Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 - 1882)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London on 12 May 1828 and he died on Easter Day, 9 April 1882. He spent nearly his entire working life in the city of his birth, and indeed he only left Great Britain three times, in each case but the first quite briefly. Though his work is steeped in Italian traditions (both poetical and pictorial), Rossetti never visited Italy. He is first and always an English - more, a London - writer and artist.

His father was the celebrated (and controversial) Dante scholar and Italian political exile Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854). His mother Frances (1800-1886), much younger than her husband, was Anglo-Italian, Polidori on her father's side. (Her brother, Dr. John Polidori, was Byron's doctor and companion during the first part of his exile from England in 1816.) Rossetti had three siblings, two younger than himself. All were remarkable. His sister Christina (1830-1894) became as distinguished a poet as her brother. His brother William Michael (1829-1919), a writer himself, edited his brother's work after the latter's death and served as the first archivist and historian of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. His other sister was the oldest child, Maria Francesca (1827-1876); she published a commentary on Dante and became an Anglican nun.

Rossetti's interests in writing and painting appeared early, encouraged by his immediate family life as well as by the literary interests of his grandfather Polidori. The children were writing from a very early age, and drawings by Rossetti survive from the mid-1830s. He went to Sass's drawing school in 1841 and in 1845 moved to the Antique School of the Royal Academy. He did not work well under academic tutelage, however, and in 1848 he dropped away from school altogether.

The departure proved a crucial event in Rossetti's life. 1848 marks not only a European watershed, it is equally the year of Rossetti's emergence as a serious — indeed, an epochal — figure in British art and poetry. In 1848 the Pre-Raphaelite movement was founded, Rossetti produced his first important painting, and he was working on or finishing a series of remarkable writings (including "The Blessed Damozel" and most of the translations that eventually appeared as The Early Italian Poets in 1861. It was in 1848 that the core set of Rossetti's artistic and poetical touchstones began to coalesce in a practical way.

When Rossetti left the Academy school he initially apprenticed himself to Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), whose work he had first seen and admired in 1844. At the 1848 Royal Academy Exhibition he saw William Holman Hunt's (1827-1910) Eve of St. Agnesand was so taken with it that he sought out the young painter and they quickly became friends. Soon Rossetti moved in with him and, under Hunt's critical eye, he tried to develop more disciplined work habits. It was under Hunt's supervision that Rossetti executed his first important painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, begun in the summer of 1848. At the same time he was showing Hunt and his other new friends, including the young prodigy John Everett Millais (1829-1896), his writing work, including his translations.

Rossetti's extraordinary range of talents and interests, combined with his energy and enthusiasm, made him the central figure in the formation of the group of writers and artists who were to name themselves The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hunt's express hostility to academy art gave the movement its initial polemical and theoretical focus. He was particularly inspired by the first two volumes of Ruskin's Modern Painters (1843-1846), and he introduced the others to Ruskin's ideas, which proved so fruitful to so many in and associated with the PRB and its aftermath. But it was Rossetti whose cultural vision and force of character magnetized the group, just as it was Rossetti's work which was to have the longest and most significant impact on poetry and the visual arts.

The movement's founding is customarily dated from an evening in October 1848, when Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti were studying Carlo Lasinio's engravings after the Campo Santo frescoes in Pisa. Their admiration for these pictures determined them to form a group that might bring about a revolution in artistic practice and cultural sensibilities. The three men soon gathered together a group who met monthly to discuss topics of mutal interest. It included Rossetti's brother William Michael, the young sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892), James Collinson (1825?-1881) (a painter engaged to Rossetti's sister Christina), and F. G. Stephens (1828-1907), who would later become an influential art critic.

The PRB made its debut early in 1849, when Hunt and Millais put up works at the Royal Academy Exhibition and Rossetti at the Free Exhibition at Hyde Park Corner. Despite the "PRB" signatures on their works — the initials would soon become a focus of critical attack — their works were reasonably well received. In the fall of 1849 Hunt and Rossetti left for a brief trip to Belgium and Paris, where they studied and enthused over the works of various painters they chose to regard as their spiritual precursors. On returning the group began to lay plans for publishing a journal that would carry their ideas, they hoped, to an even larger audience. This was the famous periodical The Germ (subtitled "Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art"). Beginning early in 1850, it ran for only four numbers. Despite its lack of initial success, the work would prove an important venture.

