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 truly 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 consequently 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 later joined their circle, after Rossetti noticed his painting The Eve of St Agnes. It was Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Holman Hunt who 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 themselves as a “brotherhood”.
Inspired by the Nazarene movement, the artists and writers in the circle (including Rossetti) rejected any mechanistic approaches to art. They lived in a spiritual, Christian manner and implemented early Italian renaissance ideals of painting.
This included abundant 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 strongly religious. Christian and literary themes are therefore common-place in Dante Gabriel Rossetti works. He was also fascinated by medieval poetry and translations – especially that of Dante (his namesake).
The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood met with strong critical opposition at first, 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 was 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, painted 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 could have referred to the secret and long-lasting affair between Rossetti and Morris. They often summered at Kelmscott Manor in Lechlade, whilst 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 of his own literary works. This includes texts such as Hand and Soul (1849) which depicts a young artist attempting to serve God and The Blessed Damozel (written between 1847 and 1870) with biblical imagery throughout.
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 many of his unpublished poems were buried with her 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 Gabriel Rossetti poems (especially My Sister’s Sleep and the House of Life sonnets, two of his most famous literary creations) were characterized by a complex interplay between thought and feeling.
His art and poetry were always inextricably interlinked.
Rossetti often created artworks to illustrate poems (for instance with Tennyson’s poetry and his sister’s Goblin Market). He similarly wrote sonnets to accompany his pictures such as Astarte Syriaca (1877).
At the behest of friends, Rossetti exhumed his poems from his wife’s grave. 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 9 April 1882 as the result of a kidney disease, having also suffered from alcohol related psychosis
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