Dante Gabriel Rossetti

(1828 - 1882)

Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti was born in London on May 12, 1828 to an English mother and Italian father. His mother, Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori was the sister of Byron's physician John Polidori, who had committed suicide at a young age. His father, Gabriele, was a literary scholar who was obsessed with the works of Dante and spoke mainly in Italian. Young Gabriel therefore spoke Italian as well as English from a very early age. When he was born, Gabriel already had an older sister Maria. His younger brother William and sister Christina were the next additions to the family.

Early on, Rossetti demonstrated literary and artistic talent and aspirations. One family legend has it that in 1834 a local milkman was amazed as he watched six-year old Gabriel creating a drawing of a rocking horse. In 1841, Rossetti entered the Sass's Academy art school, a preparatory school for the art academy. He soon grew tired of the grinding, repetitive exercises and often just stayed at home to paint what he desired. Gabriel entered the Royal Academy Antique school in 1846, but found it just as dull as Sass's. What's more, his growing interest in and talent for poetry sometimes left him indecisive over which path to follow -- was he mainly a poet or a painter? He had, by this time, translated several volumes of Italian poetry into English, corresponded with various poets and writers, and had started developing what would become some of his most famous poems.

By 1848, he left the Academy to study under the painter Ford Maddox Brown. In the late summer or early autumn of that year, Rossetti and six other artists, including William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais met to form a "secret society" called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This group sought a return to a pre-Renaissance style of painting emphasizing symbolism, purity and simplicity. The youths often acted as models for each other, as well as offering a network of support and encouragement. The mysterious initials "P.R.B." served as a signature to their works. It was around this time that Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti started using the name he is more familiarly known by: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti's first major painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, appeared in 1849. His sister Christina had modeled as the Virgin, and his mother as St. Anne.

Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been;
I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell.
~ Rossetti in 'A Superscription' ~

One of the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers "discovered" a beautiful milliner's assistant, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, in a London shop in 1849. Elizabeth, or "Lizzie" as she was nicknamed, soon began modeling for the artists in the group, and her image consequently appears in several PRB paintings. To model for Millais' Ophelia, she had to lie fully clothed in a tub of water for hours at a time. The water was kept warm by heating lamps, but one day when the lamps went out and the water grew colder and colder, Lizzie didn't complain nor move a muscle, for fear of disrupting the artist. Soon after this she caught a nasty cold, and Millais appropriately paid her doctor bills.

One of Rossetti's more famous poems, The Blessed Damozel, first appeared in print in 1850. In 1852 Rossetti at last moved out of the family house and into his own rooms. By this time, he and Lizzie Siddal had established a close personal relationship, and they were often seen together. Dante began calling Lizzie by his pet name for her: "Guggum". Their relationship continued over the years, although Lizzie's "frail" condition declined more and more, to the point where she started taking laudanum -- an alcoholic tincture of opium, widely used as medication in those days, but still quite addictive and dangerous -- to ease her pains.

Rossetti and the waning Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood gained new disciples and renewed life in the mid-1850's. These initiates included Ned Jones (later Edward Burne-Jones), William Morris and Charles Algernon Swinburne. Two women who were to play an important role in the rest of Rossetti's life made their appearances in 1857. The first was Jane Burden, a dark-haired beauty whom the new Pre-Raphaelite group met in an Oxford theatre and persuaded to become a model. Jane later married William Morris. The second significant woman to enter Rossetti's life that year was Sarah Cox, better known as Fanny Cornforth. As a model, she appeared in some of Rossetti's paintings (such as Bocca Baciata and Fazio's Mistress). As a friend to Rossetti, she would be around until the very end of his life.

Sometime in late 1860 Rossetti married Lizzie at last. It was a private ceremony with no family or friends in attendance. On their honeymoon, Dante developed his drawing of the doppelgänger legend, titled How They Met Themselves. By Christmastime Lizzie was pregnant but, perhaps mainly due to her laudanum addiction, the baby girl was stillborn on May 2, 1861. This dealt a blow to an already fragile relationship, plunging Lizzie into depression and increasingly irrational behavior.

On February 10, 1862, Rossetti arrived home from teaching to find his wife unconscious in bed, with an empty phial which had contained laudanum sitting on the nearby table. Attempts to revive her were unsuccessful, and she was pronounced dead the next morning. A week later, before her coffin was sealed to be taken to London's Highgate cemetery for burial, the grieving Rossetti secretly placed a bound notebook containing all the poems he was preparing for publication into her casket.

