A Day in History History

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Early life

The son of émigré Italian scholar Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti and his wife Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti was born in London, on 12 May 1828. His family and friends called him Gabriel, but in publications he put the name Dante first in honour of Dante Alighieri.

He was the brother of poet Christina Rossetti, critic William Michael Rossetti and author Maria Francesca Rossetti. His father was a Roman Catholic, at least prior to his marriage and his mother was an Anglican; ostensibly Dante was baptised as and was a practising Anglican. 

During his childhood, Dante was home educated and he often read the Bible, along with the works of ShakespeareDickensSir Walter Scott and Lord Byron.

The youthful Dante is described as “self-possessed, articulate, passionate and charismatic” but also “ardent, poetic and feckless”. Like all his siblings, he aspired to be a poet and attended King’s College School, in its original location near the Strand in London.

He also wished to be a painter, having shown a great interest in Medieval Italian art. He studied at Henry Sass‘ Drawing Academy from 1841 to 1845, when he enrolled in the Antique School of the Royal Academy, which he left in 1848.

After leaving the Royal Academy, Dante studied under Ford Madox Brown, with whom he retained a close relationship throughout his life.

Following the exhibition of William Holman Hunt‘s painting The Eve of St. Agnes, Dante sought out Hunt‘s friendship. The painting illustrated a poem by John Keats. Rossetti‘s own poem, “The Blessed Damozel”, was an imitation of Keats and he believed Hunt might share his artistic and literary ideals.

Together they developed the philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which they founded along with John Everett Millais.

The group’s intention was to reform English art by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo and the formal training regime introduced by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Their approach was to return to the abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art.

The eminent critic John Ruskin wrote:

Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.

For the first issue of the brotherhood’s magazine, The Germ, published early in 1850, Dante contributed a poem, “The Blessed Damozel” and a story about a fictional early Italian artist inspired by a vision of a woman who bids him combine the human and the divine in his art.

Dante was always more interested in the medieval than in the modern side of the movement, working on translations of Dante Alighieri and other medieval Italian poets, and adopting the stylistic characteristics of the early Italians.

Artistic career

Dante‘s first major paintings in oil display the realist qualities of the early Pre-Raphaelite movement. His Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850) portray Mary as a teenage girl. William Bell Scott saw Girlhood in progress in Hunt’s studio and remarked on young Dante‘s technique:

He was painting in oils with water-colour brushes, as thinly as in water-colour, on canvas which he had primed with white till the surface was a smooth as cardboard, and every tint remained transparent. I saw at once that he was not an orthodox boy, but acting purely from the aesthetic motive. The mixture of genius and dilettantism of both men shut me up for the moment, and whetted my curiosity.

Stung by criticism of his second major painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini, exhibited in 1850, and the “increasingly hysterical critical reaction that greeted Pre-Raphaelitism” that year, Dante turned to watercolours, which could be sold privately. Although his work subsequently won support from John Ruskin, Dante only rarely exhibited thereafter.

Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849)

In 1850, Dante met Elizabeth Siddal, an important model for the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Over the next decade she became his muse, his pupil and his passion. They were married in 1860. 

Dante‘s incomplete picture Found, begun in 1853 and unfinished at his death, was his only major modern-life subject. It depicted a prostitute, lifted from the street by a country drover who recognises his old sweetheart. However, Dante increasingly preferred symbolic and mythological images to realistic ones.

For many years, he worked on English translations of Italian poetry including Dante Alighieri‘s La Vita Nuova (published as The Early Italian Poets in 1861). These and Sir Thomas Malory‘s Le Morte d’Arthur inspired his art of the 1850s.

Dante created a method of painting in watercolours, using thick pigments mixed with gum to give rich effects similar to medieval illuminations. He also developed a novel drawing technique in pen-and-ink. Dante‘s first published illustration was “The Maids of Elfen-Mere” (1855), for a poem by his friend William Allingham, and he contributed two illustrations to Edward Moxon‘s 1857 edition of Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s Poems and illustrations for works by his sister Christina Rossetti.

His visions of Arthurian romance and medieval design also inspired William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.[17] Neither Burne-Jones nor Morris knew Dante, but were much influenced by his works and met him by recruiting him as a contributor to their Oxford and Cambridge Magazine which Morris founded in 1856 to promote his ideas about art and poetry.

In February 1857, Dante wrote to William Bell Scott:

Two young men, projectors of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, have recently come up to town from Oxford, and are now very intimate friends of mine. Their names are Morris and Jones. They have turned artists instead of taking up any other career to which the university generally leads, and both are men of real genius. Jones’s designs are marvels of finish and imaginative detail, unequalled by anything unless perhaps Albert Dürer’s finest works.

That summer Morris and Dante visited Oxford and finding the Oxford Union debating-hall under construction, pursued a commission to paint the upper walls with scenes from Le Morte d’Arthur and to decorate the roof between the open timbers.

Seven artists were recruited, among them Valentine Prinsep and Arthur Hughes, and the work was hastily begun. The frescoes, done too soon and too fast, began to fade at once and now are barely decipherable. Dante recruited two sisters, Bessie and Jane Burden, as models for the Oxford Union murals, and Jane became Morris‘s wife in 1859.

