Dante Gabriel Rossetti
born May 12, 1828, London, Eng.
died April 9, 1882, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent
original name Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti English painter and poet
who helped found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters
treating religious, moral, and medieval subjects in a nonacademic
manner. Dante Gabriel was the most illustrious member of the Rossetti
Early life and works.
After a general education in the junior department of King's College
(1836–41), Rossetti hesitated between poetry and painting as a vocation.
When about 14 he went to “Sass's,” an old-fashioned drawing school in
Bloomsbury (central London), and thence, in 1845, to the Royal Academy
schools, where he became a full student.
Meanwhile, he read omnivorously—romantic and poetic literature, William
Shakespeare, J.W. von Goethe, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Gothic
tales of horror. He was fascinated by the work of the American writer
Edgar Allan Poe. In 1847 he discovered the 18th-century English
painter-poet William Blake through the purchase of a volume of Blake's
designs and writings in prose and verse; the volume has since been known
as the Rossetti MS. Blake's diatribes against the painter Sir Joshua
Reynolds encouraged Rossetti to attempt lampoons of his own against the
triviality of early Victorian paintings of anecdotal subjects, those of
Sir Edwin Landseer being a special target of his derision.
By the time Rossetti was 20, he had already done a number of
translations of Italian poets and had composed some original verse, but
he was also much in and out of artists' studios and for a short time
was, in an informal way, a pupil of the painter Ford Madox Brown. He
acquired some of Brown's admiration for the German “Pre-Raphaelites,”
the nickname of the austere Nazarenes, who had sought to bring back into
German art a pre-Renaissance purity of style and aim. It remained to
initiate a similiar reform in England.
Largely through Rossetti's efforts, the English Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood was formed in 1848 with seven members, all Royal Academy
students except for William Michael Rossetti. They aimed at “truth to
nature,” which was to be achieved by minuteness of detail and painting
from nature outdoors. This was, more especially, the purpose of the two
other principal members, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.
Rossetti expanded the Brotherhood's aims by linking poetry, painting,
and social idealism and by interpreting the term Pre-Raphaelite as
synonymous with a romanticized medieval past.
While Rossetti's first two oil paintings—“The Girlhood of Mary” (1849;
Tate Gallery, London) and “Ecce Ancilla Domini” (“The Annunciation”;
1850, Tate Gallery)—were simple in style, they were elaborate in
symbolism. Some of the same atmosphere is felt in the rich word-painting
and emotional force of his poem “The Blessed Damozel,” published in 1850
in the first issue of The Germ, the Pre-Raphaelite magazine. When it was
exhibited in 1850, “Ecce Ancilla Domini” received severe criticism,
which Rossetti could never bear with equanimity. In consequence, he
ceased to show in public and gave up oils infavour of watercolours,
which he could more easily dispose of to personal acquaintances. He also
turned from traditionalreligious themes to painting scenes from
Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Dante, which allowed more freedom of
imaginative treatment. A typical example of his work from this period is
“How They Met Themselves” (1851–60; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).
After 1856 Rossetti was led by Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur and
Tennyson's Idylls of the King to evoke in his paintings an imaginary
Arthurian epoch, with heraldic glow and pattern of colour andmedieval
accessories of armour and dress.
The 1850s were eventful years for Rossetti. They began with the
introduction into the Pre-Raphaelite circle of the beautiful Elizabeth
Siddal, who served at first as model for the whole group but was soon
attached to Rossetti alone and, in 1860, married him. Many portrait
drawings testify to his affection for her.
In 1854 he gained a powerful but exacting patron in the art critic John
Ruskin. By then the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was at an end, splintered
by the different interests and temperaments of its members. But
Rossetti's magnetic personality aroused a fresh wave of enthusiasm. In
1856 he came into contact with the then-Oxford undergraduates Edward
Burne-Jones and William Morris. With these two young disciples he
initiated a second phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The two main
aspects of this fresh departure were a romantic enthusiasm for a
legendary past instead of the realism of “truth to nature” and the
ambition of reforming the applied arts of design. Rossetti's influence
not only led to easel pictures illustrating Arthurian legend but also
into other fields of art. A new era of book decoration was foreshadowed
by Rossetti's illustration for the Moxon edition of the Poems (1857) of
Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His commission in 1856 to paint a triptych (“The
Seed of David”) for Llandaff Cathedral was a prelude to the ambitious
scheme of 1857 to decorate the Oxford Union debating chamber with mural
paintings of Arthurian themes. Though Rossetti and his helpers
(Burne-Jones, Morris, and others) failed through want of technical
knowledge and experience, the enterprise was fruitful in suggesting that
the scope of art could be expanded to include the crafts.
The later years.
From 1860 onward, trials were part of Rossetti's much-disturbed life.
His marriage to Elizabeth Siddal, clouded by her constant ill health,
ended tragically in 1862 with her death from an overdose of laudanum.
