Dante Gabriel Rossetti – you’ve probably seen his paintings even if you didn’t know they were his. Rossetti (1828-1882) was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists and writers who adored Renaissance painting. According to them, it was great until Raphael came along and ruined everything.
Now, Raphael isn’t my favorite Renaissance painter, but I also don’t think he was too bad; but these guys thought he over-simplified his compositions and ushered in a conventional, un-inventive way of producing art. The Pre-Raphaelites decided to study and paint nature, portray real emotion, and reject convention.
Long story short, the Pre-Raphaelites created a new movement in British art that influenced a whole generation of artists and poets. Their lush, sensual, symbolic art is still popular today, and is closely associated with the literary characters they painted. Most people recognize John Everett Millais’s painting of Ophelia, for example.
Rossetti himself was a painter and a poet. He wrote poems to accompany his paintings and made paintings to accompany his poems. He also provided paintings for his sister, Christina, who was a famous poet.
He started as a Medievalist, using watercolors to paint scenes from Le Morte d’Arthur and such. I’m not a fan of these earlier works because they’re kind of flat, boring, and overly-busy.
In the 1860s, Rossetti started painting in the style for which he’s most famous. He used oils to achieve a look heavily influenced by the Venetian artist Titian.
Rossetti had several women as models, the four main ones being his wife, Elizabeth Siddal; his mistress, Fanny Cornforth; his other mistress, Jane Morris, who was married to his friend William; and a woman he actually did not sleep with, Alexa Wilding. All four started as working class women and were discovered by artists. With the exception of Wilding, their sexual relationships with artists elevated them from the lower class.
You’ll notice that Rossetti had a type. After Elizabeth Siddal died in 1862, he often gave his models her red hair (if they weren’t already redheads). He also combined the features of these women in his artwork to create what I can only assume was his perfect lady. I get an icky feeling when I think about it, and who knows how those women felt.
Collector Monty Bloom said of these portraits, “They are not real women… They are dreams… He used them for something in his mind caused by the death of his wife. I may be quite wrong there, but significantly they all came after the death of his wife.”
Anyway, you’ll hear more about these women as the month goes on.
After Elizabeth Siddal died from an overdose of laudanum, Rossetti became depressed. Although he had likely been sleeping with Fanny Cornforth before Siddal had died, he became obsessed with his friend’s wife, Jane Morris. He also published a volume of poetry about Siddal, which caused a stir due to its sexual nature.
Rossetti didn’t react well to the intense criticism of his poetry and developed an addiction to chloral hydrate, a sedative drug. He cleaned up after a year, but returned to the drug when William Morris (Jane’s husband) cut him out of their decorating design business, Morris & Co..
Rossetti declined in physical and mental health until his death in 1882 on Easter Sunday. Fortunately for us, he has a strong artistic legacy, and his artwork has never been forgotten.
*Endnote 1: Fun fact – this image was the inspiration for Amidala’s funerary dress in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith.
*Endnote 2: In the image of his four models, Elizabeth Siddal comes from Regina Cordium (1860), Fanny Cornforth comes from Fair Rosamund (1861), Jane Morris comes from Proserpina (1874), and Alexa Wilding comes from The Damsel of the Holy Grail (1874).