Dante Gabriel Rossetti
British, 1828 - 1882
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Born in London to parents of Italian descent in 1828, Dante Gabriel Rossetti carried his continental heritage with him throughout his life, despite his British citizenship and residency. The family was artistic in nature – his brother, Wililam Michael (1829-1919), became a writer and critic, and his sister, Christina (1830-1894), a celebrated poet. From the first, Dante Gabriel was talented as both a painter and a poet, and was often torn as to which gift he should foster. He received minimal formal artistic training, taking classes at Carey’s Academy and the Royal Academy; his tenure at both was brief, as his unconventional personality was stifled by the strict teaching methods employed. He left these traditional academic institutions to train with two artists, first Ford Madox Brown and later William Holman Hunt. Although he experienced similar frustration with private instruction, his relationship with Hunt led to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with five other young men.
Unlike Hunt and Millais, Rossetti did not choose the Royal Academy as his first exhibiting venue. Rather than experience the possible rejection of his work by the Royal Academy jury, he entered The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849, Tate, London) at the Free Exhibition, Hyde Park Corner. The painting was well received, and in fact was sold to a friend of the family. Shortly thereafter, Rossetti’s friend, the artist Walter Deverell, introduced him to Elizabeth Siddal, a stunning red-haired millinery shop girl who had been modelling for several of his fellow Pre-Raphaelites. She first sat for Rossetti at the end of 1851, and within the next year the two formed a close relationship. Rossetti played mentor to Siddal’s blossoming artistic talent, and she acted as his muse – hers is the face in many of his paintings of the period. Although the relationship was a tumultuous one, with long stretches of separation, the two were finally married in 1860.
In the meantime, the short-loved P.R.B. produced four numbers of The Germ, a periodical expressing and promoting their shared views. The first issue appeared in January 1850, with Rossetti contributing two literary pieces, “Songs of One Household” and “Hand and Soul.”
Throughout the 1850s Rossetti worked almost exclusively in small-scale watercolours, producing some of his most intimate work. The subjects were mostly medieval, reflecting the interest he held for this earlier period, an enthusiasm inflamed by the poetry of Alfred Tennyson. Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt contributed several illustrations each to the celebrated 1857 Moxon edition of Tennyson’s Poems. Early in 1856 he met Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. The three became fast friends, with Rossetti visiting the younger men in the lodgings in Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury, which he had formerly occupied. The next year Rossetti led Morris, Burne-Jones, and others in a commission to decorate the debating hall of the Oxford Union, a project that was not entirely successful because the preparation and the materials used were inadequate.
In 1862 Elizabeth Siddal died of an overdose of laudanum. With this sad change in circumstance, Rossetti’s painting style also took a new direction. Beata Beatrix (begun 1864), a kind of Dantesque memorial to Siddal, represented a new genre of single iconic female figures, often wearing exotic dress and placed in richly decorated interiors, which became prominent in his oeuvre. New models played an important role in his paintings and life. In the mid-1860s, Fanny Cornforth, yet another red-haired stunner, became both his model and mistress, and later in the decade he developed a similar lover-muse-model relationship with William Morris’s wife Jane. Her face was the inspiration for many of his most important paintings of the 1870s.
The 1880s brought a return to poetry, with Rossetti publishing Poems and Ballads and Sonnets in 1881. The last years of his life were clouded by ill health, exacerbated by the use of chloral. Hoping to recuperate in the seaside town of Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, he died there on Easter Day, 1882.
Biographical source: 'Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum' exhibition catalogue
Contemporary Accounts of Rossetti:
'I cannot say that Rossetti's presence was enlivening [in his later years]. My most representative recollection of him is of his sitting beside Mrs. Morris, who looked as if she had stepped out of any one of his pictures, both wrapped in a motionless silence as of a world where they would have no need of words. And silence, however poetically golden, was a sin in a poet whose voice in speech was so musical as his - hers I am sure I never heard.'
R.E. Francillon, Mid-Victorian Memories (1913), p,172
'I have been at Rossetti's house at Cheyne Walk, and he has been to me in Victoria Street. I liked him on both occasions, but from what I hear he could hardly have been a comfortable man to abide with. He collected Oriental china and bric-à-brac, and had a congregation of queer creatures - a raven, and marmots or wombats, &c. - all in the garden behind his house. I believe he once kept a gorilla. He was much self-absorbed.'
F. Locker-Lampson, My Confidences (1896), p.166
'...D.G.R., poet and imaginative inventor, who never made a memorandum of anything in the world except the female face between sixteen and twenty-six...'
William Bell Scott, Autobiographical Notes (1892), Vol. 2, p.44
'[5 March 1883] Papa asked Mr Millais yesterday what he thought of the Rossetti pictures. He said they were all rubbish, that the people had goitres - that Rossetti never learnt drawing and could not draw. A funny accusation for one P.R.B. to make at another.'
The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897 (1966), ed. by Leslie Linder, p.31
A selection of art exhibitions which have featured this