Unlike 1849, the exhibition of the work of Rossetti and the other PRBs in 1850 produced a firestorm of hostile criticism. The event brought Ruskin to the defense of the young painters — a signal moment in their history. Ruskin in effect defined the PRB as "serious artists" and his authority in effect established the movement's cultural position. Rossetti and Ruskin became close friends for a time, but they grew apart when Rossetti grew tired of having to fill the role of Ruskin's pupil.

The year 1850 brought another crucial change to Rossetti's life. He met the beautiful Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862), the daughter of a cutler. He painted and drew "Lizzie" — as everyone knew her — obsessively. At first the poverty of their circumstances prevented their marriage, though later in the 50s Rossetti's imagination began to be invaded by other beautiful women, including Fanny Cornforth (1835?-1905) and Jane Burden (1839-1914), who would marry Rossetti's friend William Morris. Nonetheless, Rossetti's devotion to Elizabeth never really failed, though their relationship grew increasingly troubled. They married in 1860, but two years later Elizabeth died of an overdose of laudanum. Her health had been uncertain for a number of years.

Through the 1850s Rossetti worked mainly on his painting. The initial intense period of his imaginative writing all but ceased for a time in 1852. Rossetti poured himself into his art, where he seemed - to his own judgment - unable to express himself exactly as he wanted. He gave up oil painting for a time and turned to water colour, a medium in which he produced some of his greatest works.

In terms of his public career, the central event of this period was the so-called "Jovial Campaign", the 1857 project to paint the walls of the Debating Hall of the Union Society in Oxford. As it turned out, the murals were executed but almost immediately faded and disappeared because Rossetti and his friends did not understand how properly to prepare the walls for the paintings. Despite this disaster, the project attracted great attention to Rossetti and his friends - in this case, largely a new cast of friends including Edward Jones (later Burne-Jones) and William Morris.

The Jovial Campaign ought to be seen as the culminant event in the years 1856-57, when Rossetti and the PRB finally gained a position of recognized cultural authority. Two other projects of these years were also important. In 1856 William Morris and his friends launched The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. A sequel to The Germ, and in certain obvious ways a much superior production, it too perished after a short run - this time, after a year. But the magazine brought Rossetti a new set of attachments that would prove fateful for all concerned. The other event was the publication of Moxon's illustrated edition of Tennyson's selected poetry, which finally appeared early in 1857. The book carried illustrations by various artists of the day. Rossetti's contributions, which illustrated "The Palace of Art" and several other poems, are stunning. From the point of view of his career, his appearance in this book defined him as an artist of established position.

The death of Elizabeth early in 1862 put a (temporary) end to some elaborate publishing plans that Rossetti had set in train. In 1861 he assembled the poetical translations of medieval Italian poetry that he had been doing in the 1840s. He finished the work and brought out, at the end of the year, the important volume The Early Italian Poets later revised and reissued in 1874 as Dante and his Circle).

His plan was to publish, as an accompanying volume of original poetry, a a book to be called Dante at Verona and other Poems. Though advertised as forthcoming in his book of translations, Rossetti never issued the work. In one of the two most celebrated acts of his life, Rossetti buried the manuscript volume in the coffin with his wife. (The second was his recovery of the volume, in 1869, from Elizabeth's grave.)

During the 1860s Rossetti wrote little poetry but he returned to oils and produced a great deal of work as a painter. This was the period when his reputation as an artist grew and he began to command remarkable prices for his pictures. The Arthurian and Dantean subjects that had been his main preoccupation for several years now succeeded to a series of erotic female portraits. Fanny Cornforth was Rossetti's principal model for the earliest of these works, but later the face of Jane Morris dominated his pictures.

