Who Is Dante Gabriel Rossetti?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a leading member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who spearheaded a daring new approach to making art.

May 3, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a leading member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the mid to late 19th century. He looked back to the purity and innocence of medieval times, portraying dreamy fables, legends and religious stories set in amongst the rolling English countryside. He portrayed these subjects in a highly realistic style with microscopic attention to detail, drenching himself in the natural world to escape the trappings of industrialization. The natural wonder of his art came to typify the ostentatious floral and leafy patterns of the Victorian Arts and Crafts era. Along with his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, Rossetti was also instrumental in defining a new feminine ideal, one with flaming red hair, pale skin and red lips, as modelled on Elizabeth Siddal. Here are some of the most compelling stories about his life and art.

 

1. Rossetti Was a Founding Member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Rossetti young man William Holman Hunt
A haunting portrait of Rossetti as a young man, painted by fellow Pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt.

 

Rossetti was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (or the PRB), along with Sir John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt. All were under 25 years old, and had studied at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. They shared a mutual disdain for the Victorian art establishments of London, which focused on traditional portraits of aristocrats, and moralizing, idealized subject matter. Together, the three artists set about finding a new approach to making art that was fresher, brighter and more in tune with the real world. They named themselves after the art to which they looked for inspiration – that which was made pre-Raphael, or pre-Renaissance, when artists worked from nature, rather than idealistic, preconceived ideas. Their radical, subversive approach to making art went on to shape the wider Pre-Raphaelite movement

 

2. He Was a Skilled Portraitist

bocca baciata dante gabriel rossetti
Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859, via  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

Rossetti was a highly skilled painter with a remarkable gift for portraiture. While he looked back to the stories of medieval times for many of his best-known artworks, he based his most famous paintings on close studies of his family and friends, giving them a believable, life-like and humane quality. So much so, his art often caused quite a stir amongst genteel Victorian audiences, who were affronted by the stark, direct honesty with which he portrayed his subjects. 

 

3. He Redefined Female Beauty Standards

beata beatrix dante gabriel rossetti
Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864–70, via Tate, London

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Rosetti played a vital role in redefining a new ideal for female beauty standards. He bucked the Victorian trend for demure women with corseted waists, red cheeks and neat hair, Pre-Raphaelite women were wild and bohemian, with long, flowing hair, pale skin and loose, billowing clothing. Rossetti’s most prolific model was the artist and muse Elizabeth Siddal, with whom he had a long-standing, if complicated romantic relationship, and married in 1860. 

 

4. He Played a Key Role in the Arts and Crafts Movement

dante gabriel rossetti dantis amor
Dantis Amor by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860, via Tate Gallery, London, showcasing the artist’s flat, decorative arts style

 

Rossetti came to play a pivotal role in the development of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. He was a founding member of the furnishing company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., along with his close friend William Morris. Together they believed in dissolving the boundaries between the fine and applied arts, and produced a series of high quality home furnishings including fabrics, wallpapers and furniture. 

 

5. Rossetti was a Noted Poet

A photograph of Rossetti, by Lewis Carroll, 1863. via The National Portrait Gallery
A photograph of Rossetti, by Lewis Carroll, 1863. via The National Portrait Gallery

 

As well as being a prolific painter and designer, Rosetti was also an accomplished poet. He modelled himself on the Romantic poets Dante, Byron and Keats, and his writing shared many parallels with his paintings, often following similar medieval stories and references to nature. He wrote poems from a young age, and one of his most celebrated is The Blessed Damozel, printed in 1850 in the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ. His first full book of poetry, titled Early Italian Poems, was published in 1861, and he published a further two volumes in 1870 and 1881.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.