Until 24th September 2023, Tate Britain is hosting an exhibition about the radical Rossetti family, focusing on their attitudes to art, love and lifestyles. Arguably, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is the most famous of the siblings, and his paintings make The Rossettis a remarkable exhibition. It has been over twenty years since Rossetti’s artwork has been on display in retrospective fashion, and it is a fantastic opportunity to see his phenomenal paintings in one location.
Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti (1828-1882), better known as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a poet, illustrator, painter, and founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Over a relatively short career, Rossetti influenced both the next generation of artists and poets. He also produced illustrations for works by his sister, Christina, and had close connections with other writers, artists and models.
Rossetti was the second child of Italian scholar Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti (1783-1854) and British educator Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori (1800-86). His elder sister, Maria Francesca Rossetti (1827-76), became a writer and, later, a nun. His younger sister, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-94), also became a writer and poet, and his brother, William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919), became a writer and critic. The works of Maria and William pale in comparison to Rossetti’s paintings and Christina’s poems.
As children, the Rossetti siblings were educated at home and aspired to become poets. Rossetti later attended King’s College School in London, where he developed an interest in Medieval Italian art. Whilst continuing to pursue poetry, Rossetti enrolled at Henry Sass’ Drawing Academy and the Royal Academy, which he left in 1848. Following this education, Rossetti became a student of Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), with whom he remained a life-long friend.
In 1848, Rossetti met and befriended William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), with whom he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The original Brotherhood consisted of seven members, Rossetti, Holman Hunt, William Rossetti, John Everett Millais (1829-96), James Collinson (1825-81), Frederic George Stephens (1827-1907) and Thomas Woolner (1825-92). They styled themselves as a Nazarene movement, which aimed to revive spirituality in art – although they gradually went beyond that to encompass nature and heartfelt expression, which they believe became lost in the art following the Renaissance.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began printing a magazine called The Germ in the early 1850s. For the first edition, Rossetti contributed a poem, The Blessed Damozel, which became one of his best-known written works. Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven (1845), Rossetti’s poem depicts a young woman watching down on her lover from heaven until they can both be reunited in death. Several composers created music inspired by the poem, including Claude Debussy (1888), Granville Bantock (1891), Edgar Bainton (1907), Ernest Farrar (1907), Arnold Bax (1906), Benjamin Burrows (1927), and Julius Harrison (1928).
Dante’s earliest major artworks focus on the Virgin Mary, such as Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), which he produced in 1850. The painting is based on the account written in the Gospel of Saint Luke about the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, informing her that she would give birth to God’s son. Rossetti’s sister, Christina, posed as Mary, who appears to have just awoken. His brother, William, posed as Gabriel.
Rossetti received mixed reviews about Ecce Ancilla Domini. Some people disliked the break from the traditional method of depicting the Annunciation. Usually, the angel has wings to differentiate it from human life forms, while Mary often prays to God. Nonetheless, art collector Francis McCracken purchased the painting for £50 in 1853, later selling it to the Tate Gallery in 1886.
Unable to take criticism well, Rossetti turned his attention to watercolours and illustration. During the 1850s, Rossetti produced artwork for works of literature, including the poem The Maids of Elfen-Mere (1855) by William Allingham, several stories and poems by his sister, Christina, and Edward Moxon’s 1857 edition of Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s Poems.
Rossetti’s art took a new direction in 1860, the same year he married Elizabeth Siddal (1826-62). Rossetti first met Siddal in 1850, who became his muse and frequent model. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood tended to share their models, so Siddal also appears in works by other artists. Similarly, Rossetti depicted other women, such as Jane Burden (1839-1914), the future wife of William Morris (1834-1896), and Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909). The latter modelled for Bocca Baciata in 1859, which represents the turning point in Rossetti’s style.
Boccia Baciata depicts a close-up image of a woman in a flat pictorial space, which became a recognisable style for Rossetti. The title means “mouth that has been kissed” and comes from an Italian proverb, which says, The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its good fortune: rather, it renews itself just as the moon does. Whilst Rossetti had married Siddal, Cornforth had been his lover, and he frequently painted her as a sensuous figure.
In 1862, Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth Siddal, died of an overdose of laudanum following the stillbirth of their child. Rossetti fell into a lengthy bout of depression and buried his unpublished poems in Siddal’s grave at Highgate Cemetry. He later regretted this action and dug them up. Despite her death, Siddal continued to appear in Rossetti’s paintings, such as Beata Beatrix, which he obsessively drew and painted several times between 1863 and 1880. Beata Beatrix depicts Beatrice Portinari from Dante Alighieri’s 1294 poem La Vita Nuova at the moment of her death.
