Dante Gabriel

United Kingdom • 1828−1882

Biography and information

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (May 12, 1828, London - April 9, 1882, Birchington) was an English poet, translator, painter and graphic artist, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and an object of passionate adoration and imitation for the younger generation of followers.

Creative features of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's art: Rossetti’s periods of creativity are determined not by the technical features of his painting, but by the women who posed for him. The artist was passionate about each of them and painted them frantically: Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris, Alexa Wilding. At the same time, all women of Rossetti are somewhat similar: golden hair, sensual thick lips, heavy chin, contoured cheekbones. Like all members of the Brotherhood, he asked his friends, acquaintances, relatives, mistresses to pose for paintings on literary, biblical and mythological subjects. But, unlike his like-minded people, he was never fond of accurate botanical sketches and landscapes. Rossetti was a brilliant colourist and accurate graphic artist, but had difficulty building complex perspectives.
Famous pictures by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Annunciation, The Day Dream, Proserpine, Beata Beatrix, Lady Lilith, How They Met Themselves.

Famous paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Annunciation, "A Day Dream, Proserpine, "Beata Beatrix, Lady LilithHow They Met Themselves."

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s brother was his biographer and publisher of his letters. And in his book of memoirs about the artist, William Michael Rossetti wrote: “He once told me, it was about 1857 or a little later, ‘as soon as something is assigned to me as a duty, my ability to do it disappears. I cannot do what I have to do.’ It became the very essence of his character and the truth about his whole life. " Rossetti was an energetic, hot-tempered, independent, quickly addicted, shrewd, extravagant long-haired Italian nonconformist in prim, puritanical, academic England during the reign of Queen Victoria. He dropped out of a prestigious college, he translated Dante into English thereafter, he escaped from the Royal Academy of Arts, and later, he successfully sold his paintings and made several copies of the most popular subjects. He lived with the most beautiful model and talented artist for 10 years, but he married her only under the threat of the girl’s death. Rossetti did what he loved with all his passion and physically could not do what he had to.

Unable to learn

In Rossetti’s house, all four children studied from their birth through listening to the conversations of adults and their guests — there always were many of them in the house. Political refugee Gabriel Rossetti arrived in London in 1825. After the Austrian troops suppressed the uprising in Naples, he was forced to flee to Malta, and then to England. At home, Rossetti Sr. was the caretaker of the antique department of the Neapolitan Museum and a fairly famous poet. Upon arrival in London, he began teaching Italian at King’s College and in his spare time he wrote literary studies of Dante’s works. When Gabriel first set foot on English ground, he was 42 years old, but he managed to build his life in a new country and find a safe place under the mean English sun. A year later, he married 23-year-old Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, and in the next 4 years, four of their children were born one after the other.

The Rossettis have never been rich. The most luxurious holiday for the children was a trip to Polidori’s grandparents, to a mansion in the English countryside. The boys basked in the sun, lounged in the grass and amused themselves by catching frogs in the local pond and letting them go back, and in the evenings they read and discussed knightly novels, of which there were many in grandfather’s library. Grandfather Polidori kept a printing press in his work shed with carpentry tools and promised to print the very first book that any of his grandchildren would write. When Dante Gabriel Rossetti was 14, he received this honour.
In their house in London, Gabriel’s parents received political Italian emigrants and read more serious literature — Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Shakespeare and, of course, Dante, who gave name to their eldest son. But when the son became seriously interested in literature, began to write sonnets and decided to abandon drawing exercises, the elder Rossetti enlightened him — the boy clearly demonstrated his artistic talent and it was to drawing that he had to devote most of his time.

The father spoke to the children in Italian, the mother spoke in English, at King’s College, where Dante studied for 5 years, he learned nice French, Latin and German. He wrote poetry, wore a shirt wide open, worn out shoes and long black curls, and when the teacher of the antique classes of the Royal Academy of Arts asked about his missed lesson, he casually replied: “I had an episode of idleness”. Dante entered the academy at 18, and by the age of 20 he had already left it, because it was too boring there, whereas he found a real teacher.

Ford Madox Brown was only 27 when he received an enthusiastic letter from 20-year-old Rossetti asking him to be his student. Brown decided that this was someone’s evil prank, but when he met Dante, he immediately invited him to share his workshop, attend the evening school of nature sketches with him and teach him everything he knew for free. Brown and Rossetti remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Unable to marry

Impulsive, educated, sincere, fearless handsome Rossetti conquered those around him. He always had many friends and mistresses. But among all the people the artist was close with, several played an exceptional role in his life. The meeting with Holman Hunt and John Everette Millais was decisive in his artistic career, and the meeting with the saleswoman of the hat shop, Elizabeth Siddal was the most important in his life.

On 31 December 1848, the first meeting of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood took place at the home of John Everett Millais. All three of them, Hunt, Millet and Rossetti, in fact still were boys, who had read much of the legendary Arthurian legends popular in those years and dreamed of great deeds. The secret sign P.R.B. in the paintings, the desire to turn the art history from the boring knurled road, the readiness to freeze on the bank of a rural river for six months for the sake of the botanical accuracy of the landscape and, of course, the search for impeccable female beauty without regard to social conventions. They were ready to paint the Mother of God from a prostitute, and a Shakespeare’s heroine from a seamstress. Sometimes they asked their sister or mother to pose, and sometimes their mistress. Like real knights, the Pre-Raphaelites were convinced that the formula of success was to find the beloved lady (the ideal model) and defeat the enemy (academic art) in a fierce battle. Fortunately, these boys were brilliantly armed: each of them had talent and youthful faith in their future glory and recognition.

