Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was an outstanding British artist and poet of Victorian age, master of painting and graphical arts.

Early years

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born on May 12, 1828 in London in a family of Italian political emigrant, poet and scientist. His father, Gabriele Rossetti, a former curator of Bourbon museum in Napoli, belonged to Carbonari, who participated in the revolt of 1820, which was suppressed by Austrian troops after the betrayal of King Ferdinand. In London Gabriele taught native language and literature at King’s College School. In his spare time, he wrote comments on Dante. Rossetti’s mother, Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, was a daughter of famous translator Milton.

There was a cult of Dante in Rossetti’s family, so future artist was called in his honor. Father instilled his passion in his kids – the elder daughter, Maria Francesca, wrote book “The Shadow of Dante”, the youngest, Christina, became a prominent poetess, the younger son, William Michael, – an authoritative critic and brother’s biographer. Dante Gabriel himself wrote a poem in 5 years, in 13 – a dramatic novel, in 15 published his work for the first time. Rossetti translated Dante’s “La Vita Nuova” into English, illustrated the poem and referred repeatedly to it, as the main subject of his art was immortal love.

Dante Gabriel enrolled to King’s College School in 9, but his artistic education was fragmentary. He started training under guidance of marine and landscape painter John Sell Cotman and in 1841-1841 studied at Henry Sass’s Drawing Academy. Since 1846 he attended the Antique School of the Royal Academy, but finally decided to leave it and mastered his skills under Ford Madox Brown – an artist of Romanticism, who was also passionate about literature.

In the Academy Dante met Millais and Holman Hunt, who helped him to refine technique of oil painting, while they were working over first Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Young artists protested against lifelessness of academism in 19th painting. Their rejection of then-contemporary Victorian culture was strengthen by aversion for industrialization that ruined nature and ousted beauty from everyday life.

Being gifted in various fields, with Italian temperament and British pensiveness, Rossetti became the head of “Pre-Raphaelite” brotherhood when he was 18 years. Together with Holman Hunt and Millais, he decided to abandon the Academy and rushed in searches of “inner truth”. The word “brotherhood” itself expressed the idea of closed, secret association, similar to medieval monastic orders. Strive for verity and simplicity together with typical for Romanticism unacceptance of reality led to escapism into more attractive past and world of fantasies.

To recreate the manner of Italian Quattrocento artists, brotherhood’s members made scrupulous, bright and clear tonal etudes from nature and painted on wet white priming. They inclined to large-scale canvases that allowed depicting figures and objects life-size.

Pre-Raphaelites were also inspired by poetry. John Keat, known for emotionality and individualism, was especially close to impulsive Rossetti. A significant role was played by heritage of re-discovered William Blake: it was Dante Gabriel, who found in the library of the British Museum lithographs of forgotten by that time artist and poet.

In 1845 – 1848 the master created only two oil painting in the Pre-Raphaelite manner, close to Hunt and Millais. During that period, he dedicated himself mainly to watercolors – more immediate and spontaneous technique that corresponded to the artist’s character.

In his desire to render deeply significant subjects Pre-Raphaelites referred to Bible that gave them themes, full of truth, lofty simplicity, so characteristic for early Christianity and Middle Ages. Perceiving Christianity as the eternal spiritual source that elevate art, Rossetti presented in 1851 his piece “Ecce ancilla domini” (Latin for “Servant of God”), where he showed the Annunciation, at the exhibition in the Royal Academy. His friends also displayed religious scenes – “The Light of the World” by Holman Hunt and “Christ in the home of His Parents” by Millais.

“Ecce ancilla domini” was the closest one to the works of old Italian masters by its symbolism. The painter attempted to make a symphony of white and cold hues with minor inclusion of warm tints. During Renaissance epoch, Madonna had been usually depicted as a saint that had nothing in common with vulgar everyday life. Rossetti broke up traditions, when he presented Annunciation realistically. His Madonna is a usual girl, embarrassed and scared with the news told her by the Angel. Such interpretation that insulted many art connoisseurs corresponded to the intention of Pre-Raphaelites to paint veraciously.

