Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, who later changed the order of his names to stress his kinship with the great Italian poet, was born in London May 12, 1828, to Gabriele and Frances (Polidori) Rossetti.
Mr. Rossetti was an Italian patriot exiled from Naples for his political activity and a Dante scholar who became professor of Italian at King's College, London, in 1831. Since Mrs. Rossetti was also half-Italian, the children (Maria [1827-76], Dante, William Michael [1828-1919], and Christina [1830-94]) grew up fluent in both English and Italian. As part of the large Italian expatriate community in London, they welcomed other exiles from Mazzini to organ-grinders; and although they were certainly not wealthy, Professor Rossetti was able to support the family comfortably until his eyesight and general health deteriorated in the 40s. Certainly none of the family seems to have been obsessed with money the way that Tennyson was, for instance.
Dante attended King's College School from 1837 to 1842, when he left to prepare for the Royal Academy at F. S. Cary's Academy of Art. In 1846 he was accepted into the Royal Academy but was there only a year before he became dissatisfied and left to study under Ford Madox Brown. In 1848 he, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais began to call themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This group attracted other young painters, poets, and critics; William Michael Rossetti acted as secretary and later historian for the group.
In 1849 and 50 D.G.R. exhibited his first important paintings, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini (illustration). At about the same time he met Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, a milliner's assistant, who became a model for many of his paintings and sketches. They were engaged in 1851 but did not marry until 1860, perhaps because of her ill health, his financial difficulties, or a simple unwillingness to undertake the commitment.
A commission to cover the walls of the Oxford Debating Union with Arthurian murals introduced Rossetti to William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and A.C. Swinburne in 1856 and 57. While there he also met index Burden, with whom he fell in love, and introduced her to Morris, whom she married in 1859. After an engagement lasting nearly ten years, Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal were married barely 20 months before she died from a self-administered overdose of morphia on February 10, 1862. Although suicide was suspected, the coroner generously decided that her death was accidental.
After her death Rossetti moved to 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, a large house on the Thames which he shared with Swinburne and also (occasionally) his brother William Michael Rossetti and George Meredith . He continued painting and writing poetry, gaining patrons enough to become relatively prosperous. Another of his models, Fanny Cornforth (who appears in Bocca Baciata, The Blue Bower, and Found ), became his mistress and housekeeper, but because of her full-bodied blondness, never one of his idealized women. That role was filled first by Lizzie Siddal; occasionally by models like Ruth Herbert and Annie Miller; but most famously by Janey Morris. Rossetti's choice of models and his idealization of them helped change the concept of feminine beauty in the Victorian period to the tall, thin, long-necked, long-haired stunners of frail health that we see in paintings like Beata Beatrix, Pandora, Proserpine, La Pia, and La Donna della Finestra. The persistence of the Pre-Raphaelite ideal shows up in photographs of William Butler Yeats' idealized beauty, Maud Gonne. Jack Yeats, the father of the poet, was connected with the Pre-Raphaelites, and Yeats himself said of his younger days, "I was in all things Pre-Raphaelite." In 1871 Rossetti and Morris leased Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, and Morris visited Iceland, leaving Rossetti together with Jane and her children. Although biographers still argue about what exactly went on among them, the triangle was in any case a difficult situation for all concerned.
In the late '60s Rossetti began to suffer from headaches and weakened eyesight, and began to take chloral mixed with whiskey to cure insomnia. Chloral accentuated the depression and paranoia latent in Rossetti's nature, and Robert Buchanan's attack on Rossetti and Swinburne in "The Fleshly School of Poetry" (1871) changed him completely. In the summer of 1872 he suffered a mental breakdown, complete with hallucinations and accusing voices. He was taken to Scotland, where he attempted suicide, but gradually recovered, and within a few months was able to paint again. His health continued to deteriorate slowly (he was still taking chloral), but did not much interfere with his work. He died of kidney failure on April 9, 1882.
Last modified 1988