Literature was integrated into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s artistic practice from the beginning, with many paintings making direct literary references. Dante was particularly critical of the gaudy ornamentation of Victorian gift books and sought to refine bindings and illustrations to align with the principles of the Aesthetic Movement.

Dante‘s key bindings were designed between 1861 and 1871. He collaborated as a designer/illustrator with his sister, Christina Rossetti, on the first edition of Goblin Market (1862) and The Prince’s Progress (1866).

One of Dante‘s most prominent contributions to illustration was the collaborative book, Poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (published by Edward Moxon in 1857 and known colloquially as the ‘Moxon Tennyson’). Moxon envisioned Royal Academicians as the illustrators for the ambitious project, but this vision was quickly disrupted once John Everett Millais, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, became involved in the project.

Millais recruited William Holman Hunt and Dante for the project, and the involvement of these artists reshaped the entire production of the book. In reference to the Pre-Raphaelite illustrations, Laurence Housman wrote “[…] The illustrations of the Pre-Raphaelites were personal and intellectual readings of the poems to which they belonged, not merely echoes in line of the words of the text.”

The Pre-Raphaelites’ visualization of Tennyson’s poems indicated the range of possibilities in interpreting written works, as did their unique approach to visualizing narrative on the canvas.

Dante’s philosophy about the role of illustration was revealed in an 1855 letter to poet William Allingham, when he wrote, in reference to his work on the Moxon Tennyson: “I have not begun even designing for them yet, but fancy I shall try the Vision of Sin, and Palace of Art etc.—those where one can allegorize on one’s own hook, without killing for oneself and everyone a distinct idea of the poet’s.”[26]

This passage makes apparent Dante‘s desire not to just support the poet’s narrative, but to create an allegorical illustration that functions separately from the text as well.

In this respect, Pre-Raphaelite illustrations go beyond depicting an episode from a poem, but rather function like subject paintings within a text. Illustration is not subservient to text and vice versa. Careful and conscientious craftsmanship is practiced in every aspect of production, and each element, though qualifiedly artistic in its own right, contributes to a unified art object (the book).

England began to see a revival of religious beliefs and practices starting in 1833 and moving onward to about 1845. Dante and his family had been attending Christ Church, Albany Street since 1843. His brother, William recorded that services had begun changing in the church since the start of the “High Anglican movement”.

Rev. William Dodsworth was responsible for these changes, including the addition of the Catholic practice of placing flowers and candles by the altar. Dante and his family, along with two of his colleagues had also attended St. Andrew’s on Wells Street, a High Anglican church.

It is noted that the Anglo-Catholic revival very much affected Dante in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The spiritual expressions of his painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, finished in 1849, are evident of this claim. The painting’s altar is decorated very similarly to that of a Catholic altar, proving his familiarity with the Anglo-Catholic revival. The subject of the painting, the Blessed Virgin, is sewing a red cloth, a significant part of the Oxford Movement that emphasized the embroidering of altar cloths by women.

From the beginning of the Brotherhood’s formation in 1848, their pieces of art included subjects of noble or religious disposition. Their aim was to communicate a message of “moral reform” through the style of their works, exhibiting a “truth to nature”. Specifically in Dante‘s “Hand and Soul,” written in 1849, he displays his main character Chiaro as an artist with spiritual inclinations. In the text, Chiaro’s spirit appears before him in the form of a woman who instructs him to “set thine hand and thy soul to serve man with God.”

Likewise, in “The Blessed Damozel,” written between 1847 and 1870, Dante uses biblical language such as “From the gold bar of Heaven” to describe the Damozel looking down to Earth from Heaven. Here we see a connection between body and soul, mortal and supernatural, a common theme in his works.

In “Ave” (1847), Mary awaits the day that she will meet her son in Heaven, uniting the earthly with the heavenly. The text highlights a strong element in Anglican Marian theology that describes Mary’s body and soul having been assumed into Heaven.[28] 

William Michael Rossetti, Dante‘s brother, wrote in 1895: “He was never confirmed, professed no religious faith, and practised no regular religious observances; but he had … sufficient sympathy with the abstract ideas and the venerable forms of Christianity to go occasionally to an Anglican church — very occasionally, and only as the inclination ruled him.”

Bocca Baciata (1859) [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]

Around 1860, Dante returned to oil painting, abandoning the dense medieval compositions of the 1850s in favour of powerful close-up images of women in flat pictorial spaces characterised by dense colour. These paintings became a major influence on the development of the European Symbolist movement. 

In them, Dante‘s depiction of women became almost obsessively stylised. He portrayed his new lover Fanny Cornforth as the epitome of physical eroticism, whilst Jane Burden, the wife of his business partner William Morris, was glamorised as an ethereal goddess.

“As in Rossetti’s previous reforms, the new kind of subject appeared in the context of a wholesale reconfiguration of the practice of painting, from the most basic level of materials and techniques up to the most abstract or conceptual level of the meanings and ideas that can be embodied in visual form.” These new works were based not on medievalism, but on the Italian High Renaissance artists of Venice, Titian and Veronese.

