The Paintings of Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, legends and stunners
Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
In the beginning there were three members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Three young and idealistic artists who came together to create works of art that reflected their admiration for the honesty and simplicity of early Christian artists. They wanted their art to inform and inspire, and they chose subjects from history, from legend, and from the Bible, with a fair spattering of morality thrown in. The three founder members of this movement were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais.
Over time the Brotherhood came to include the sculptor Thomas Woolner, artists James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens, and Rossetti's brother, the writer William Michael Rossetti. These were the official members, but as the movement grew other artists began to emulate the ideas of the original group, and the paintings of Edward Coley Burne Jones and many other similar Victorian artists are now commonly referred to as being 'Pre-Raphaelite'.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brother of the poet, Christina Rossetti, was born in London in 1828 to an Italian family. After showing early artistic ability, Dante Gabriel entered Sass's Academy at age 13, where he stayed for four years, with the intention of preparing for the Royal Academy Schools. However, on graduating to the Royal Academy, Rossetti quickly tired of the rigidly structured lessons, and soon dropped out of his classes. Still determined to continue with his studies, he wrote to the artist Ford Madox Brown, whose work he greatly admired, and asked him if he might become his pupil. The older man was flattered by the request, and began tutoring Rossetti in 1848. Although the pupil-teacher relationship was to be short-lived, it was nonetheless the beginning of a friendship that would last until Rossetti's death.
Later that same year, Rossetti saw and admired William Holman Hunt's painting 'The Eve of St Agnes' at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. He spoke to Hunt about his work, and it soon became clear that as artists they had much in common. Rossetti, flighty and mercurial as ever, decided to abandon Madox Brown, and to set up a studio with Holman Hunt instead. With the £70 Hunt received for 'The Eve of St Agnes' the pair rented a large, bare room in Cleveland Street, and Rossetti commenced work on 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin' and 'Ecce Ancilla Domini' which were his earliest contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite movement
THe Girlhood of St Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1849
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin
This was to be Rossetti's first major oil painting, and also the first to be exhibited with the mysterious initials PRB, which stood for 'Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood'. Rossetti's mother, and his sister Christina served as models and the picture is full of symbolic references to the life of Christ. Mary and her mother, St Anne, are shown embroidering a lily onto crimson cloth, whilst a serious looking child-angel stands behind a vase with another lily (the symbol of purity) balanced on a pile of books bearing the names of virtues such as 'fortitude', 'faith', 'hope' and 'prudence'. Beside the books lies a seven-leaved palm branch and a seven thorned briar tied with a scroll inscribed tot dolores tot gaudia ( so many sorrows, so many joys). Also in the background there is a cross twined with ivy, a crimson cloak, and a haloed dove.
Rossetti, at this point in his career, still required guidance from Madox Brown and Holman Hunt on matters regarding technique and perspective. Even with their assistance there is still an awkward feel about the overall composition.
Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850
Ecce Ancilla Domini, 1850
Rossetti's second Pre-Raphaelite picture, exhibited at the Portland Gallery, was the object of sharp criticism, and Rossetti took the negative comments so badly that he decided against exhibiting in London again. Christina Rossetti served as model for the Virgin Mary, and the lily embroidered on red cloth, last seen in the painting 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin', features in the foreground, symbolising Mary's purity. The angel hovering before her has flames coming from his feet, and is holding yet another lily. The haloed dove flying through the window looks a little out of place, and the strange perspective as well as the awkward composition give us further clues as to Rossetti's relative youth and inexperience. After a long wait for a buyer, the picture was eventually sold to a Mr McCracken from Belfast, one of the first patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites.
The Wedding of Saint George and the Princess Sabra by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1857
The wedding of St George and the Princess Sabra, 1857
After completing 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin', and 'Ecce Ancilli Domini', Rossetti and Hunt set off on holiday to France and Belgium, where they were able to visit galleries and museums. On their return, both Rossetti and Hunt attempted some landscapes, but Rossetti quickly gave up, and began searching about instead, for some other subject matter. Eventually, working in watercolour, and on a small scale, he began a series of paintings based on medieval legends and on the story of Dante's 'Inferno', a classical Italian text.
