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Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Photograph by Lewis Carroll. 1863
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
(online Dec. 2016)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born 12 May 1828 in London, the second child and eldest son of Italian expatriates. His father, Gabriele Rossetti, was a Dante scholar, who had been exiled from Naples for writing poetry in support of the Neapolitan Constitution of 1819. Rossetti’s mother had trained as a governess and supervised her children's early education.
Few Victorian families were as gifted as the Rossettis: the oldest child, Maria Rossetti, published A Shadow of Dante (1871) and became an Anglican nun; William Michael Rossetti was along with his brother an active member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and became an editor, man of letters, and memoirist; the youngest, Christina Georgina Rossetti, became an important and influential lyric poet.
As a child Dante Gabriel Rossetti intended to be a painter and illustrated literary subjects in his earliest drawings. He was tutored at home in German and read the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe's Faust, The Arabian Nights, Dickens, and the poetry of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. After leaving school, he apprenticed himself to the historical painter Ford Madox Brown, who later became his closest lifelong friend.
Rossetti divided his attention between painting and poetry for the rest of his life. In 1848 he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with six other young men, mostly painters, who shared an interest in contemporary poetry and an opposition to certain stale conventions of contemporary academy art. In a general way, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought to introduce new forms of thematic seriousness, high coloration, and attention to detail into contemporary British art.
Members of the group included John Everett Millais, its most skilled painter and future president of the Royal Academy, and William Holman Hunt, Thomas Woolner; Frederic Stephens; and William Michael Rossetti, who as P.R.B. secretary kept a journal of activities and edited the six issues of its periodical, the Germ (1850).
Associates of the group included the older painter Ford Madox Brown, the painter and poet William Bell Scott, the poet Coventry Patmore, and Christina Rossetti, six of whose poems appeared in the Germ.
In the late 1840s, Rossetti began exhibiting his paintings and, in 1850 met Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, “Lizzie,” then sixteen or seventeen years old. Lizzie became Rossetti’s model, and eventually his wife.
In 1856 several university undergraduates, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, began a journal modeled after the Germ. Entitled the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, it had a run of twelve issues to which Rossetti contributed three poems. Through his connection to the magazine, Rossetti met Jane Burden—his life-long muse and mistress—and introduced her to her future husband William Morris.
The triangle between Rossetti, Jane Burden, and Morris was complex. Rossetti cofounded a firm of designers comprised of Morris and others, doing decorative work for churches and private houses. Morris seems to have been aware of the affair, and even to some extent sanctioned it.
Rossetti’s first portraits of Jane Burden, in crayon, pencil, and oil, are usually considered his most striking artistic work. Letters from Rossetti to Morris reveal that by 1869 she had become the center of his emotional life: “
Jane Morris suffered from poor health, however, and by the late 1860s, Rossetti had also begun to show physical and mental ailments which burdened him for the rest of his life: uncertain eyesight, headaches, insomnia, a hydrocele which made sitting difficult and required periodic drainage, and growing fear of, and distaste for, the outer world.
In 1881 Rossetti sold one of his largest and best paintings, Dante's Dream, to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
A sudden decline in February 1882 caused him to move to Birchington, where he revised the comic poem Jan Van Hunks, was visited by his mother, William, and Christina, and died of blood poisoning from uric acid on 9 April 1882.
Many of Rossetti's self-estimates were accurate. Had he been able when young to choose a literary career, he would probably have been a better poet than painter; he was a genuinely original and skillful writer. In part, his achievement was vicarious: he galvanized others in many ways not easily measured. However, insecurity and self-reproach manifested themselves in all but his earliest poems. Rossetti was haunted by a (perhaps partially accurate) private assessment of his weaknesses as a painter and obsessed with Jane Morris as a model. Yet he was perhaps right that his intense response to such private archetypes was the chief distinction of his work.
It seemed to serve some inner purpose for Rossetti to idealize women who were withdrawn, invalid, and/or melancholic. Their genuine alienation seems to have provided some counterpart for an inner sense of inadequacy and isolation in him. In some way he seemed to need serious emotional attachments with women poised on the edge of withdrawal. In any case, a sense of this equilibration heightened the effects both of his paintings and of his poetry.
It would be difficult to imagine later nineteenth-century Victorian poetry and art without Rossetti's influence. His writings can perhaps best be viewed as an unusually acute expression of Victorian social uncertainty and loss of faith. Rossetti's poetry on the absence of love is as bleakly despairing as any of the century, and no poet of his period conveyed more profoundly certain central Victorian anxieties: metaphysical uncertainty, sexual anxiety, and fear of time.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
By John Bryson and William Gaunt
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, original name Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti (born May 12, 1828, London, England—died April 9, 1882, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent) 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.
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 ...
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.
Largely through Rossetti’s efforts, the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 with seven members, all Royal Academy students except for [Dante's brother] 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) and Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation; 1850)—were simple in style, they were elaborate in symbolism. 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 in favour of watercolours, which he could more easily dispose of to personal acquaintances. He also turned from traditional religious themes to painting scenes from Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Dante, which allowed more freedom of imaginative treatment.
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.
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 moved from 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.
... 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 style.
From a visit to Keswick (in northwestern England) in 1881, Rossetti returned in worse health than before, and he died the following spring.
Through his exploration of new themes and his break with academic convention, Rossetti remains an important figure in 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.
Rossetti was a natural master of the sonnet, and his finest achievement,
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