Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sensual paintings of women
- Christina Rossetti, and "In the Bleak Midwinter," a Victorian Christmas carol
One of the most poignant and melodic yet melancholy of Christmas carols I have ever sung is "In the Bleak Midwinter," words written by Christina Rossetti, one of England's finest Victorian poets. She was second only to Elizabeth Bar
One of the most beautiful painters of women over the centuries is Dante Gabriel Rossetti who lived during the Victorian Age in England and was an English painter and poet. His given name at birth was Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, but when he reached adulthood he legally changed his name to Dante Gabriel Rossetti to give a nod to his favorite of Italian poets - Dante Alighieri.
Yes, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was of the famous Rossetti family living in and around London during Victorian times. His sister was the poet, Christina Rossetti, a well-known and respected Victorian poet in her own right. His family was intelligent and artistic and his father originally born in Italy. Therefore, there were famous Italian writers and artists at the home as he and his siblings were growing up. It was an intellectual and stimulating household with a large library full of books of poets and artists.
He is best known for his sensuous portraits of women painted during the later half of his life. He is also known for helping to found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters treating religious, moral and medieval subjects in a nonacademic manner.
Rossetti's general education was done at King's College (1836-41) and during this time he couldn't decide whether to focus on poetry or painting. After his time at King's College, he attended a drawing school in Bloomsbury (central London) at about age fourteen. Then he moved on to the Royal Academy School in London as a full time student.
Like his sister Christina, Rossetti read romantic and poetic literature and such writers as - Shakespeare, Goethe, Byron, Scott, Poe, Blake - and he read them voraciously. By age twenty, Rossetti had written a number of translations of Italian poets and written some of his own poetry.
It was in 1848 that he helped to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There were seven members all Royal Academy students except for his brother, William Michael Rossetti who served as editor of The Germ magazine that the brotherhood published. This group's aim was at "truth to nature" in painting and poetry. In painting there was minuteness of detail and painting of nature outdoors. This group also linked poetry, painting, and social idealism and made brotherhood synonymous with a romanticised medieval past that figured prominently in their paintings and poetry.
Rossetti's first paintings, The Girlhood of Mary (1849) and Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annuciation; 1850) are very simple in style but full of symbolism and painted in oils. In fact his sister, Christina was the model for Mary in The Girlhood of Mary.
For the most part these two paintings were highly criticized by art critics and Rossetti became so enraged that he switched from oil painting to watercolors. He also turned away from painting traditional religious themes to painting scenes from Shakespeare, Robert Browning and Dante Alighiere. This was good because it gave him more freedom of imagination in his paintings.
When Rossetti switched to watercolors, he created his own method of mixing watercolors. He used a thick pigment mixed with gum so that he could give the rich effects as in medieval illustrations. You will notice the dark but vibrant colors he uses in his paintings. They are bold and very reminiscient of paintings from the Italian Renaissance.
After 1856, Rossetti's paintings were influenced by the imaginary Arthurian era with a heraldic glow and a pattern of color and romantic medieval accessories and dress. He began painting these scenes after reading Malory's Morte d'Arthur and Tennyson's Idylls of the King.
By this time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had come to an end as the group had splintered and fell apart. Rossetti initiated a second phase of the movement and instead of the realism of "truth to nature" he initiated a romantic enthusiasm for the legendary past. Hence his influence of the readings of King Arthur by Malory and Tennyson.
During this time he met Elizabeth Siddal, considered quite a beauty at the time, and she began modeling for his paintings and sketches. They fell in love and were married in 1860. This was a true love match and Rossetti was devoted to her and she to him.
Tragically, Elizabeth was quite ill during the marriage and in 1862, the marriage ended with her death from an overdose of laundanum. Rossetti was devastated. He then painted Beata Beatrix (1863) a very mystical and idealized painting of Elizabeth. He compared his love for Elizabeth as similar to Dante's love for Beatrice in the Divine Comedy.
Rossetti's Later Paintings
After Elizabeth's death, Rossetti's life and art greatly changed. He moved to Chelsea in London and came under the influence of James McNeill Whistler, the American painter. This is when his paintings of women lead to a more aesthetic and sensuous approach to art.
His literary themes ended and he began to paint portraits of mundane beauties. There were always gorgeously dressed and he began painting in oils again. At this time he also took a mistress and she became a model for many of his painting of women.
These sensuous females were based on the Italian High Renaissasnce artists of Venice, Titian, and Veronese. All his sensuous female subjects beat a distinctive Pre-Rafaelite facial type. They are painted in luxuriant, bold colors and have a rhythmic design. They are close up images using dense colors.
These painting became very popular with collectors and Rossetti became very wealthy from selling these paintings. Most of these paintings are today in English museums in the Tate Britain, Birmingham, Manchester and Salford Museum and Art Galleries.
Also during this time of painting he also began writing poetry again. He had stopped when Elizabeth died and had gathered all his poetry manuscripts and had them buried in the casket with Elizabeth. When he began to write poetry again, he had Elizabeth exhumed to retieve the poetry manuscrips he had buried with her. This was a traumatic experience for him, but he took these poems plus the ones he had just written and published, Poems, in 1870.
This collection of poems was well received except by one critic who singled out Rossetti for attack. Rossetti responded vociferously to this critic and this combined with chloral and alcohol he was taking for insomnia, he suffered a mental collapse in 1872. From then on his life was that of a semi-invalid and recluse. He continued painting and writing poetry and in 1882 he died not having produced anything great since his collapse.
I have always enjoyed these paintings of women that he painted and I consider them beautiful. Not everyone does, I know. I have seen some of these paintings on loan to The Cleveland Museum of Art when they have been there for art showings. There is a vulnerability and sensuality to these paintings and at the same time the colors he uses creates bold women. I hope you enjoy these next several paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
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