Rossetti and the Women who Loved Him

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Born: 12 May 1828, London, UK
Nationality: British
Movement: Pre-Raphaelite
Died: 9 April 1882, Kent, UK

Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, known as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a painter, illustrator, poet and translator. He was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, along with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Rossetti also was the main inspiration for a second generation of Pre-Raphaelite influenced artists and poets such as William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Characterised by its sensuality and medieval revivalism Rossetti’s art was a notable influence on the European Symbolists and the Aesthetic movement. His personal life was closely connected to his work, especially in his relationship with his muses and models Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddal and Fanny Cornforth.

The son of Italian scholar Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti and Frances Mary Lavinià Polidori. Known as Gabriel to his friends and family, he used the name Dante professionally in honour of Dante Alighieri. His siblings were the poet Christina Rossetti, the critic William Michael Rossetti and the author Maria Francesca Rossetti,

Although their father was a Roman Catholic the Rossetti children were raised and educated in their mother’s Anglian religion. Rossetti was home educated before attending King’s College School where he studied the Bible along with Shakespeare, Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Rossetti was described as an articulate, self-possessed, charismatic, passionate, poetic but feckless youth. Like his brother and sisters he aspired to be a poet as well as a painter. He studied Medieval Italian art before attending Henry Sass; Drawing Academy. He enrolled in the Antique School of the Royal Academy before studying under Ford Madox Brown who remained a close friend thought Rossetti’s life.

Rossetti’s first major oil paintings demonstrate the early Pre-Raphaelite realist qualities. Girlhood of Mary Virgin, exhibited in 1849, was exemplary of Rossetti’s technique of painted oils with watercolour consistency. His second painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini, exhibited in 1850 received heavy criticism in line with the increasingly hysterical reaction to Pre-Raphaelitism. Rossetti turned to watercolours which could be sold privately and rarely exhibited his work.

In 1850 Elizabeth Sidal, an important model for the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and over the next decade she became his muse, pupil and passion. They were married in 1860.

From his work on translating Italian poetry into English including Alighirei’s La Vita Nuova inspired his art during the 1950’s. Similar to medieval illuminations he developed painting watercolour pigments mixed with gum to give rich effects in a painting.

The practice of the Pre-Raphaelites was to integrate literature with their art with many pieces making literary references. Rossetti considered the ornamentation of Victorian gift books to be gaudy and of bad taste and sort to refine bindings and illustrations with the Aesthetic Movement’s principles. He was a collaborating designer and illustrator with his sister, Christina, on Goblin Market and The Prince’s Progress. Illustrations in the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy do not simply refer to the text but are part of the whole.
From 1860 Rossetti returned to oil painting but instead of the intense medieval compositions his work consisted of powerful close-up portrayals of women. His depictions of women were obsessive and stylised. His lover, fanny Cornforth, he portrayed as the epitome of eroticism and Jane Morris the ethereal goddess.

After the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal in 1862 Rossetti moved to Cheyne Walk, Chelsea where he lived for 20 years, surrounding self with extravagance in furnishings and exotic animals. He also maintained a home for Fanny Cornforth nearby.

Towards the end of his life Rossetti’s mental health declined into a morbid state of depression, worsened by his addiction to chloral hydrate and his last years at Cheyne Walk were that of a recluse.

Rossetti died at Easter 18812. He had gone to a friend’s country house to recover. His health had been destroyed by his drug addiction and his long-term battle with Bright’s Disease. He is interred at All Saints churchyard at Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, UK.

The Childhood of Mary Virgin; Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1849, oil on canvas)

The Childhood of Mary Virgin (1849, oil on canvas) was first exhibited at the Hyde Park Corner Gallery ‘Free Exhibition’.

The painting a young Mary embroidering a lily, a symbol of purity, under the guidance of her mother, Anne. In the background her father, Joachim, is pruning a vine, symbolic of the coming of Christ, and as a symbol of Christ’s Passion, the vine is in a cross figure.

The painting is currently housed by the Tate Britain, London, UK

Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1850, oil on canvas)

Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850, oil on canvas) is inspired by the work of the Renaissance artists such as Fra Angelico and Botticelli. It was exhibited at National Institution in 1850 but was heavily criticised for it’s didacticism.

The Latin title is a quotation from the Vulgate text of the first chapter of the Gospel of St Luke that describes the Annunciation. The colour range is deliberately limited and white, a symbol of purity, dominates. Blue is often associated with Mary and is also symbolic of heaven, whilst red symbolizes the blood of Christ.

The painting is currently located at the Tate Britain, London, UK

Found by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1881, oil on canvas)

Found (1881, oil on canvas) was unfinished at the time of Rossetti’s death.

The painting is the artist’s only treatment in oil of the then contemporary moral subject of urban prostitution. Rossetti considered the piece to be one of his most important, returning to from its start in the 1850’s until the last year of his life.

The presence of the calf goes some way to explain why the farmer has travelled to the town, but it carries a deeper symbolic resonance in its situation of an innocent creature trapped and on its way to be sold that parallels that of the woman and invites the viewer to question her state of mind.

The painting is currently housed by Delaware Art Museum, Delaware, USA

Helen of Troy by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1863, oil on panel)

Helen of Troy (1863, oil on panel) brought together Rossetti’s ideas of classical poetry and literature.

Helen of Troy, modeled by Annie Miller, is the most beautiful woman in the world but is the adulterous lover of Paris, the Trojan prince. Symbolically she points to a firebrand, a token of her lover, as the city of Troy burns in the background. A quote from the Agamemnon of Aeschylus describes Helen as ‘destroyer of ships, destroyer of men, destroyer of cities.

The painting is currently located at Kunst Halle Hamburg, Germany

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1868, gouache and watercolour on paper)

Lady Lilith (1868, gouache and watercolour on paper) is a portrait, originally modeled by Fanny Cornforth but altered by Rossetti to show Alexa Wilding.

Lady Lilith is the first wife of Adam and associated with the seduction of men and the murder of children. The white roses resonate the cold, sensuous love of Lilith and act as a reflection to the traditional idea that roses only blushed and became red when they met Eve.

The painting is housed by Delaware Art Museum, Delaware, USA

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