In 1861, Dante became a founding partner in the decorative arts firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with Morris, Burne-JonesFord Madox Brown, Philip WebbCharles Faulkner and Peter Paul Marshall.

His wife Elizabeth died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862, possibly a suicide, shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child. Dante became increasingly depressed and on the death of his beloved Lizzie, buried the bulk of his unpublished poems with her at Highgate Cemetery, though he later had them dug up.

He idealised her image as Dante ‘s Beatrice in a number of paintings, such as Beata Beatrix.

The Roman Widow (1874) [Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico]


After the death of his wife, Dante leased a Tudor House at 16, Cheyne Walk, in Chelsea, where he lived for 20 years surrounded by extravagant furnishings and a parade of exotic birds and animals. He was fascinated with wombats, asking friends to meet him at the “Wombat’s Lair” at the London Zoo in Regent’s Park and spending hours there.

In September 1869, he acquired the first of two pet wombats, which he named “Top”. It was brought to the dinner table and allowed to sleep in the large centrepiece during meals. His fascination with exotic animals continued throughout his life, culminating in the purchase of a llama and a toucan, which he dressed in a cowboy hat and trained to ride the llama round the dining-table for his amusement.

Dante maintained Fanny Cornforth (described delicately by William Allington as Rossetti’s “housekeeper”) in her own establishment nearby in Chelsea and painted many voluptuous images of her between 1863 and 1865.

In 1865, he discovered auburn-haired Alexa Wilding, a dressmaker and would-be actress who was engaged to model for him on a full-time basis and sat for Veronica VeroneseThe Blessed DamozelA Sea–Spell and other paintings.

She sat for more of his finished works than any other model, but comparatively little is known about her due to the lack of any romantic connection with Dante. He spotted her one evening in the Strand in 1865 and was immediately struck by her beauty. She agreed to sit for him the following day, but failed to arrive. He spotted her again weeks later, jumped from the cab he was in and persuaded her to go straight to his studio. He paid her a weekly fee to sit for him exclusively, afraid that other artists might employ her.

Jane Morris, whom Dante had used as a model for the Oxford Union murals he painted with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in 1857, also sat for him during these years, she “consumed and obsessed him in paint, poetry, and life”.

Jane Morris was also photographed by John Robert Parsons, whose photographs were painted by Dante. In 1869, Jane and Dante rented a country house, Kelmscott Manor at Kelmscott, Oxfordshire, as a summer home, but it became a retreat for them to have a long-lasting and complicated liaison. They spent summers there with the Morrises’ children, while William Morris travelled to Iceland in 1871 and 1873.

During these years, Dante was prevailed upon by friends, in particular Charles Augustus Howell, to exhume his poems from his wife’s grave which he did, collating and publishing them in 1870 in the volume Poems by D. G. Rossetti. They created controversy when they were attacked as the epitome of the “fleshly school of poetry“.

Their eroticism and sensuality caused offence. One poem, “Nuptial Sleep”, described a couple falling asleep after sex. It was part of Dante’s sonnet sequence The House of Life, a complex series of poems tracing the physical and spiritual development of an intimate relationship.

He described the sonnet form as a “moment’s monument”, implying that it sought to contain the feelings of a fleeting moment, and reflect on their meaning. The House of Life was a series of interacting monuments to these moments – an elaborate whole made from a mosaic of intensely described fragments.

It was Dante‘s most substantial literary achievement. The collection included some translations, including his “Ballad Of Dead Ladies”, an 1869 translation of François Villon‘s poem “Ballade des dames du temps jadis“.

In 1881, he published a second volume of poems, Ballads and Sonnets, which included the remaining sonnets from The House of Life sequence.

Later life & Death

The savage reaction of critics to Dante‘s first collection of poetry contributed to a mental breakdown in June 1872. Although he joined Jane Morris at Kelmscott that September, he “spent his days in a haze of chloral and whisky”.

The next summer he was much improved and both Alexa Wilding and Jane sat for him at Kelmscott, where he created a soulful series of dream-like portraits. In 1874, Jane reorganised his decorative arts firm, cutting Dante out of the business and the polite fiction that both men were in residence with Jane at Kelmscott could not be maintained.

Dante abruptly left Kelmscott in July 1874 and never returned. Toward the end of his life, he sank into a morbid state, darkened by his drug addiction to chloral hydrate and increasing mental instability. He spent his last years as a recluse at Cheyne Walk.

On Easter Sunday, 1882, he died at the country house of a friend, where he had gone in a vain attempt to recover his health, which had been destroyed by chloral as his wife’s had been destroyed by laudanum.

He died of Bright’s Disease, a disease of the kidneys from which he had been suffering for some time. He had been housebound for some years on account of paralysis of the legs, though his chloral addiction is believed to have been a means of alleviating pain from a botched hydrocele removal.

He had been suffering from alcohol psychosis for some time brought on by the excessive amounts of whisky he used to drown out the bitter taste of the chloral hydrate.

He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints at Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, England.

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