After the death of his wife he began to experience onsets of depression and hypochondria. He moved to 16 Cheyne Walk and after a few years began to close himself into its precincts. He slowly narrowed his social circle, he stopped exhibiting, and he began to take spirits and drugs. In 1867 his mental and physical condition deteriorated precipitously when he began to fear he would go blind. It was at this point that he began to take chloral, to which he became addicted.

For the remainder of his life he would be surrounded by accumulating darknesses, and he would gradually break with some of his closest and most loyal friends. But out of the nightmare world that gradually arose in the midst of his growing public success and suffocating middle class luxury, Rossetti created a series of literary and pictorial works of great power and significance.

In 1866 and 1867 he wrote two sonnets for recent pictures- the poems now known as "Soul's Beauty" and "Body's Beauty", which appeared in print in 1868, along with another sonnet for a picture, "Venus Verticordia". The poems restored him to a sense of the importance of his poetry, which he began to take up again in earnest. The activity stimulated his old desire to see his original writings in print. His eye problems further induced him to shift his principal creative activity from art to literature. Since much of this poetry had been buried with Elizabeth, and since Rossetti kept no copies of some of his most important works, the grisly scheme to exhume the volume was set in motion. In the end the book was recovered for Rossetti by some friends. In 1869 he began recopying and revising these older works and adding new poems to them. He had these works printed up "for private circulation" in a series of proofs and so-called trial books, and eventually he gathered the lot together and published his 1870 volume of Poems.

The book was a stunning success. It was also the occasion of one of the most famous literary controversies of the century when it was reviewed in 1871 by Robert Buchanan in the pseudonymous essay "The Fleshly School of Poetry - Mr. D.G. Rossetti", in the Contemporary Review. Buchanan's main charge, that Rossetti's volume was full of indecencies, started a furious series of further attacks, defenses, counterattacks, and general public clamour. Rossetti himself entered the fray with an essay of self-defense, "The Stealthy School of Criticism", which he published in The Athenaeum in December. None of this did any serious damage to Rossetti's celebrity, and indeed Buchanan would, after Rossetti's death, all but completely recant his original position.

The 1870 Poems were put together, and many new ones written, after Rossetti moved from London to Barbara Bodichon's country house Scalands, near Robertsbridge, Hastings. Rossetti moved there in March 1870 to escape his claustrophobic London existence. Soon Jane and William Morris came to visit him. Jane stayed on for nearly the entire period of his sojourn, which ended on May 9. In those two months she would stamp his new book with her presence. In a biographical point of view the volume is dominated by Rossetti's two great love obsessions - his old love, Elizabeth, now dead and enshrined to an imaginative heaven; and the new love, Jane Morris, whose very earthly existence seemed to bring Rossetti back to life.

Between 1871 and 1874 the relationship between Rossetti and Jane Morris achieved an extreme intensity. Much of the time Rossetti spent at the Morris's house at Kelmscott, and much of that time William was not at home. The poetry Rossetti wrote largely focusses on his love for Jane Morris. But in the end the romantic idyll began to dissipate, and finally Jane left Kelmscott with her family in July 1874.

With that separation the final phase of Rossetti's life is inaugurated. It is a period during which Rossetti's eccentricities, manias, and hallucinations began to gain a dominating hold on his existence. Although he continued to paint, and in fact produced some astonishing works, he often seemed to be filling up, or out, his time. In 1880-1881 he had a renewed burst of poetical work as he prepared to issue a new and augmented edition of his 1870 volume. This was to include a new version of his masterwork "The House of Life" now twice the size of the 1870 version. He had also written several long ballads. The body of work proved so large, in fact, that he eventually decided two volumes should be published. These were the Ballads and Sonnets and the "new edition" of Poems. Both appeared in 1881.

Rossetti's devoted brother William Michael called this last phase of Rossetti's life "the chloralized years". His health broken and his mind continually transacted by various guilts and regrets, Rossetti slowly died into his death. After his last volumes were published he made two vain efforts to restore his health. He went to the Lake District in the fall of 1881 and later, on doctor's advice, went to stay with a friend at his country house in Birchington. There he died.

Sources: NINES, The Rossetti Archive


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