Rossetti learned about the lovely red-haired hat shop assistant Elizabeth Siddal from the artist Walter Deverell. He ran into the studio they shared with Hunt, and said that he had found the treasure. Lizzie will pose for Deverell’s Twelfth Night, Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus,  Millais' Ophelia , before she becomes the undivided love, obsessive passion, trademark and endless inspiration for Rossetti. Very quickly they began to live together — and Lizzie felt herself belonging there in their evening artistic arguments over with a bottle of wine, in their late morning waking up, in their day’s excited creative search. She began to learn to draw, and she achieved brilliant results so quickly that art critic and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites, John Ruskin, appointed her a personal scholarship in exchange for all the work that would come out of her brush. And to Rossetti, who, judging by Lizzie’s success, demonstrated such an unexpected pedagogical gift, he offered to teach drawing lessons for workers in a free college. 

“No doubt, she’s amazing. Rossetti once told me that when he first saw her, he felt his fate determined. Why doesn’t he marry her?” Ford Madox Brown wrote down in his diary after three years of Dante and Lizzie’s coupledom. This question was asked by everyone who saw them together. The girl was sickly, and after extreme sessions of posing for Millais’s Ophelia, when she had to lie in the bath for several hours, she almost fell into the next world and never completely got rid of her lung disease. Rossetti lived with Siddal for 10 years, and decided on the wedding only in a fit of pity, tenderness and remorse: she became seriously ill and could not survive another attack. After her honeymoon in Paris, Elizabeth unexpectedly recovered and, it seemed to be strong and full of strength like long time before. But a year later, she miscarried a baby, and things got even worse. Diseases returned, new pains and attacks of nervous breakdown added to them, which was customary to treat with opium tincture. A year later, she took a lethal dose of her medicine and no longer came to her senses. Rossetti, who had returned late at night from his classes at Workers’ College, found Lizzie unconscious. During the night, he called four different doctors, refusing to believe that she could not be saved. By morning, his wife had died.

Rossetti put a notebook with poems written over the past 10 years in Lizzie’s coffin. He believed that he would not be able to write or draw all that was done during this time without her. So, all this belongs to her undividedly. He would change his mind soon.

Unable to live

After the death of his wife, Rossetti moved to a new house on Cheyne Walk in the artistic district of Chelsea — he could not stay where he lived only with her. Dante rarely appeared in the streets, but at home he arranged a real bohemian club for intellectuals, artists and wealthy collectors. In the wild garden behind his house was the famous Rossetti menagerie, where kangaroos, wallabies, an armadillo, salamanders, marmots, raccoons, peacocks and the artist’s favourite wombat lived. Every day models roamed around the house, and every night whiskey flowed like a river, cigars smoked and endless conversations were conducted. This was a time of financial independence and professional confidence. American art dealers were ready to wholesale everything that was in Rossetti’s studio. That was the time of the first signs of many diseases, the first recipes and the first recommendations of the best doctors. That was the time of prolonged depression, periodic loss of vision, exhausting insomnia, the first doses of chloral, a narcotic substance prescribed as a sleeping pill. It was the time for a new passion.

Since 1858, Jane Morris  was the wife of Dante’s longtime friend, the artist William Morris, and since 1865, she was Rossetti’s lover and constant model. Morris knew about this relationship, did not recognize proprietary views in marriage and left his friend and wife alone for several months in the Kelmscott estate, which his friends rented for two of them. This relationship lasted more than 10 years, and Jane was the model for the best pictures, by which Rossetti is now recognized: Proserpine, Pandora, The Day Dream. Sometimes Dante dreamt, tormented and painted the brunette Jane with the red hair of his deceased wife. And he always remembered that both of them — each at her time — were the best in his life.

Always painfully enduring criticism, Rossetti was not ready for a new blow. It occurred to him that his early poems, which have been buried in Lizzie’s coffin for 8 years, were actually not bad, and it would be nice to publish them. He asked one of his acquaintances to open the coffin and remove the covered notebook. When the poems were published, they were smashed to smithereens. Critic Robert Buchanan denounced the poetry as obscene and jokingly called Rossetti’s style “the carnal school of poetry”. One of the artist’s hardest nervous breakdowns ended with a suicide attempt. However, he survived.

He survived to work with frenzy, to the limit of his strength and emotions, to execute commissions of numerous replicas of his best paintings for big money, paint new unique subjects, publish his translations of early Italian poets and receive impressive royalties from publishing his own poems, suffer from insomnia and neuralgic attacks , take chloral to relieve pain, drink whiskey to relieve chloral nausea. To lose Jane Morris, who could no longer tolerate the drug intoxication of her lover — after all, she had children, as Jane would say in her defense after Dante’s death.

“Chloral had almost no power over that part of his mind responsible for intellect and imagination,” Rossetti’s brother woud write in his memoirs. But what was safe for his imagination completely destroyed the artist’s body and emotions. At the age of 54, he died paralyzed and half-blind in a sanatorium in the seaside resort town of Burchington, where he went to receive medical treatment at the insistence of his friends. A month before his death, he finished the paintings Proserpine and Joan of Arc" together with The Ballad of Jan Van Hunks, because no troubles had power over that part of his brain that was responsible for imagination.

Written by Anna Sidelnikova