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The Paintings of Pre-Raphaelite Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Legends and Stunners

Amanda is a keen artist and art historian with a particular interest in 19th-century art, especially the work of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Rossetti, self-portrait as a young man, 1847.

Rossetti, self-portrait as a young man, 1847.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

In the beginning, there were three members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Three young and idealistic artists came together to create works of art that reflected their admiration for the honesty and simplicity of early Christian artists. They wanted their art to inform and inspire, and they chose subjects from history, legend, and from the Bible, with a fair spattering of morality thrown in. The three founding members of this movement were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais.

Over time the brotherhood came to include the sculptor Thomas Woolner, artists James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens, and Rossetti's brother, the writer William Michael Rossetti. These were the official members, but as the movement grew other artists began to emulate the ideas of the original group, and the paintings of Edward Coley Burne Jones and many other similar Victorian artists are now commonly referred to as being 'Pre-Raphaelite.'

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brother of the poet, Christina Rossetti, was born in London in 1828 to an Italian family. After showing early artistic ability, Dante Gabriel entered Sass's Academy at age 13, where he stayed for four years, with the intention of preparing for the Royal Academy Schools. However, on graduating from the Royal Academy, Rossetti quickly tired of the rigidly structured lessons, and soon dropped out of his classes. Still determined to continue with his studies, he wrote to the artist Ford Madox Brown, whose work he greatly admired, and asked him if he might become his pupil. The older man was flattered by the request and began tutoring Rossetti in 1848. Although the pupil-teacher relationship was to be short-lived, it was nonetheless the beginning of a friendship that would last until Rossetti's death.

Later that same year, Rossetti saw and admired William Holman Hunt's painting 'The Eve of St Agnes' at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. He spoke to Hunt about his work, and it soon became clear that as artists they had much in common. Rossetti, flighty and mercurial as ever, decided to abandon Madox Brown and set up a studio with Holman Hunt instead. With the £70 Hunt received for 'The Eve of St Agnes' the pair rented a large, bare room in Cleveland Street, and Rossetti commenced work on The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini which were his earliest contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite movement

'The Girlhood of St Mary Virgin' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, signed and dated PRB 1849. Now owned by the Tate Gallery in London.

'The Girlhood of St Mary Virgin' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, signed and dated PRB 1849. Now owned by the Tate Gallery in London.

The Girlhood of St Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849

This was to be Rossetti's first major oil painting, and also the first to be exhibited with the mysterious initials PRB, which stood for 'Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.' Rossetti's mother and his sister Christina served as models, and the picture is full of symbolic references to the life of Christ. Mary and her mother, St Anne, are shown embroidering a lily onto crimson cloth, whilst a serious-looking child-angel stands behind a vase with another lily (the symbol of purity) balanced on a pile of books bearing the names of virtues such as 'fortitude', 'faith', 'hope' and 'prudence'. Beside the books lies a seven-leaved palm branch and a seven-thorned briar tied with a scroll inscribed tot dolores tot gaudia ( so many sorrows, so many joys). Also in the background, there is a cross twined with ivy, a crimson cloak, and a haloed dove.

Rossetti, at this point in his career, still required guidance from Madox Brown and Holman Hunt on matters regarding technique and perspective. Even with their assistance, there is still an awkward feel to the overall composition.

'Ecce Ancilla Domini' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Currently in the Tate Gallery London.

'Ecce Ancilla Domini' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Currently in the Tate Gallery London.

Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850

Rossetti's second Pre-Raphaelite picture, exhibited at the Portland Gallery, was the object of sharp criticism, and Rossetti took the negative comments so badly that he decided against exhibiting in London again. Christina Rossetti served as a model for the Virgin Mary, and the lily embroidered on red cloth, last seen in the painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, features in the foreground, symbolizing Mary's purity. The angel hovering before her has flames coming from his feet and is holding yet another lily. The haloed dove flying through the window looks a little out of place, and the strange perspective, as well as the awkward composition, give us further clues as to Rossetti's relative youth and inexperience. After a long wait for a buyer, the picture was eventually sold to a Mr. McCracken from Belfast, one of the first patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites.

