Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Biography of Romantic Pre-Raphaelite Painter.

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Lady Lilith (1868)
Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82)


Early Life
Watercolours and Stained Glass Designs
Female Portraits
Reputation and Legacy
Famous Paintings

Sir Tristram and la Belle Ysoude.
Stained Glass Panel.
Bradford Art Gallery
One of a set of 13 panels
commissioned from Morris,
Marshall, Faulkner & Co for
Harden Grange. Other panels
were designed by Arthur Hughes,
Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox
Brown, Prinsep and Morris himself.

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One of the best English painters of the 19th century, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a key member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and in many ways the most remarkable of the three Pre-Raphaelite leaders; the other two being William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and John Everett Millais (1829-96). Almost equally gifted as a poet, prose-writer, and painter, and of the rarest individuality in all three arts, he may be said without exaggeration to have been an extraordinary man. His painting, like that of William Blake (1757-1827), suffered from a lack of technical virtuosity, but it is so informed by imagination, so personal in outlook, that its technical shortcomings are easily forgotten. An influential figure in Victorian art, he remains one of the great Romantic artists of the 19th century. Many of his paintings are available online as prints in the form of poster art.

However, little of his work is strictly Pre-Raphaelite in the sense in which Hunt and Millais understood the term, and only in three pictures did he attempt the exact and literal representation of a scene which the Pre-Raphaelite creed demanded. [Note: This creed rejected the "grand style" of High Renaissance academic art, exemplified by triviality of subject, idyllic treatment and non-naturalistic forms, favouring instead worthy subjects, strict reliance on nature in their treatment, and a precise and detailed delicacy of handling, not unlike the early Renaissance of the 15th century - an approach which led to them being dubbed "pre-Raphael"-type painters, or Pre-Raphaelites.]

Beata Beatrix (1864)
Tate Collection, London.

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For a list of painters like
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, see:
Modern Artists.

Early Life

The son of an Italian scholar - a Professor of English at London University - and his highly literate wife, and brother of the female poet Christina Rossetti, he trained at Sass's drawing school and the Antique School of the Royal Academy, rebuffing all his teachers' attempts to instruct him in the academic principles of drawing.

In 1848, he sought additional instruction in painting, first from Ford Madox Brown, an artist of brilliant promise, and then from Holman Hunt, and it was under Hunt's supervision that his first picture The Girlhood of the Virgin, was painted. It was delicately and timidly painted in the Pre-Raphaelite manner, but there were traces in it of early Christian influence derived through Madox Brown from the German Pre-Raphaelites. The Annunciation of the following year had the same characteristics, though it was more confidently painted. In its way it is a masterpiece. In Found, a modern subject with a moral, he made his most serious effort to give expression to the Pre-Raphaelite aims, but this picture, though he worked on it at intervals throughout his life, was never finished.

In 1850, he met his muse, Elizabeth Siddal whom he lived with and painted untiringly until her death in 1862.

Watercolours and Stained Glass Designs

The personal qualities of Rossetti's modern art are most clearly seen in the small watercolours of romantic subjects painted between 1852 and 1862. Though their subjects are literary they are more than mere illustrations, and despite their medieval atmosphere they are by no means archaistic imitations of medieval art. These small pictures of a fantastic imaginary world have the same compelling glamour as Rossetti's poetry, and they are realized with a vivid intensity which is unique. Rossetti had an unsurpassable gift for colour, and these drawings glow with a variegated fire which reminds one of stained glass, the likeness to which is increased by the way in which the colour is mapped out into flat or almost flat decorative shapes. The few designs for windows which he made, show the admirable grasp of the possibilities of the medium which these drawings lead one to expect, and it is to be regretted that he did not himself practise the craft of stained glass. If he had, he would surely have produced work which could bear comparison in colour and design with the masterpieces of medieval glass-painting. Dante drawing the Angel (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), Lancelot and Guinevere, Mary in the House of St. John, The Blue Closet, The Tune of Seven Towers, and The Christmas Carol, are typical of this, Rossetti's best period, and his altarpiece for Llandaff Cathedral, a large work in oils, has the same atmosphere. See also English Figurative Painting 18th/19th century.


Female Portraits

From 1862 onwards his work consisted mainly of large, half-length female figures of a sensuous and highly emotional type, in which certain mannerisms of form are developed to an unpleasant degree. Tragic happenings in his private life (the death of Elizabeth Siddal) had had a disastrous effect on his art, and many of these later pictures are the work of a tortured soul - to some experts, at least. The details are perhaps rather more mundane. He also came into contact with the neoclassical painter Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) who began associating with the Pre-Raphaelites from the early 1860s onwards.

In 1863, he moved into a new house in Chelsea with his new model Fanny Cornforth, and a growing menagerie of unusual animals, including a wombat, whose premature death occasioned a poem. By this time his earnings from his oil paintings were rising nicely (he had a huge income of over £3,000 a year), and he had been given a partnership (along with Edward Burne-Jones) in the interior design firm of his fellow pre-Raphaelite William Morris (1834-96) that produced stained glass, furniture, wallpaper and printed textiles, in accordance with the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement (1862-1914). However, Morris' wife, Janey, became another of his mistresses and models, a situation which caused great tension between Rossetti and Morris, ending in an acrimonious split in 1875. Meantime, during the course of the 1860s, Rossetti gradually became torn between his women, his poetry, his desire to produce interesting watercolours and the need to earn a living. Feeling increasingly pressurized, despite growing public recognition and considerable acclaim following the publication of "Poems by DG Rossetti" as Britain's No 1 artist-poet, he took to drink and drugs. In 1872, he tried and failed to commit suicide, recovering but never regaining his full physical and mental health.

Reputation and Legacy

Rossetti was a man of huge contrasts. He spurned academic drawing traditions, but succeeded in becoming a brilliant draughtsman. He was a fine poet but also in many ways a reckless cynic. He produced some spectacular oils, along with a series of wonderfully romantic medieval-subject watercolours (inspiring a second wave of Pre-Raphaelitism), but also produced a quantity of lower quality works of sensuous, pouting femme fatales: (though even these inspired the Symbolists and fin de siecle decadents). He was a commanding personality and a hard businessman, yet he ended his life depressed, prematurely aged and paralyzed. Perhaps his greatest quality was his fine feeling for colour, which - as shown by later works like Beata Beatrix, painted as a memorial to Elizabeth Siddal, and the portrait of Mrs. William Morris - never left him. His influence on other English artists of the day was significant. For instance, as well as other Pre-Raphaelites, he had an important colouristic influence on Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912).

Famous Paintings

Works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti hang in some of the best art museums in Britain, as can be seen from this short list of selected paintings.

- The Annunciation (1849-50) Tate Britain, London.
- St George and the Princess Sabra (1862) Tate Britain.
- Beata Beatrix (1864) Tate Britain.
- Beloved (1865-66) Tate Britain.
- Monna Vanna (1866) Tate Britain.
- Lady Lilith (1868) Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington.
- Veronica Veronese (1872) Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington.
- Proserpine (1877) Private Collection.
- The Day Dream (1880) Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


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