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The Pre-Raphaelite Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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An arts major and published indie author who writes on various subjects pertaining to humanities.

Who Was Dante Gabriel Rossetti?

If you let the name Dante Gabriel Rossetti 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 Rossetti, and mother, Frances Polidori, were forced to emigrate to England under the glare of political exile.

Rossetti was born May 12th, 1828. At a young age, he excelled in the arts and was encouraged to take his father’s path. In time, he became an illustrious name in the circle of arts. Despite his notoriety, he was still not sure which path he should take. Torn between two mediums, painting and poetry, he preferred the paintbrush rather than the pen.

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

... Rossetti is already visible, as I trust, the dawn of a new era in art, in a true unison of the grotesque with the realistic power.

— Art Critic and Patron, John Ruskin

Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Rossetti joined a tight circle of friends whose fervor for painting and poetry soon became known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The group started in 1848 when fellow artist John Everett Millais invited his collaborating friends, William Holman Hunt and our Rossetti, to his home for an evening of artistic discourse. This meeting resulted in three brilliant minds forming a philosophical cult of shared passion, patronage, and pursuit with one unique purpose in mind. They wanted to reform English society’s generalist views on art by rejecting Victorian standards and focusing on the fellowship’s doctrine, which centered on mastering medievalist expression that remained influenced by the much broader ideals of Romanticism.

Aside from its three founders, the brotherhood included four other members, which made up a solid group of seven: William Michael Rossetti (DGR’s brother), James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens, and Thomas Woolner. However, the brotherhood would attract other famed artists who followed the enthusiasm and took up its cause, including a few women such as Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel’s own sister.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood experienced great notoriety, receiving mixed reviews, ranging from complete adoration by the influential art critic John Ruskin to utter abhorrence from hard-core social commentator of the day, Charles Dickens. In its controversial wake, the brotherhood upheld the movement for five years until the group’s alliance dissolved in 1853 after a bout of negative sensationalism over one of the original members.

Rossetti's Various Artistic Endeavors

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 and romantic medieval depictions, talents which included stained-glass windows and the book arts—writing poetry, designing illustrated book covers, and the craft of binding as shown in the thumbnail images above. However, he remains known most for his masterful skills with a handy charcoal pencil and the stroke of a paintbrush.

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 Tragic Love Immortalized

To Rossetti, feminine beauty exemplified fine art and beauty was none other than the often androgynous 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. Siddal’s tragic passing had wounded the artist. No other muse had pierced his heart than Siddal, 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 as shown in the image above.

Proserpine/Persephone holding a pomegranate. 1874

Proserpine/Persephone holding a pomegranate. 1874

A Bevy of Stunners

After the death of his wife, Rossetti lived with one of his models, Fanny Cornforth whom he considered a very close friend. Despite their warm working relation, he still fancied other models for his inspirations. One muse, in particular, Jane Burden Morris was the wife of a friend and textile artist, William Morris. The two 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 despite his use of other notable models which included the likes of Annie Miller, Alexa Wilding, Fanny Eaton, Marie Spartali Stillman, and even his sibling, Christina Rossetti, as shown in the list below:

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Read More From Owlcation

  • 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 (as shown in image above)
  • Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850) Christina Rossetti
  • The Beloved Bride (1865) Alexa Wilding and Fanny Eaton
Home of Dante Gabriel Rossetti at 16 Cheyne Walk, London

Home of Dante Gabriel Rossetti at 16 Cheyne Walk, London

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 Bright's 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.

Portrait of Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti in later years by artist George Frederic Watts

Portrait of Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti in later years by artist George Frederic Watts

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, manic depression and addiction 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. Yet without a doubt, his name will always remain synonymous with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and hailed as one of the greatest artists of his time.

Cited Sources and 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)
  • Walter Pater, The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Studies, Spring 1989 (Cited via The Victorian Web) Retrieved 01/28/2021

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 ziyena


ziyena (author) from the Somewhere Out There on April 15, 2021:

thanks again, Shauna. I appreciate all of your feedback. Truth be told, I fell in love with the story of Rosetti by watching the 1980s romance movie "Dying Young" starring Julia Roberts ... the subject of Rossetti and his Red Heads was a plot piece and I found it intriguing. That was years ago, and since then I now find myself a bit of an expert on the subject of the Pre-raphaelite Arts Movement. I so enjoy telling the poignant stories ...

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 15, 2021:

I'm so glad you told Rossetti's story, Ziyena. After reading about his models, I was very curious about the man. In his early years, his eyes look soulful, pensive. In his latter years, they look sad, regretful. The quote you posted at the end of the article indicates his despair and utter lack of self-worth. It's a shame.

I'm enjoying your Pre-Raphaelite series, Ziyena. Your zeal for the topic comes through in each well-written article.

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