'The Wedding of St George and the Princess Sabra', by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1857. This watercolour is currently owned by the Tate Gallery in London.

'The Wedding of St George and the Princess Sabra', by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1857. This watercolour is currently owned by the Tate Gallery in London.

The Wedding of St George and the Princess Sabra by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1857

After completing The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, and Ecce Ancilli Domini, Rossetti and Hunt set off on holiday to France and Belgium, where they were able to visit galleries and museums. On their return, both Rossetti and Hunt attempted some landscapes, but Rossetti quickly gave up and began searching about instead, for some other subject matter. Eventually, working in watercolor, and on a small scale, he began a series of paintings based on medieval legends and on the story of Dante's Inferno, a classical Italian text.

This painting illustrates a scene from the wedding of St George and the Princess Sabra and is one of the delicious, jewel-bright water-colors from this early period. The Arthurian legends and other medieval romances were to inspire many of Rossetti's finest pictures, and this is no exception. Here the Princess Sabra is cutting off a lock of her hair to give as a favor to St George. The dragon's head, complete with lolling tongue lies beside them in a crate, and the saint is seated in full armor, embracing his kneeling bride. Jane Burden sat as the model for Princess Sabra, and Rossetti painted the picture as a gift for his friend, William Morris, who eventually became Jane Burden's husband.

'Dantis Amor' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859, Tate Gallery, London.

'Dantis Amor' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859, Tate Gallery, London.

Dantis Amor by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859

In the spring of 1850, while shopping with his mother, the artist Walter Deverell chanced upon Elizabeth Siddal working in a milliner's shop. He asked her to pose as Viola for his painting, Twelfth Night. Soon she became a favorite model for the Pre-Raphaelite artists and their associates, featuring perhaps most famously as 'Ophelia' in John Everett Millais's painting of the same name.

Lizzie Siddal became the first of the Pre-Raphaelite 'stunners,' the name they gave to the beautiful girls who became a muse, model, and occasionally mistress or wife. The artists nicknamed her 'Guggums,' and Rossetti soon became smitten. Despite the strict Victorian ideas prevailing at the time, Rossetti set up a home with her, eventually marrying her in 1860. Lizzie brought out a new, more serious side to the charismatic, fun-loving Rossetti, and she became the model for some of his most tender, ardent images, in particular, the paintings of Beatrice from the poems by Rossetti's Italian namesake, Dante.

Dantis Amor, pictured above, was completed in 1859 and was originally painted to decorate a cabinet at the Red House, home of the newly married William and Jane Morris. The painting shows Beatrice in the lower right-hand corner with the head of Christ encircled in the upper left-hand corner. An angel holding a sundial and a bow and arrow stand between the two.

'Beata Beatrix' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-70. Presently in the Tate Gallery, London.

'Beata Beatrix' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-70. Presently in the Tate Gallery, London.

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-70

Rossetti painted this hauntingly beautiful picture as a memorial to his wife, Elizabeth Siddal who died in 1862 of a laudanum overdose. He had in fact begun the painting at a much earlier date but took it up again in 1864, and finally completed it in 1870. It is an intensely visionary image which represents the death of Beatrice in Dante's Vita Nuova, a classic Italian work written by Rossetti's namesake. Beatrice is shown seated in a death-like trance, while a bird, the messenger of death, drops a poppy into her hands. The figures of Dante and another representing Love stand in the background, while the image of the famous Florence bridge, the Ponte Vecchio stretches across the distance between them.

Elizabeth Siddal's death occurred while Rossetti was away from the house, dining with Algernon Swinburn. Since giving birth to a still-born daughter a year earlier, Lizzie had suffered very poor health and was in a deep depression which had led her to become increasingly dependent on laudanum, an opium-based medication. Although the marriage was not always a happy one towards the end, Rossetti felt his wife's death very keenly, and no doubt he felt considerable guilt about her final hours. The flower in the painting is perhaps symbolic of the opium poppy from which laudanum is derived.

'Lady Lilith' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866-68. Delaware Art Museum.

'Lady Lilith' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866-68. Delaware Art Museum.