Following Siddal’s death, Rossetti moved to 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, where he lived for the next twenty years. He furnished the house with images of exotic birds and animals and found solace at the nearby London Zoo. Rossetti developed a particular love for wombats and spent hours in the “wombat lair”, eventually purchasing one to live with him at home. Rossetti let his wombat join his guests at the dining table, where it frequently fell asleep in the centrepiece. The number of Rossetti’s peculiar pets gradually grew, including a toucan that dressed as a cowboy and rode a llama around the room.
Meanwhile, Rossetti continued to paint Fanny Cornforth and paid for her lodgings. He also painted Alexa Wilding (1847-84), who he discovered in 1865. Wilding features in several of Rossetti’s later works, including illustrations of his poem The Blessed Damozel. Friends and patrons had suggested Rossetti paint scenes from his poems, but he resisted until 1871. The painting depicts the damozel looking down at her lover from heaven. Rossetti produced a replica of The Blessed Damozel for Frederick Richards Leyland (1831-1892) in 1879, which he hung as a triptych with two other paintings by Rossetti: Mnemosyne and Proserpine, modelled by Jane Burden.
Jane Burden and Rossetti had a lengthy, complicated affair, frequently spending time together at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. Burden’s husband, William Morris, was fully aware of their liaisons and even let Rossetti spend summers at the manor with Jane and his children. Several Pre-Raphaelite artists conducted romantic flings with their models, and whilst they rarely acknowledged them out loud, most members of the brotherhood knew what was going on.
In 1870, Rossetti published the poems he had rescued from Siddal’s grave. Their erotic and sensual nature caused offence and controversy. Although some of his contemporaries wrote poems of a similar nature, for example, William Morris, Robert Buchanan (1841-1901) and Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), the Victorian world was not ready for such themes. The rejection of his first book of poetry contributed to Rossetti’s mental breakdown in 1872, and he “spent his days in a haze of chloral and whisky”.
Rossetti’s mental health improved in 1873, and he continued painting portraits of Jane Burden and Alexa Wilding. His paintings during the 1870s became rather soulful and dreamlike, perhaps reflecting his mood. Rossetti became addicted to the hypnotic drug, chloral hydrate, which may also explain his choice of subject.
Unfortunately, Rossetti’s regained mental strength was short-lived. In 1874, Morris cut Rossetti out of his business, which Rossetti had helped establish in 1861. As a result, Rossetti was no longer welcome at Kelmscott Manor, and his affair with Jane could not be maintained. Although he continued to paint, using Jane as a model, his health gradually deteriorated as he became more reliant on drugs to lift his spirits.
By 1800, Rossetti lived in a permanent morbid state. In a last attempt to recover from his chloral addiction, Rossetti stayed at the country house of a friend. While there, he passed away on Easter Sunday in 1882. Although Rossetti’s official cause of death was Bight’s disease, a serious kidney condition, the copious amount of chloral hydrate and alcohol in his system sped up his demise. Close friends and relatives believe his drug addiction began as a means of alleviating pain, and he drank alcohol to take away the taste of the drug.
Despite Rossetti’s early death at the age of 53, he completed a huge body of work during his career, including almost 100 paintings and eight books of poems and translations. Several galleries in Britain own some of his paintings, including Tate Britain, Manchester Art Gallery and Wightwick Manor. In 1966, artists in Newcastle formed the Rossetti Society, of which L. S. Lowry (1887-1976) became president in 1976. Lowry’s private collection of art began as a collection of Rossetti’s paintings and drawings.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood received a lot of criticism for being different from the traditional art styles taught in schools. Their income came from devoted patrons who promoted their art in small circles. After Rossetti’s death, his paintings and poetry gradually increased in popularity. Today, many art fans can identify Rossetti’s work from his choice of colour, subject matter and women.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s life continues to inspire contemporary artists, and he has been the subject of a handful of films and period dramas. In 1967, Oliver Reed (1938-1999) starred as Rossetti in Dante’s Inferno: The Private Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poet and Painter, which tells the story of Rossetti’s relationship with Siddal. In 1975, Ben Kingsley (b.1943) portrayed Rossetti in The Love School, which focuses on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. More recently, Aidan Turner (b.1983) played Rossetti in the 2009 drama Desperate Romantics.
Fans of Dante Gabriel Rossetti must not miss The Rossettis at Tate Britain. It is an opportunity to see Rossetti’s paintings, illustrations and sketches up close and examine the fascinating myths surrounding the unconventional relationships between Rossetti and his models. The exhibition also sheds some light on Christina Rossetti’s career as a writer and reveals Elizabeth Siddal’s ambitions to become an artist.
The Rossettis is open until 24th September 2023. Tickets cost £22, although concessions are available. Advanced booking is recommended.
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