An Appreciation: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Rossetti was a British artist who led an artistic revolution against the conservative art of the day. Although the Pre-Raphaelites did not have the lasting impact of the Impressionist movement, their challenge to the art establishment did open the door for later rebels.
Born in London on May 12, 1828, Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, always preferred to be called Dante to show his admiration for the great poet Dante Alighieri. Rosetti's father, a professor of Italian at King's College, had written extensively about the poet. His mother, Frances Maria Poldari, was also a teacher and contributed to the literary and intellectual environment of the home. As a result, all of the Rossetti children became involved in the arts: Christina became a poet; Willian became a critic; Maria Francesca became an author; and Dante became a poet and an artist.
Growing up, Dante was torn between poetry and art. He pursued both interests but after receiving his basic education at King's College School, Dante began his formal art education at Sass' Drawing Academy in 1841-45. He then attended the Royal Academy of Arts Schools for three years. This was followed by some time in the studio of his friend Ford Madox Brown.
Like young artists elsewhere in Europe - - most notably Paris - - Rossetti rebelled against the conservative art championed in the academies which was also fashionable wih art collectors. Rosetti regarded it as decadent and mechanical. Long interested in Italian Medieval art, Rossetti yearned for a return to art before it was corrupted.
Rossetti found a sympathetic soul in the young artists William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Banding together, the three formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Four other members including Dante's brother William were later to join the group.
The PRB wanted to return art to the era before Raphael and the Mannerist artists that followed. They wanted art to less mechanical, “true to nature” and based upon a desire to express genuine ideas. Their pictures would be highly detailed and use intense colors. The models would be real people not idealized classical statues. While Holman and Millais were primarily interested in artistic technique, Rossetti insisted that the group embrace moral and social ideas as well.
To express their ideas, the group published its own magazine called “The Germ.” Rossetti's sister Christina as well as his friend Madox Brown contributed to the magazine as did the influential art historian and critic John Ruskin who became a champion of the group.
During the Victorian era, Britain went through the trauma of the Industrial Revolution. Things were changing fast and there was a yearning to return to a simpler time. This desire led to a revival of interest in the Medieval. This popular fascination was only loosely-based on the actual history of that era but rather on a romanticized vision of knights in armor and heroic legends. The PRB was not immune from this fascination and so the subjects of their paintings were often taken from poems, legends or Shakespearean plays.
Along the same lines, the PRB artists would also depict scenes from the Bible. Two of Rosetti's earliest oil paintings were scenes based upon the early life of the Virgin Mary. While his “The Girlhood of Mary Virgin” found some praise, his “Ancilla Domini” was harshly attacked when it was exhibited. Very sensitive to criticism, Rossetti abandoned oil painting for a time and rarely exhibited his works publicly. Instead, he turned to watercolors and sold his works privately, often to collectors he had met through Ruskin.
The PRB artists also did illustrations for books. The PRB believed that the illustrations should not just support the text but provide something of their own. The goal was that the book should be a work of art in itself. As above, Rossetti had long been interested in literature and in addition to writing his own poems, he translated Dante and Malory's Arthurian legends. Rossetti did illustrations for works by his sister Christina and by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
One of the models posing for the PRB artists during this period was Elizabeth Siddal. Rossetti met her in 1849 and became enthralled with her. She became his exclusive model and he did thousands of paintings and drawings of her. In addition, he encouraged her interest in art and poetry. As a result, she became achieved some recognition as an artist with Ruskin paying her a subsidy for all the works she could produce.
Rossetti and Sidal had a tumultuous relationship. Because she was from a working class family, Rossetti's sisters did not approve of her. Also, Rossetti had various dalliances with other women. On her part, Siddal was frail and often ill. As a result, the couple was not married until 1860. In 1861, Siddal was delivered of a stillborn baby. Depressed over the birth and worried that Rossetti would leave her for another woman, Siddal died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862,
Elizabeth's death sent Rossetti into a depression. He gathered together all of his unpublished poetry and had it buried with his wife.
Rossetti moved into a house in Chelsea where he lived for the next 20 years. It was furnished extravagantly and populated with exotic animals such as a wombat, a llama and a toucan who wore a cowboy hat. The housekeeper was Fanny Cornforth, a frequent model and Rossetti's mistress.
Around this time, Rossetti's art set off in a new direction. Returning to oil painting, Rossetti focused on female beauty. He explored this subject in portraits; not conventional society portraits but portraits bathed with the romance of poetry and legend. His sitters were a relatively small number of women including Cornforth, Alexa Wilding and Jane Morris.
By the early 1850s, the original PRB artists had pretty much gone their separate ways. However, in the mid-1850s, Rossetti met two admirers of the PRB, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Rossetti enjoyed their company and together, they embarked on a number of projects including an effort to decorate the Oxford Union. The plan was to do a number of frescoes on the ceiling of the Union and to decorate the beams and trim around them. Inasmuch as the artists knew little about making frescoes, the paintings quickly faded. However, it kindled Rossetti's interest in decorative arts.
One of the models for the Oxford Union frescoes was Jane Burden. Rossetti and Burne-Jones had seen her in a London theater and convinced her to model for them. While modeling there, she met William Morris who fell in love with her. Although the feeling were not reciprocated, Burden married Morris in 1859. To be accepted as the wife of a gentleman, this daughter of a stable-hand undertook to learn French, Italian and to play the piano. She also improved her manners so as to be accepted by high society. It is said that she was the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw's character Elisa Doolittle in Pygmalion.
In 1861, Rossetti joined with Morris, Burne-Jones and various others to form Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (later Morris & Co), a landmark in the Arts & Crafts Movement. Rossetti contributed designs for stained glass and decorative objects.
Rosetti's connection with Morris, eventually led to a romatic relationship between Rossetti and Jane. By 1865, she was posing for him regularly and he did numerous drawings and paintings of her. He also wrote poetry for her.
No one wanted a public scandal and so the three went on as normal. In 1871, Rossetti and Morris even rented a country house, Kelmscott Manor, together. Rossetti and Jane stayed and spent the summer together while William went off to explore Iceland.
By 1872, however, Morris had had enough of Rossetti and cut him out of Morris & Co. Rossetti left Kelmscott never to return. Rossetti's romance with Jane continued for a few more years until she discovered the extent of his addiction to choral hydrate, which he was taking along with extensive amounts of whiskey in an effort to cure insomnia. She then began distancing herself from him although they remained in contact until the end of his life.
Meanwhile, Rossetti's ambition to become a poet re-surfaced. To accomplish this, he had his wife's body exhumed in 1869 in order to retrieve his poetry. His volume of poetry was published the next year. Although his poetry would later inspire several musical pieces, Victorian critics savaged the volume for its erotic content. This led to Rossetti's mental breakdown in 1872 and a second breakdown in 1877.
Rossetti became a recluse in his Chelsea home. He tried to overcome his additions to choral hydrate and alcohol but without success. He died in 1882 of Bright's Disease.
Two of Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite works: the heavily criticized “Ancilla Domini” (above) and "The Tune of Seven Towers" (below).
Rossetti shifted his focus to portraits of women. Above: "Beata Beatri". The model was Rossetti's wife Elizabeth Sidal.
Below: A portrait of the artist's sister the poet Christina Rossetti.
Above: "The Blue Silk Dress" with Rossetti's lover Jane Morris.
Below: One of Rosetti's favorite models Alexa Wilding. Somewhat atypical, she did not have a romantic relationship with Rossetti.
Above: "Bocca Baciata" with Rossetti's mistress Fanny Cornforth.
Artist appreciation -Dante Gabriel Rossetti