Public didn’t like “The Annunciation” – its realism was taken with disapproval (Dickens even wrote a pamphlet about the exhibition). The artists was suspected in sympathy to the pontificate. That was the epoch of the “Oxford movement”, aimed at rapprochement to Catholicism, but not with papacy. However, very soon the group received many admirers, particularly among growing middle class of central and north England. Participants of the brotherhood manifested their ideas in “The Germ” magazine, and by the end of 1851 they were widely-known beyond the walls of the Academy. Support of John Ruskin allowed them to gain popularity quickly and Pre-Raphaelites managed to raise the standards in painting and stepped over hardened academic traditions.

Artistic manner

Rossetti made his most significant works in the 1850s – beginning of the 1860s. Under the influence of William Blake’s poetry and painting, Dante Gabriele elaborated his own manner – symbolical, decorative and full of mystic echoes. The master built his compositions on combination of several large-scale figures on the foreground, expanding format of canvas. Numerous objects and images made up background of a piece that contained deep implications, which forestalled European Symbolism. Personages were drawn rather static, lost in thoughts, yet there inner tension was expressed through gestures and eyes. The painter wasn’t afraid of exaggerating body proportions and unusual angles.

Coloring was the base of expressing mood and feelings, mostly of uncertainty and elusiveness. Pure, lucid, unfettered by dark hues, it shaped up a beautiful world of bright colors and sunshine. Rossetti favored minimal chiaroscuro, local applying of paint, without considering lighting and lavish ornamental embedding. Line was the major mean of expression for him: nervously twisted or winding, it modeled delicate and eloquent images.

Unlike painting of other Pre-Raphaelites, naturalistic elements were extrinsic to Rossetti’s art. It’s not merely decorative, but monumental. His interest in monumentality was revealed in the work over murals in the Oxford Union library he made with other artists in 1857. That experience wasn’t successful, actually, due to Dante’s bad knowledge of fresco technique, but some excellent drafts on Arthurian subject were preserved till nowadays.

Female characters

In 1850 Dante Gabriel Rossetti met his muse – Elisabeth, who married him in 10 years. At that period the painter created a touching gallery of female characters, passionate and melancholic, with invariable feeling of Elisabeth’s presence.

A significant part of Rossetti’s oeuvre is dedicated to the deal female image, which prototype was the artist’s untimely deceased wife. Her unusual appearance attracted his followers, who consciously rejected professional models, so Elisabeth’s features became a kind of canon of female beauty for Pre-Raphaelites. The woman Dante was mad about died just in two years after their marriage, in 1862. It was an awful personal and creative tragedy for the painter. Rossetti withdrew into himself. Together with her he buried some manuscripts of his poems that would be later published.

He had repudiated exhibiting as early as 1851, after the harsh critical attack on Pre-Raphaelites. In the latter period the master based his compositions on picturing of a single figure of a woman, absorbed in her thoughts. This image was inspired by Jane Burden – wife of Dante’s friend William Morris. She was his second muse, glorified in such canvases as “Proserpine” and “Mariana”.

Historical and religious painting

Inspired by Dante, Rossetti revived the face of the beloved woman on canvases in the figure of Beatrice – “Death of Beatrice”, “Blessed Beatrice”, “Dante’s dream”. Another important line in the author’s legacy were historical and religious scenes – “Giotto painting the portrait of Dante” , “The wedding of Saint George and Princess Sabra” (watercolor), “Helen of Troy”, “Rosa triplex”.

His painting and poetic heritage sometimes interflowed – he created paintings to his poetry and vice versa – “The blessed Damosel”, “My Sister’s Sleep”, “A Last Confession”. Rossetti’s pieces of the last period were effected by Eilliam Morris and Edward Burn-Johnes, which is obvious in “The Day Dream” (1880).

Illustration and Poetry

The master contributed in the book art. Apart from easel painting he illustrated poems of Dante, Shakespeare, Browning, his sister Christina, Swinburne’s “Atlanta in Calydon” and legends about King Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. The artist designed book-covers, delighting his contemporaries with their elegance and plainness that foresaw the visual language of publications in 1900s.

Rossetti also left literature work after himself – translation of old Italian poets, Ciello d’Alcamo, Dante, published two volumes of original poetries and a book of ballades and sonnets (1881), noticeable for melodic language, subtle feeling of rhythm and union of passion and mysticism.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti died in Birchington-on-Sea (Kent) on April 9, 1882His solo exhibition took place only two months after his death and was of great success.
Rossetti had a serious impact on the artists of the second half of the 19th – beginning of the 20th cent. Numerous adherents and imitator preserved his tradition, which might be called “rossettism”.