The Life and Art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Updated on February 8, 2019
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An Arts, Literature and History Buff, Humanities Major, Published Indie Writer, Avid Photographer, and World Foodie & Travel Enthusiast

When letting the name Dante Gabriel Rossetti roll over your tongue, you might wonder at such an odd name for an 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, was born, and destined to take his father's path, and eventually excel and surpass his scholarly accomplishments at half his father's age.

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

If not for 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 Pre-Raphaelite Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti at 22 years of Age, between 1882 and 1883
Portrait of Pre-Raphaelite Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti at 22 years of Age, between 1882 and 1883 | Source

Conception, my boy, fundamental brain work, is what makes all the difference in art.

— Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Conception

It all started in a prosperous London neighborhood on Gower Street, in the home of a known child prodigy, namely John Everett Millais. Here was began a new movement. 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 newly 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 solely responsible to its cause.

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 to be used of Italian art before Raphael

Other Members of the Brotherhood

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Sir John Everett MillaisWilliam Holman Hunt in his Eastern Dress. Taken on the lawn of Brent Lodge, Hendon.   May 1864
Sir John Everett Millais
Sir John Everett Millais | Source
William Holman Hunt in his Eastern Dress. Taken on the lawn of Brent Lodge, Hendon.   May 1864
William Holman Hunt in his Eastern Dress. Taken on the lawn of Brent Lodge, Hendon. May 1864 | Source

The Doctrine of the Brotherhood

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

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 due to 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 the reflection 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 so eloquently suggests:

"The soul of a man is incomplete and must seek out 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 infinitely 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."

Pre-Raphaelite Documentaries: Part One

Pre-Raphaelite Documentaries: Part Two

Pre-Raphaelite Documentaries: Part Three

A Scathing Review

The Brotherhood remained a tight-knit network until around 1850 when famed writer Charles Dickens publicly denounced the group's credibility by flagrantly 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.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's Art Work in Controversy:  Christ in the House of His Parents John Everett Millais c. 1849
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's Art Work in Controversy: Christ in the House of His Parents John Everett Millais c. 1849 | Source

A Movement Dissolved

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 and shaped the Pre-Raphaelite vision into what it is widely known today with a romanticized setting and tone of ethereal, dream-stricken women caught up in a Libertine poses.

In the years that followed, Rossetti continued with his famed art expression. However, he mastered other roles as well, talents which included the book arts - writing poetry, designing illustrated book covers and binding, and also excelled in the art of stained-glass windows.

Sudden Light

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turn'd so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?

― Dante Gabriel Rossetti

A Tragic Love

To Rossetti, feminine beauty exemplified fine art and beauty was none other than the beautiful 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 madly in love and eventually 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, Rossetti created a masterpiece, immortalizing Elizabeth and naming the work Beata Beatrice, a haunting memorial to his wife's final 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 | Source

Love is the last relay and ultimate outposts of eternity.

— Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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 purportedly 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 his sister, Christina Rossetti, Annie Miller, Marie Spartali Stillman and Alexa Wilding.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Fanny Cornforth circa 1868Jane Burden Morris  Perlascura circa 1871 Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927)Study for "Dante's Dream": Head of Alexa Wilding circa 1870
Fanny Cornforth circa 1868
Fanny Cornforth circa 1868 | Source
Jane Burden Morris  Perlascura circa 1871
Jane Burden Morris Perlascura circa 1871 | Source
Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927)
Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) | Source
Study for "Dante's Dream": Head of Alexa Wilding circa 1870
Study for "Dante's Dream": Head of Alexa Wilding circa 1870 | Source

Rossetti's Greatest Works

  • 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

Lying in Repose:  Image from page 324 of "The Rossettis: Dante Gabriel and Christina;" (1900)  Cary, Elisabeth Luther, 1867-1936
Lying in Repose: Image from page 324 of "The Rossettis: Dante Gabriel and Christina;" (1900) Cary, Elisabeth Luther, 1867-1936 | Source

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

— Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The End

In 1872, Rossetti suffered a major mental breakdown due to depression and pressure from critics after the release of his first collection of poetry. Drugs and alcohol spiraled the painter into a descent of 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 possibly tried to medicate his pain with a combination of drugs and alcohol, which most likely caused his death on Easter Sunday, 1882.

The Final Resting Place: All Saints, Birchington. Kent - Grave of Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Final Resting Place: All Saints, Birchington. Kent - Grave of Dante Gabriel Rossetti | Source

A Writer's Perspective

There is no doubt that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was nothing less than a genius when it came to his Pre-Raphaelite paintings, book arts, and stained-glass or writing his lovelorn poetry. One could spend hours arguing over why Rossetti could be the most celebrated Pre-Raphaelite artist to have ever existed, considering he was one of the founders of this controversial movement and his works revered around the world.

No one can deny his undeniable talent. However, Rossetti's character continues to be a hot debate. Illicit affairs, a neglectful marriage, rumors of possible murder, back-stabbing of good friends, possible manic depression and addictions to painkillers - these are all salacious hearsay that has followed the artist for more than 130 years since his death. Hence the reason for my reference to "Dubious" in the title of this article. Unfortunately, given the facts - one cannot ignore the tarnished reputation of a man with such an illustrious career may never find peace.

Who is Your Favorite Pre-Raphaelite Artist?

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Cited Work & Resources

  • 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)

© 2017 Ziyena Brazos


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