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866-68

Rossetti had idealized and adored Lizzie Siddall, and it is entirely likely that he may not have pursued a physical relationship with her until after their marriage, despite their sharing a home. He was, however, very attracted to the opposite sex, and it is known that he had some mistresses throughout his adult life. Women were his main source of inspiration both in poetry and art, and this painting of Lady Lilith seems to tell its own tale of temptation and seduction.

Lilith, the subject of this painting, is described in Judaic literature as the first wife of Adam. Here she is depicted as a powerful seductress, an iconic, Amazonian female with long, flowing red hair. Rossetti repeats the poppy motif that he used in Beata Beatrix, the flower of opium-induced slumber, and Lilith holds a mirror in her hand to symbolize vanity.

'Monna Vanna' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866. Tate Gallery, London.

'Monna Vanna' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866. Tate Gallery, London.

Monna Vanna by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866

Alexa Wilding was the model for this exceptionally sumptuous painting. The name 'Monna Vanna' occurs in the poems of both Dante and Boccaccio but has no specific connotation here. Rossetti considered this to be one of his finest works, and many believe that he never surpassed it. Every detail of the Monna Vanna, from her coral beads to the rich brocade of her dress, the tawny feathers in her fan, to the pearl decorations in her hair, has been lovingly and painstakingly painted.

The 1860s and 1870s were a period of intense activity for Rossetti, and many of his large canvasses were created during these two decades. The high-minded ideals of his youth that led him to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were now behind him, and instead, he bent his energies toward creating his amazing images of beautiful women.

La Ghirlandata and Veronica Veronese by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Alexa Wilding was one of Rossetti's favorite models, and she appears again and again in his portraits of beautiful women, or 'stunners' as he liked to call them. Red-haired Alexa is shown in both paintings playing a musical instrument. In La Ghirlandata it is a harp, and in Veronica Veronese, it is a violin which is hanging on the wall before her. Both paintings have a dream-like quality about them, and the green velvet gown worn in both contrasts beautifully with the rich auburn tones of Alexa's hair.

Veronica Veronese was painted as a commission for F.R.Leyland, and Rossetti wrote to him describing it; ' The girl is in a sort of passionate reverie, and is drawing her hand listlessly along the strings of a violin which hangs against the wall, while she holds the bow with her other hand as if arrested by the thought of the moment when she was about to play. In color, I shall make the picture a study of varied greens.'

'Annie Miller' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860.

'Annie Miller' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860.

Annie Miller by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860

The artist William Holman Hunt, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and a close associate of Rosetti's, also fell for the charms of a beautiful redhead. In his case, the lady in question was Annie Miller. With typical high-minded intentions, Hunt attempted both to reform the temptress, and also to marry her, but she was having none of it, and Hunt remained a bachelor until 1865 when he married Fanny Waugh. This wonderfully detailed pencil sketch by Rossetti gives us some idea of Annie Miller's beauty and also gives us a clue as to Rossetti's own feelings towards her. Rossetti, in fact, conducted a secret affair with Miss Miller while his friend Holman Hunt was traveling abroad, and this temporary fixation on another lover left Lizzie Siddall devastated.

'Fanny Cornforth', 1869 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Graphite on paper. Honolulu Academy of Arts.

'Fanny Cornforth', 1869 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Graphite on paper. Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Fanny Cornforth by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869

In October 1862, the widowed Rossetti moved from Blackfriars to Cheyne walk in Chelsea, London. It was here that one of his earlier conquests, the splendidly forthright, no-nonsense cockney charmer, Fanny Cornforth re-entered his life. He had first met her in 1858, and now she was to provide him with the solace that he needed after his wife, Lizzie's premature death. Fanny became his model, his mistress and his housekeeper, and their relationship lasted until shortly before his death in 1882 at the age of 53.

This early sketch of Fanny gives us a hint of her cheeky and impetuous nature. There's something impudent in her gaze and the curve of her mouth.

Jane Morris

Jane Burden married Rossetti's friend William Morris in 1859. She was introduced to Morris by Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones who had both used her as a model during the painting of murals for the Oxford Union in 1857. Dark-haired and willowy, Jane epitomized the brooding good looks of a typical Pre-Raphaelite 'stunner'. After the death of his wife Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti frequently turned to the Morrises for companionship, and over time Jane Morris became a favorite model as well as a confidante and friend. Some biographies suggest that they may also have been lovers.

