May 12, 2007
The Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Today is the birthday of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Rossetti was born May 12, 1828, in London, the son of an Italian exile. His family was devoted to liberal politics and the arts. His sisters were poet Christina Rossetti and author Maria Francesca Rossetti, and his brother was critic and publisher William Michael Rossetti.
He was interested in both literature and art, and often wrote poems to illustrate his paintings. He was particularly interested in medieval and renaissance subjects, and was often inspired by the works of Shakespeare, Coleridge, Goethe, and particularly Dante.
Rossetti, along with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an art group that aspired to art for art's sake, and concentrated on "serious" subjects, usually religious or romantic, and combined an elaborate use of symbolism and allegory with a realistic painting style. Later members of the Pre-Raphaelites included John Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris.
The painter-poet was apparently quite a ladies' man. He was married to, and apparently very much in love with, Lizzie Siddal, a milliner's assistant who served as a model for several of the Pre-Raphaelites. Lizzie was a poet and painter in her own right, but apparently suffered from depression, and may have been anorexic. After two years of marriage, Lizzie gave birth to a stillborn daughter, and her depression grew worse. Shortly afterwards she died of a laudanum overdose. Rossetti was distraught. He buried his unpublished poetry with her, in a small journal that he slid into her hair. (Later, he regretted that action, and his friends disinterred her body to recover the poems.)
Rossetti's next love was Fannie Cornworth, a somewhat more extroverted individual who became first Rossetti's model, then his lover, and later his housekeeper. Rossetti tended to paint her in more sensual roles than he had Lizzie.
He was also enamoured of Jane Burden Morris, the wife of poet/author/designer William Morris. Rossetti tended to paint Jane in dignified, goddess-like poses.
Rossetti was fascinated by all kinds of animals, and kept owls, raccoons, lizards, wallabies, peacocks, parrots, and rabbits, but was particularly fond of wombats. One of his pet wombats was permitted to sleep in the centerpiece of the dining tables during meals, and is believed to have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's dormouse in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Sadly, Rossetti spent much of his life in depression, brought on partially by unfavorable response to his publications. His depression was certainly amplified by his use of morphine, laudanum, and choral, often washed down with whisky, claret, or brandy. His final years were spent as a recluse, and he died in 1882.
Illustration: Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Public Domain
The model was Jane Burden Morris, wife of William Morris, and Rossetti's lover.