Dante Gabriel Rossetti
One of the biggest art movements in history was started by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the mid-19th century. In 1848 Rossetti, Hunt and Millais banded together to create the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They drew other artists to their group for over more than two decades. His paintings remained so influential that another generation of young artists supported the movement, and other groups, like the European Symbolists and the Aesthetic movement, subsequently took some of their direction from the Pre-Raphaelites.
Rossetti’s parents, Gabriele and Frances, were Italians who had permanently settled in England. His father, Gabriele, was a scholar, and it was because of that all of the Rossetti children were very well educated, including studies in Latin and Italian. Rossetti was born in London on May 12, 1828, and originally named Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti; however, he changed it later in his life, putting the Dante first. He had aspired to be a poet like John Keats while attending school at King’s College, but after learning about the medieval period in Italian art he changed his goal and studied art instead. Eventually, Rossetti became accomplished as a painter, an illustrator, a poet and a translator.
He attended Henry Sass’s Drawing Academy for four years (1841 - 1845) in preparation for gaining entrance into the Royal Academy’s Antique School. He studied at the Royal Academy until 1848, and followed that with classes taught by Ford Madox Brown. Brown was only a few years older than Rossetti, and they remained good life-long friends. Hunt had made a painting called The Eve of St Agnes which encouraged Rossetti to believe that they would have something in common pertaining to art. After they became friends and found that Millais was also like-minded, they chose to take their art back to the detailed, complex compositions and colorful styles of 15th century Flemish and Italian art, “before Raphael”.
Poetry and painting were often combined in Rossetti’s creative forces, one influencing the other. Many of his paintings inspired him to write sonnets, or his sonnets inspired his paintings, such as in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, which he made in 1849, and Astarte Syriaca, completed in 1877. His sister, Christina, was a respected poet; Rossetti drew illustrations for her published book of poems, titled Goblin Market. Other influences on his art were the women he called his muses: Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal. Fanny was a housemaid who became his model and his mistress; Jane Morris was his muse and model (also destined to be a housemaid) before she married his good friend William Morris; Elizabeth Siddal was one of his students, turned model, and then she became his wife.
One art critic of the 1850s pointed out that Rossetti was always more involved with the literary medieval side of the Pre-Raphaelites, studying old Italian poets and translating their works, more so than the painting techniques of the group. Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850) was the second major oil painting that Rossetti had ever exhibited, and it was critically abused. Other harsh criticisms on the Pre-Raphaelites as a whole, at that time, caused Rossetti to rarely exhibit his oil paintings after that year. Instead he decided to switch to watercolors; the reason for that was that watercolors could be sold privately.
In 1860 Rossetti returned to producing oil paintings, but no longer the Arthurian and medieval subjects. Instead he painted portraits of his female models as sensuously as he could, in ways that followed the works of Titian and Paolo Veronese during the High Renaissance period. In 1861 he joined with a number of other artists in Morris’ new enterprise for making beautifully designed stained glass windows in England.
Rossetti’s wife, “Lizzie” gave birth to a stillborn child in 1862, and died shortly after with an overdose of laudanum. He was devastated at her death, but a year or so later, in 1863, he set up Fanny Cornforth in a small house near Chelsea where they could spend time together. Rossetti later rented Tudor House in Chelsea, became obsessed with exotic species of birds and animals (he eventually owned two wombats) and lived extravagantly for twenty years. After critics turned on his poetry in the 1870’s he became addicted to chloral hydrate and alcohol. Rossetti died in 1882 from Bright’s Disease, a condition that had destroyed his kidneys. His grave in Kent, England, is still regularly visited by admirers today.