This painting illustrates a scene from the wedding of St George and the Princess Sabra, and is one of the delicious, jewel-bright water-colours from this early period. The Arthurian legends, and other medieval romances were to provide the inspiration for many of Rossetti's finest pictures, and this is no exception. Here the Princess Sabra is cutting off a lock of her hair to give as a favour to St George. The dragon's head, complete with lolling tongue lies beside them in a crate, and the saint is seated in full armour, embracing his kneeling bride. Jane Burden sat as the model for Princess Sabra, and Rossetti painted the picture as a gift for his friend, William Morris, who eventually became Jane Burden's husband.
Dantis Amor, 1859
In the spring of 1850, whilst shopping with his mother, the artist Walter Deverell chanced upon Elizabeth Siddal working in a milliner's shop. He asked her to pose as Viola for his painting, 'Twelth Night'. Soon she became a favourite model for the Pre-Raphaelite artists and their associates, featuring perhaps most famously as 'Ophelia' in John Everett Millais's painting of the same name.
Lizzie Siddal became the first of the Pre-Raphaelite 'stunners', the name they gave to the beautiful girls who became muse, model, and occasionally mistress or wife.The artists nicknamed her 'Guggums', and Rossetti soon became smitten. Despite the strict Victorian ideas prevailing at the time, Rossetti set up home with her, eventually marrying her in 1860. Lizzie brought out a new, more serious side to the charismatic, fun-loving Rossetti, and she became the model for some of his most tender, ardent images , in particular the paintings of Beatrice from the poems by Rossetti's Italian namesake, Dante.
Dantis Amor, pictured above, was completed in 1859, and was originally painted to decorate a cabinet at the Red House, home of the newly married William and Jane Morris. The painting shows Beatrice in the lower right hand corner with the head of Christ encircled in the upper left hand corner. An angel holding a sundial and a bow and arrow stands between the two.
Dantis Amor by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859
Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-70
Beata Beatrix 1864-1870
Rossetti painted this hauntingly beautiful picture as a memorial to his wife, Elizabeth Siddal who died in 1862 of a laudanum overdose. He had in fact begun the painting at a much earlier date, but took it up again in 1864, and finally completed it in 1870. It is an intensely visionary image which represents the death of Beatrice in Dante's 'Vita Nuova', a classic Italian work written by Rossetti's namesake. Beatrice is shown seated in a death-like trance, whilst a bird, the messenger of death, drops a poppy into her hands. The figures of Dante and another representing Love stand in the background, whilst the image of the famous Florence bridge, the Ponte Vecchio stretches across the distance between them.
Elizabeth Siddal's death occurred whilst Rossetti was away from the house, dining with Algernon Swinburn. Since giving birth to a still-born daughter a year earlier, Lizzie had suffered very poor health and was in a deep depression which had led her to become increasingly dependant on laudanum, an opium based medication. Although the marriage was not always a happy one towards the end, Rossetti felt his wife's death very keenly, and no doubt he felt considerable guilt about her final hours. The flower in the painting is perhaps symbolic of the opium poppy from which laudanum is derived.
Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1868
Lady Lilith, 1866-68
Rossetti had idealised and adored Lizzie Siddall, and it is entirely likely that he may not have pursued a physical relationship with her until after their marriage, despite their sharing a home. He was, however, very attracted to the opposite sex, and it is known that he had a number of mistresses throughout his adult life. Women were his main source of inspiration both in poetry and art, and this painting of Lady Lilith seems to tell it's own tale of temptation and seduction.
Lilith, the subject of this painting, is described in Judaic literature as the first wife of Adam. Here she is depicted as a powerful seductress, an iconic, Amazonian female with long, flowing red hair. Rossetti repeats the poppy motif that he used in Beata Beatrix, the flower of opium-induced slumber, and Lilith holds a mirror in her hand to symbolise vanity.
The Monna Vanna by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866
The Monna Vanna, 1866
Alexa Wilding was the model for this exceptionally sumptious painting. The name 'Monna Vanna' occurs in the poems of both Dante and Boccaccio, but has no specific connotation here. Rossetti considered this to be one of his finest works, and many believe that he never surpassed it. Every detail of the Monna Vanna, from her coral beads to the rich brocade of her dress, the tawny feathers in her fan, to the pearl decorations in her hair, has been lovingly and painstakingly painted.
