Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the central figure of the Pre-Raphaelites. Together with Holman Hunt and Millais, he started the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and was the 'poetic inspiration' of the movement. He later was the centre of a new group of Pre-Raphaelite inspired painters, tempting the young Burne Jones and William Morris to become artists.

He was born in London, son of Gabriele Rossetti, who had come to England in 1824 and was professor of Italian at King's College, London. His brother, William Michael Rossetti, became an eminent art critic, and he had two artistic sisters, Maria and Christina.

After studying at Sass's drawing academy for four years, in 1846 Rossetti was enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools. However, impatience with the restrictive methods and slow pace of the Academy regime lead him to abandon his studies there, and he then worked for a period under Ford Madox Brown. In 1848 he met Holman Hunt, and they shared a studio together for a time. Through Hunt, Rossetti became acquainted with Millais, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was born in that year.

In 1849, Elizabeth Siddal came into Rossetti's life, having been introduced into the Pre-Raphaelite circle by Walter Howard Deverell. She became the model for most of Rossetti's completed pictures from this date through to her death, as well as the subject of a large number of drawings. They finally married only in 1860, and she died 2 years later. Other models used by Rossetti were Fanny Cornforth, Fanny Wilding, Marie Spartali, and, dominating as much in his later work as Elizabeth Siddall did in his early work, Jane Morris (nee Jane Burden).

From the mid 1850s to the early 1860s Rossetti was a close friend of Ruskin, who also supported him by finding patrons, and buying much of his work. Rossetti also taught for four years at Ruskin's Working Men's College in London's East End. Also in the mid-1850s, William Morris and Edward Coley Burne-Jones came under Rossetti's influence, and this was the start of a second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism. Together, with four other artists (Arthur Hughes, Val Prinsep, Spencer Stanhope and Hungerford Pollen) they produced the Oxford Union mural in 1857-9. Rossetti (and Burne-Jones) was also much involved in Morris's Arts and Crafts firm (Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co) from its beginning at the start of the 1860s, designing stained glass windows and much else.

Rossetti also drew some book illustrations - few in number, but of great influence. He was also an important poet of his time, his best known poem being 'The Blessed Damozel'. We note in passing that he led a somewhat bohemian lifestyle, especially in his later years, when he kept wombats and other animals in his garden.

Book illustration

Rossetti's paintings are distinguished by his eye for beauty, choice of subjects and intensity of vision. He painted many pictures on the theme of Dante and Beatrice, and chose other subjects from Italian history and Arthurian tales. His favorite models, noted above, were Elizabeth Siddal, and later Jane Morris, wife of William Morris.

His principal pictures include The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini (both at the Tate Gallery) which were his first exhibited Pre-Raphaelite pictures, Found (Delaware Art Centre, Wilmington USA), which was the first Pre-Raphaelite attempt to paint contemporary social problems, a theme later attacked with gusto by Holman Hunt, How They Met Themselves, Dante's Dream (in the Walker Art Gallery and Beata Beatrix (in the Tate Gallery) (all of which show Elizabeth Siddal), and many portraits based on Jane Morris, such as Astarte Syriaca (Manchester), Proserpine and The Day Dream (V&A). In the Museum of Western Art, Tokyo is his The Loving Cup. The art gallery in Delaware also holds important works by Rossetti, including Lady Lilith and Veronica Veronese.

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Rossetti as an illustrator // Other artists