Rossetti's famous painting, Proserpine was completed in 1877, and it features Jane holding a partially eaten pomegranate in the representation of the legend of Proserpine who must spend part of every year in the underworld. Perhaps the pomegranate, in this case, is also a symbol of temptation, and the time-share nature of her relationships with Rossetti and William Morris.

The Last Days

Heavily dependant on alcohol and drugs, Rossetti rarely left the house towards the end of his life. By the end of the 1870s, he had lost the good looks that he had enjoyed as a handsome youth and had instead become stout, and his darkly ringed eyes gave him a saturnine appearance. Often, his hands shook so much that he could scarcely paint. Over the years he had filled his home with all manner of antiques and bric-a-brac, as well as a menagerie of exotic animals including armadillos, raccoons, and peacocks. He had a particular fondness for wombats and even wrote a very touching poem following the death of a particular favorite. Fanny Cornforth, his animals, his mother and sister Christina, and his loyal friend Ford Madox Brown, were his main source of companionship in his last days.

In December 1881, following a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, he finished his long-standing relationship with Fanny Cornforth, the cockney 'Helephant' who his friends had never accepted, and in February 1882 went to convalesce at Birchington-on-Sea near Margate in Kent. On April 9th, Easter Sunday, he passed away, and he is buried in the churchyard at Birchington.

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Amanda Severn (author) from UK on August 11, 2012:

Thank you for visiting, Unvrso. Rossetti was a master at painting beautiful women, and he had a way of capturing a moment of stillness that few other artist's quite manage.

Jose Juan Gutierrez from Mexico City on August 10, 2012:

Very captivating! I got captivated by most of the paintings, especially by "Veronica Veronese" The colors and perspective of depth are so realistic. Even the bird in the cage seems to have come to life to me.

The bright colors and shadows used in the painting bring the picture almost to life. One can even go into the task of abstracting the thoughts of Veronica Veronese.

Voted beautiful!

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 24, 2011:

Hi Stessily, I love Rossetti's work, and I'd find it hard to pick out a particular favourite, although I do have a soft spot for both the 'Monna Vanna' and also 'The Wedding of Princess Sabra'. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

stessily on October 23, 2011:

Amanda Severn: Dante Gabriel Rossetti enchanted me with his distinctive style a long time ago in childhood. My favorite is "Ecce Ancilla Domini" for the vulnerability of Mary's facial and body language. I also love the interplay between the stunning red hair and the green garments in "La Ghirlandata" and "Veronica Veronese."

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on May 29, 2011:

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Paradise7.

Paradise7 from Upstate New York on May 29, 2011:

I love Rossetti's women--that Lilith!! Awesome hub, thankyou very much for sharing it with us.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on March 28, 2011:

Hi Strico, thanks for commenting. Beata Beatrix is a portrait of Lizzie siddal, painted by Rossetti after her death. She was addicted to a form of opium known as laudunum, and she eventually took an overdose. Whether rossetti was directly the cause of her suicide is a matter for some debate. Certainly the marriage was a troubled one. She was a drug addict, and a semi-invalid which put a great deal of pressure on the relationship. She had also given birth to a still-born daughter a year before her death, and this had contributed to her depression. Rossetti was a difficult man in some respects, but he always encouraged his wife to write, paint, and travel.

Strico on March 27, 2011:

I love his work, even though he drove his wife to kill herself - have you noticed that he has a thing for drawing women with ginger hair?? Oh, plus, Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-70, did you know that was the girl he drove to kill herself?? it's sad . . .

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on March 23, 2011:

Hi funmontrealgirl, if you like the Lady of Shallot paintings, you'll probably enjoy my hub on the Arthurian paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. Tennyson's poem inspired some amazing pictures. Thanks for stopping by.

funmontrealgirl from Montreal on March 23, 2011:

I also like Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Especially love the ones for the Tennyson poem, "The Lady Of Shalott"

Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on February 28, 2011:

Yes, that probably is the reason ~ but the models look beautiful anyway :)

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on February 28, 2011:

Hi Trish, I must get round to visiting the Birmingham gallery sometime. It's just a little too far for a day trip! I know what you mean about the Pre-Raphaelite subjects. I suspect it was easier for them to pose unsmiling, than to keep a cheerful expression throughout the many long sittings involved for each painting. The Impressionists, who worked much more quickly, seem to manage happier portraits!

Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on February 26, 2011:

Lovely hub!

We are lucky enough to have a fantastic collection of Pre-Raphaelite works at Birminghan Museum and Art Gallery.

I just wish that the subjects would smile occasionally :)

chidi4christ on January 07, 2011:

has anyone seen the latest painting" the birth of metropolis"? if you could let Barak Obama hear this,his life will never remain the same. Click here for details:

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on January 05, 2011:

Hi Les Trois Chenes, the Pre-Raphaelites were once looked down on by the art establishment, but art goes in and out of fashion, and these days the Pre-Raphaelites are well-regarded. Museums and galleries seem to thrive on going against public taste. Sometimes I'm amazed at the works bought with public money!

Les Trois Chenes from Videix, Limousin, South West France on January 05, 2011:

Such a nice, informative hub. As an adolescent I liked the Pre-Rahaelites (and still do) and I always remember Reading University lecturers scoffing at them during my interview. How times have changed.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 28, 2010:

Hi Tom, I see from your profile page that you are also a lover of art history. Welcome to HubPages, and thank you for your comment.

tomgurney from London on November 27, 2010:

Great Hub, really good content and nice large images. I wish more people love Rossetti!

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on July 24, 2010:

Shalini, I had never thought about it before, but now that I look at it he does have a similar appearance. I guess that's part of Rossetti's charm, and what makes his work so instantly recognisable.

Shalini Kagal from India on July 23, 2010:

What a great and informative hub, Amanda! Yes, there is something mysterious about all his paintings, isn't there? And am I seeing things or are the faces of the women rather like his own in his self portrait?

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on July 23, 2010:

Hi Hello,hello, I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It's always good to see you here.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on July 23, 2010:

Hi Neil, the age that the Pre-Raphaelites lived through must have been just as extraordinary in it's way as the era that we are living through right now. Art is often reactionary, and maybe the harking back to simpler times really was a reaction to the frenetic industrialisation that was going on around them.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on July 23, 2010:

Hi Bob, I agree that Rossetti was not so fine a painter as his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, Millais and Holman Hunt, but there's something moody and mysterious about Rossetti's work that I have always found very appealing. He was at the front of a movement that shook up the old order in Victorian art, and was a remarkable man in many ways.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on July 23, 2010:

Hi Pearldiver, Rossetti has always been one of my favourite artists, so I enjoyed putting this together. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Hello, hello, from London, UK on July 23, 2010:

A very comprehensive and great tribute to a wonderful artist. Thank you for sharing.

knell63 from Umbria, Italy on July 22, 2010:

Hi Amanda, another really well written and informative piece, thanks too for linking with my piece I will repay the favour.

The works of the Pre-Raphaelites comes at such a chaotic, time of change and tries to reflect a time of peace and tranquillity, a calmer age against the backdrop of the Industrial revolution.

diogenes on July 22, 2010:

Another lovely and informative article, Amanda. Rossetti had good taste in women, that's for sure, at least as far as sultry sensuousness is concerned. He was not a very great painter, but part of a very interesting time in art, a rebellion in a way inside Victorian England...Bob

Rob Welsh from Tomorrow - In Words & NZ Time. on July 22, 2010:

Very Nice Hub Amanda and a great tribute to one of the best. Thank you for taking the time to put this together. Excellent work. Take Care.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on July 22, 2010:

Hi Lynda, I can see what you mean by having the same face, but I suspect that actually Rossetti had a very mannered style of draftsmanship, and may never have produced a completely truthful likeness. Many artists are like that. It's a bit like having an idiosynchratic style of handwriting. There's a famous painting by Rossetti of his mother and his sister and they also seem to have the heavy-lidded eyes and full, cupids bow lips. Having said that I do believe that he was very capable of obsession.

lmmartin from Alberta and Florida on July 22, 2010:

Very interesting look at this artist's work. Have you noticed that all his female subjects seem to have the same face? I wonder who that obsession was? Lynda