Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti was born in London on May 12th, 1828.
More commonly known as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he was a leading English painter, poet, illustrator, and translator.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti paintings wonderfully capture the richness of the Victorian period.
Rossetti was the son of two émigré Italian parents (Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti and Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori). It was a genuinely prolific creative family.
His siblings included the poet Christina Rossetti, the art and literary critic William Michael Rossetti, and the author Maria Francesca Rossetti.
Rossetti initially studied at home but later attended King’s College School on the Strand. It was here that he found a love of literature. The young man spent much of his time reading the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Lord Byron (to name a few!).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti longed to be a poet and an artist from a young age. He, therefore, enrolled at the Henry Sass Drawing Academy (1841-1845) and later studied at the Antique School of the Royal Academy of Arts (until 18480) before leaving to learn from the painter Ford Madox Brown. The two men developed a close, life-long friendship.
William Holman Hunt joined their circle after Rossetti noticed his painting The Eve of St Agnes. Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and Holman Hunt developed the philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti is primarily famed as a member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Founded in 1848 by seven men, this artistic grouping pointedly referred to itself as a “brotherhood.”
Inspired by the Nazarene movement, the artists and writers in the circle (including Rossetti) rejected any mechanistic approaches to art. Instead, they lived in a spiritual, Christian manner and implemented early Italian renaissance ideals of painting.
The Nazarenes enjoyed great detailing, complex compositions, and intense jewel-like colors. They believed the classicism and neoclassicism of artists such as Raphael (and later English artists such as Joshua Reynolds) had corrupted academic art. Hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite.”
The group was particularly aligned with the critic John Ruskin, who was intensely religious. Christian and literary themes are therefore commonplace in Dante Gabriel Rossetti works. He was also fascinated by medieval poetry and translations – especially that of Dante (his namesake).
The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood initially met with strong critical opposition, which led Rossetti to shy away from large exhibitions. Instead, he sold many watercolors and smaller oil paintings privately. Even after later critical acclaim by writers such as John Ruskin, Rossetti continued avoiding exhibitions for the rest of his life.
In 1850, Rossetti met Elizabeth Siddal, whom he later married in 1860. She often modeled for Pre-Raphaelite paintings, famously appearing in John Everett Millais’ Ophelia. Siddal’s bright auburn hair and beautifully striking face were a common feature in Dante Gabriel Rossetti works.
After her early death, however, Rossetti often depicted the (very similar in appearance) Alexa Wilding. She worked as a full-time model for Rossetti from 1865 onwards, painting in works such as The Loving Cup (1867), Venus Verticordia (1868), and The Women’s Window (1879).
Other notable sitters included Fanny Cornforth, Jane, and May Morris (the wife and daughter respectively of William Morris). Rossetti painted Jane Morris in a stunning 1868 portrait titled Jane Morris, The Blue Silk Dress.
She also appeared in a later 1880 work, The Day Dream featuring Jane sitting in the bough of a sycamore tree. A masterpiece of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, it depicts Jane holding a stem of a honeysuckle plant, a token of love in the Victorian era.
This painting could refer to Rossetti and Morris's secret and long-lasting affair. They often summered at Kelmscott Manor in Lechlade while her husband was away on travels.
Despite this, from the 1860s onwards, he painted more close-up portraits of his lovers, such as Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth. Fanny Cornforth became the epitome of eroticism and symbolic stylism in works such as Bocca Baciata (Lips That Have Been Kissed).
Inspired by Christianity and moral reform, Rossetti wrote many literary works, including texts such as Hand and Soul (1849), depicting a young artist's attempt to serve God, and The Blessed Damozel (written between 1847 and 1870) with biblical imagery.
In 1862, tragedy hit when Rossetti’s wife (Elizabeth Siddal) died. She took an overdose of Laudanum, most likely suicide, after suffering a miscarriage. Rossetti became increasingly depressed, and he buried many of his unpublished poems with his wife at Highgate Cemetery.
Soon after Siddal’s death, Rossetti moved to Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, where he lived for the next twenty years. He kept his lover Fanny Cornforth in her own Chelsea rooms nearby.
Dante Rossetti poems (especially My Sister’s Sleep and the House of Life sonnets, two of his most famous literary creations) characterize a complex interplay between thought and feeling.
His art and poetry were always inextricably interlinked.
Some Rossetti artworks illustrate poems (for instance, Tennyson’s poetry and his sister’s Goblin Market). His sonnet, such as Astarte Syriaca (1877), accompanies his pictures.
Rossetti exhumed his poems from his wife’s grave at the behest of friends. He published them as a collection in 1870. To Rossetti’s dismay, however, they faced critical disapproval. Their sensuality, eroticism, and spirituality particularly offended Victorian sensibilities.
Rossetti experienced a mental breakdown in 1872 as a direct result of this criticism. He also abruptly left his residence with Jane Morris (Kelmscott Manor) in 1874.
Rossetti published a second collection of poems in 1881, which contained his House of Life sonnets. Despite this, he sank into a deep depression later in life and struggled with increasing drug addiction and alcohol abuse.
Rossetti spent his last years as a near-complete recluse. He died on April 9th, 1882, due to kidney disease, having also suffered from alcohol-related psychosis.
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