Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter, Poet, PreRaphaelite 12 May 1828 – 9 April 1882
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born on 12 May 1828 and died on 9 April 1882.
The son of émigré Italian scholar Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti and his wife Frances Polidori. Rossetti was born in London, England and originally named Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti. His family and friends called him Gabriel, but in publications he put the name Dante first (in honor of Dante Alighieri). He was the brother of poet Christina Rossetti, the critic William Michael Rossetti, and author Maria Francesca Rossetti.
The young Rossetti's friends described him as "self-possessed, articulate, passionate and charismatic" but also "ardent, poetic and feckless". Like all his siblings, he aspired to be a poet and attended King's College School, Wimbledon. However, he also wished to be a painter, having shown a great interest in Medieval Italian art. He studied at Henry Sass's Drawing Academy from 1841 to 1845 when he enrolled at the Antique School of the Royal Academy, leaving in 1848. After leaving the Royal Academy, Rossetti studied under Ford Madox Brown, with whom he was to retain a close relationship throughout his life.
Following the exhibition of William Holman Hunt's painting The Eve of St. Agnes, Rossetti sought out Hunt's friendship. The painting illustrated a poem by the then still little-known John Keats. Rossetti's own poem "The Blessed Damozel" was an imitation of Keats, so he believed that Hunt might share his artistic and literary ideals. Together they developed the philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which they founded along with John Everett Millais.
The group's intention was to reform English art by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo and the formal training regime introduced by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Their approach was to return to the abundant detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art.
The eminent critic John Ruskin later wrote:
Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.
For the first issue of the Brotherhood's magazine, The Germ, published early in 1850, Rossetti contributed his poem "The Blessed Damozel" and a story about a fictional early Italian artist inspired by a vision of a woman who bids him combine the human and the divine in his art. Rossetti was always more interested in the Medieval than in the modern side of the movement, working on translations of Dante and other Medieval Italian poets, and adopting the stylistic characteristics of the early Italians.
Rossetti's first major paintings in oil display the realist qualities of the early Pre-Raphaelite movement. His Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850) both portray Mary as an emaciated and repressed teenage girl. William Bell Scott saw Girlhood in progress in Hunt's studio and remarked on young Rossetti's technique:
He was painting in oils with watercolor brushes, as thinly as in watercolor, on canvas which he had primed with white till the surface was a smooth as cardboard, and every tint remained transparent. I saw at once that he was not an orthodox boy, but acting purely from the aesthetic motive. The mixture of genius and dilettantism of both men shut me up for the moment, and whetted my curiosity.
Stung by criticism of his second major painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini, exhibited in 1850, and the increasingly hysterical critical reaction that greeted Pre-Raphaelitism in that year, Rossetti turned to watercolors, which could be sold privately. Although his work subsequently won support from John Ruskin, Rossetti only rarely exhibited thereafter.
In 1850, Rossetti met Elizabeth Siddal, an important early model for the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Over the next decade, she became his muse, his pupil, and his passion. They were finally married in 1860.
Rossetti represented Lizzie as Dante's Beatrice in one of his most famous works, Beata Beatrix, (1864–1870) which he painted as a memorial to Lizzie after her death. This piece also mimicked the death of Dante's love in his autobiographical work, Vita Nuova. In the work, amidst a yellow haze of relatively indistinct shapes, including Florence's Ponte Vecchio and the figures of Dante and Love, Lizzie sits, representing Dante's Beatrice. With an upturned chin and closed eyes, Lizzie appears keenly aware of her impending fate, death. A bird, which serves as the messenger of death, places a poppy in her hands. Critics have praised the piece for its emotional resonance, which can be felt simply through the work's moving coloring and composition. The true history of Rossetti and his beloved wife further deepens its meaning; although their love had waned at that point, Lizzie still exerted a powerful influence on the artist.
Rossetti's wife Elizabeth Siddal died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862, shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child. Rossetti became increasingly depressed, and upon the death of his beloved Lizzie, buried the bulk of his unpublished poems with her at Highgate Cemetery, though he would later have them dug back up.
After the death of his wife in 1862, Rossetti leased Tudor House at number 16 Cheyne Walk, along the Thames in London, where he lived for the next twenty years surrounded by extravagant furnishings and a parade of exotic birds and animals. Rossetti was fascinated with wombats, frequently asking friends to meet him at the "Wombat's Lair" at the London Zoo in Regent's Park, and spending hours there himself. Finally, in September 1869, he was to acquire the first of two pet wombats. This short-lived wombat, named "Top", was often brought to the dinner table and allowed to sleep in the large centerpiece during meals. This fascination with exotic animals continued throughout Rossetti's life, finally culminating in the purchase of a llama and a Toucan which Rossetti would dress in a cowboy hat and persuade to ride the llama round the dining table for his amusement.
Rossetti maintained Fanny Cornforth (described delicately by William Allington as Rossetti's "housekeeper") in her own establishment nearby in Chelsea, and painted many voluptuous images of her between 1863 and 1865. In 1865 he discovered auburn-haired Alex Wilding, a dressmaker and would-be actress who was engaged to model for him on a full-time basis and sat for The Blessed Damozel and other paintings of the period. Jane Morris, whom Rossetti had found as a model for the Oxford Union murals he painted with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in 1857, also sat for him during these years, and she soon "consumed and obessed him in paint, poetry, and life". In 1869, Morris and Rossetti rented a country house, Kelmscott Manor at Kelmscott, Oxfordshire, as a summer home, but it soon became a retreat for Rossetti and Jane Morris to have a long-lasting and complicated liaison. The two spent summers there, with the Morris children, while Morris himself traveled to Iceland in 1871 and 1873.
During these years, Rossetti was prevailed upon by friends, in particular Charles Augustus Howell, to exhume his poems from his wife's grave. This he did, collating and publishing them in 1870 in the volume Poems by D. G. Rossetti. They created a controversy when they were attacked as the epitome of the "fleshly school of poetry". The eroticism and sensuality of the poems caused offense. One poem, "Nuptial Sleep", described a couple falling asleep after sex. This was part of Rossetti's sonnet sequence The House of Life, a complex series of poems tracing the physical and spiritual development of an intimate relationship. Rossetti described the sonnet form as a "moment's monument", implying that it sought to contain the feelings of a fleeting moment, and to reflect upon their meaning. The House of Life was a series of interacting monuments to these moments an elaborate whole made from a mosaic of intensely described fragments. This was Rossetti's most substantial literary achievement. In 1881, Rossetti published a second volume of poems, Ballads and Sonnets, which included the remaining sonnets from The House of Life sequence.
The savage reaction of critics to Rossetti's first collection of poetry contributed to a mental breakdown in June 1872, and although he joined Jane at Kelmscott that September, he spent his days in a haze of chloral and whisky. The next summer he was much improved, and both Alexa Wilding and Jane Morris sat to him at Kelmscott, where he created a soulful series of dream-like portraits. In 1874, Morris reorganized his decorative arts firm, cutting Rossetti out of the business, and the polite fiction that both men were in residence with Jane at Kelmscott could not be maintained. Rossetti abruptly left Kelmscott in July 1874 and never returned. Toward the end of his life, he sank into a morbid state, darkened by his drug addiction to chloral hydrate and increasing mental instability. He spent his last years as a recluse at Cheyne Walk.
On Easter Sunday, 1882, he died at the country house of a friend, where he had gone in yet another vain attempt to recover his health, which had been destroyed by chloral as his wife's had been destroyed by laudanum. He is buried at Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, England. His grave is visited regularly by admirers of his life's work and achievements and this can be seen by fresh flowers placed there regularly.
Please feel free to leave any comments or questions!