Grief led him to bury with her the only complete manuscript of his
poems. That he considered his love for his wife similar to Dante's
mystical and idealized love for Beatrice is evident from the symbolic
“Beata Beatrix,” painted in 1863 and now in the Tate Gallery.
Rossetti's life and art were now greatly changed. He movedfrom riverside
premises in London's Blackfriars to Chelsea. The influence of new
friends—Algernon Charles Swinburne and the American painter James
McNeill Whistler—led to a more aesthetic and sensuous approach to art.
Literary themes gave way to pictures of mundane beauties, such as his
mistress, Fanny Cornforth, gorgeously appareled and painted with a
command of oils he had not previously shown.Among these works are “The
Blessed Damozel” (1871–79), “The Bower Meadow” (1872), “Proserpine”
(1874; Tate Gallery), and “La Pia de' Tolomei” (1881). The luxuriant
colours and rhythmic design of these paintings enhance the effect of
their languid, sensuous female subjects, all of whom bear a distinctive
“Pre-Raphaelite” facial type. The paintings proved popular with
collectors, and Rossetti grewaffluent enough to employ studio assistants
to make copies and replicas. He also collected antiques and filled his
large Chelsea garden with a menagerie of animals and birds.
Rossetti had enjoyed a modest success in 1861 with his published
translations, The Early Italian Poets; and toward the end of the 1860s
his thoughts turned to poetry again. He began composing new poems and
planned the recovery of the manuscript poems buried with his wife in
Highgate Cemetery. Carried out in 1869 through the agency of his
unconventional man of business, Charles Augustus Howell, the exhumation
visibly distressed the superstitious Rossetti. The publication of these
poems followed in 1870. The Poems were well enough received until a
misdirected, savage onslaught by “Thomas Maitland” (pseudonym of the
journalist-critic Robert Buchanan) on “The Fleshly School of Poetry”
singled out Rossetti for attack. Rossetti responded temperately in “The
Stealthy School of Criticism,”published in the Athenaeum; but the
attack, combined with remorse and the amount of chloral and alcohol he
now took for insomnia, brought about his collapse in 1872. He recovered
sufficiently to paint and write, but his life in Chelsea was
subsequently that of a semi-invalid and recluse. Until 1874 he spent
much time at Kelmscott Manor (near Oxford), of which he took joint
tenancy with William Morris in 1871. His lovingly idealized portraits of
Jane Morris at this time were a return to his more poetic and mystical
In the early 1880s Rossetti occupied himself with a replica of an early
watercolour, “Dante's Dream” (1880), a revised edition of Poems (1881),
and Ballads and Sonnets (1881), containing the completed sonnet sequence
of “The House of Life,” in which he described the love between man and
woman with tragic intensity. The lawyer and man of letters Theodore
Watts-Dunton meanwhile did his best to put Rossetti's financial affairs
in order. From a visit to Keswick (in northwestern England) in 1881,
Rossetti returned in worse health than before, and he died the following
Through his exploration of new themes and his break with academic
convention, Rossetti remains an important figurein the history of
19th-century English art. But his enduring worth probably lies as much
in his poetry as in his painting. In contrast to his painting, where
accumulated details of costume and greenery can become cloying, the
detail in Rossetti's poetry is subordinated to intensity of emotion and
is employed to evoke a mood. It is by means of tiny and seemingly
trivial touches, for example, that time is suspended in his poem “My
Sister's Sleep” and the very silence of the sickroom is heard. “The Wood
Spurge” and the lyric “I have been here before” show Rossetti's mastery
of similar effects. The timeless moment is again caught with great skill
in his sonnet “A Venetian Pastoral by Giorgione in the Louvre”—the most
successful of his highly original attempts to translate well-known
paintings into verse. “The Stream's Secret,” haunted by the ghost of his
dead wife, evokes pity and regret by the power of its verbal music.
Rossetti was a natural master of the sonnet, and his finest achievement,
“The House of Life,” is a sonnet sequence unique in the intensity of its
evocation of the mysteries of physical and spiritual love. Here, as he
claimed against his detractors, “the passionate and just delights of the
body are declared to be as naught if not ennobled by the concurrence of
the soul at all times.” Magnificent memorable lines are created with
simplicity of diction:
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.
(“Silent Noon,” The House of Life, sonnet XIX)
Rossetti's poetic art had other, less subjective aspects. “The Last
Confession,” a tragic episode set against a background of the Italian
Risorgimento, is a powerful dramatic monologue that can bear comparison
with those of Robert Browning. With his feeling for medieval subjects,
Rossetti also caught the spirit of the ballad. Few modern supernatural
ballads are less artificial than “Sister Helen” and “Eden Bower”; and,
among re-creations of the historical ballad, “The White Ship” and “The
King's Tragedy” are outstanding. Early in Rossetti's career, the sight
of the great winged bulls in the British Museum evoked his poem “Burden
of Nineveh” (1850), a meditation on the unpredictable course of history
that is rich in word-music andfar-ranging in imaginative vision.