The 1860s and 1870s were a period of intense activity for Rossetti, and many of his large canvasses were created during these two decades. The high-minded ideals of his youth that led him to form the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood were now behind him, and instead he bent his energies towards creating his amazing images of beautiful women.
La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1871-74
Veronica Veronese by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1872
'La Ghirlandata' and 'Veronica Veronese'
Alexa Wilding was one of Rossettis favourite models and she appears again and again in his portraits of beautiful women, or 'stunners' as he liked to call them. Red haired Alexa is shown in both paintings playing a musical instrument. In La Ghirlandata it is a harp, and in Veronica Veronese it is a vilolin which is hanging on the wall before her. Both paintings have a dream-like quality about them, and the green velvet gown worn in both, contrast beautifully with the rich auburn tones of Alexa's hair.
Veronica Verones was painted as a commission for F.R.Leyland, and Rossetti wrote to him describing it; ' The girl is in a sort of passionate reverie, and is drawing her hand listlessly along the strings of a violin which hangs against the wall, while she holds the bow with her other hand, as if arrested by the thought of the moment, when she was about to play. In colour I shall make the picture a study of varied greens.'
Annie Miller by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860
Annie Miller, 1860
The artist William Holman Hunt, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and a close associate of Rosetti's, also fell for the charms of a beautiful redhead. In his case the lady in question was Annie Miller. With typical high-minded intentions, Hunt attempted both to reform the temptress, and also to marry her, but she was having none of it, and Hunt remained a batchelor until 1865 when he married Fanny Waugh. This wonderfully detailed pencil sketch by Rossetti gives us some idea of Annie Miller's beauty, and also gives us a clue as to Rossetti's own feelings towards her. Rossetti in fact conducted a secret affair with Miss Miller whilst his friend Holman Hunt was travelling abroad, and this temporary fixation on another lover left Lizzie Siddall devastated.
Fanny Cornforth by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869
In October 1862, the widowed Rossetti moved from Blackfriars to Cheyne walk in Chelsea, London. It was here that one of his earlier conquests, the splendidly forthright, no-nonsense cockney charmer, Fanny Cornforth re-entered his life. He had first met her in 1858, and now she was to provide him with the solace that he needed after his wife, Lizzie's premature death. Fanny became his model, his mistress and his housekeeper, and their relationship lasted until shortly before his death in 1882 at the age of 53.
This early sketch of Fanny gives us a hint of her cheeky and impetuous nature. There's something impudent in her gaze and the curve of her mouth.
Jane Morris, as Proserpine, and as herself
Jane Burden married Rossetti's friend William Morris in 1859. She was introduced to Morris by Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones who had both used her as a model during the painting of wall murals for the Oxford Union in 1857. Dark haired and willowy, Jane epitomised the brooding good looks of a typical Pre-Raphaelite 'stunner'. After the death of his wife Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti frequently turned to the Morrises for companionship, and over time Jane Morris became a favourite model as well as a confidante and friend. Some biographies suggest that they may also have been lovers.
Rossetti's famous painting, 'Proserpine' was completed in 1877, and it features Jane holding a partially eaten pomegranate in representation of the legend of Proserpine who must spend part of every year in the underworld. Perhaps the pomegranate in this case is also a symbol of temptation, and the time-share nature of her relationships with Rossetti and William Morris.
The last days
Heavily dependant on alcohol and drugs, Rossetti rarely left the house towards the end of his life. By the end of the 1870s he had lost the good looks that he had enjoyed as a handsome youth, and had instead become stout, and his darkly ringed eyes gave him a saturnine appearance. Often, his hands shook so much that he could scarcely paint. Over the years he had filled his home with all manner of antiques and bric-a-brac, as well as a menagerie of exotic animals including armadillos, raccoons and peacocks. He had a particular fondness for wombats, and even wrote a very touching poem following the death of a particular favourite. Fanny Cornforth, his animals, his mother and sister Christina, and his loyal friend Ford Madox Brown, were his main source of companionship in his last days.
In December 1881, following a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, he finished his long-standing relationship with Fanny Cornforth, the cockney 'Helephant' who his friends had never accepted, and in February 1882 went to to convalesce at Birchington-on-Sea near Margate in Kent. On April 9th, Easter Sunday, he passed away, and he is buried in the churchyard at Birchington.
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