When vain desire at last and vain regret
Go hand in hand to death, and all is vain,
What shall assuage the unforgotten pain
And teach the unforgetful to forget?
~ Rossetti in 'The One Hope' ~

Later that year Rossetti moved into the large "Tudor House" at 16 Cheyne Walk in London. Here, he began to create an environment into which he could withdraw from the world. Rossetti assembled a menagerie of exotic animals at the house -- from peacocks, raccoons, kangaroos and armadillos, to zebus, marmots, a brahmin bull and a wombat. In the house he kept mice, parrots, owls and woodchucks. The new stationary he had made up bore a seal with the motto "Frangas Non Flectas" (Break Not Bend), perhaps a reflection of his tendency to brood and worry over things too much rather than to let them lie. On the surface Rossetti may not have appeared a brooding widower, but he seemed to find no inner peace. He was sometimes found in public as a stumbling drunk, his sensitivity to criticism of his image or his works increased, and he began to dabble in spiritualism, most often holding séances with the main purpose of contacting the spirit of his dead wife.

After October of 1866, Rossetti rarely ventured out of his house in the daytime. He soon developed insomnia and what was a probably psychosomatic affliction of the eyes. Concern about his failing eyesight was perhaps what prompted him to turn back to poetry. Six years after Lizzie's burial, he tried to recall the poems from the buried manuscript. Finding himself unable to remember satisfactorily, he came up with a plan to remove the notebook from the coffin. This action would, of course, need to be kept strictly confidential because of its sensational nature. On October 5, 1869, a group of men traveled at night to Highgate Cemetery to remove the rotting notebook. It was delivered to Rossetti, who then copied the poems and destroyed the original.

In 1870, eight years after her death, Rossetti completed his most famous portrayal of Lizzie Siddal: the painting Beata Beatrix. In April, Poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti was published and the book sold well. Rossetti eventually began feeling better physically; his insomnia and mysterious eye affliction disappeared.

Rossetti and his circle were attacked by a critic in 1871 in an article titled "The Fleshly School of Poetry". Never one to take criticism well, Rossetti composed a reply against the advice of others. His article, "The Stealthy School of Criticism", only served to elevate the controversy and started a vicious public argument. Soon, his insomnia returned and he began to take doses of chloral hydrate washed down with whiskey (to cover the bad taste) to aid his sleep. After months of pressure and stress, Rossetti began having delusions and hallucinations. He was convinced that there was a conspiracy against him, and probably worried that the secret about the exhumed manuscript of poems had been leaked. On June 8, 1872 he attempted suicide by swallowing an entire bottle of laudanum.

Comatose for several days, Rossetti was slowly nursed back to health by his good friends. He spent the rest of the summer recovering as best as he could in Scotland, and resumed his work in September. He soon moved into Kelmscott Manor, home of William and Jane Morris, where he was to remain until 1874. He returned to his bad habits of sleeping half the day and staying up drinking and drugged most nights. While at Kelmscott he completed the paintings La Ghirlandata (with Alexa Wilding as model) and Prosperine (with Jane Morris as model).

After leaving Kelmscott because of a fight with some locals, Rossetti worked on his painting of The Blessed Damozel as a compliment to his poem of many years earlier. By 1877 he had finished his major work Venus Astarte (Astarte Syriaca) with Jane Morris as model. In a sonnet written to go with this painting, the erotic nature of the image is made clear:

Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune:
And from her neck's inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the spheres' dominant tune.

Unfortunately, by 1879 Rossetti's chloral consumption was at an all-time high, and his depression was deepening. He became more of a recluse at Tudor House, and his friends rarely visited. After a slight recovery the following year, he produced what was to be his last major painting, The Day Dream, based upon an earlier sketch he'd made of Jane Morris sitting in a tree.

... I shall not sink, I trust, so long as the poetic life wells up in me at intervals ... and so long as my painting still interests me.... ~ Rossetti in a letter, 1881 ~

By 1881 he was collecting old and new poems together for another publication. His volume Ballads and Sonnets appeared in the fall. It included the House of Life sequence, a collection of verses which were something of a reflection of Rossetti's life. Divided into two sections: Youth and Change and Change and Fate, the series included philosophical poems rich in imagery such as The Choice:

Eat thou and drink; to-morrow thou shalt die.
    Surely the earth, that's wise being very old,
    Needs not our help. Then loose me, love, and hold
Thy sultry hair up from my face; that I
May pour for thee this golden wine, brim-high,
    Till round the glass thy fingers glow like gold,
    We'll drown all hours: thy song, while hours are toll'd,
Shall leap, as fountains veil the changing sky.

In December of 1881 Rossetti had a mild stroke which left him largely paralyzed. He soon grew ill and, his physical decline caused his friends and family to fear that this was the end. Dante Gabriel Rossetti died on Easter Sunday (April 9) of 1882, and because he had firmly expressed that he did not want to be buried next to Lizzie in London, he was laid to rest in a churchyard near where he died in Birchington-On-Sea.