painkillers–these are all salacious hearsay that has followed the artist for the last 130 years since his death. Hence the reason for my reference to ‘Dubious rumors’ in this article, given the facts–one cannot ignore his illustrious career despite his somewhat tarnished character.

Cited Sources & Works

  • The Rossetti Archive
  • Clifford, David and Roussillon, Laurence. Outsiders Looking In: The Rossettis Then and Now. London: Anthem, 2004.
  • Jennifer J. Lee, M. A., 2006. Venus Imaginaria: Reflections on Alexa Wilding, Her Life, And Her Role As Muse In the Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Professor William L. Pressly, Department of Art History and Archaeology/ Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park)

© 2019 ziyena


Liz Westwood from UK on May 27, 2019:

This biography gives a lot of interesting information about Rossetti in a very readable format.