Dante Gabriel Rossetti Biography Buy Art Prints Now
from Amazon

* As an Amazon Associate, and partner with Google Adsense and Ezoic, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

Learn more about the brilliant but turbulent life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in this extensive biography which tracks his entire life and career output.

Early life

Dante was born in London in 1828. He was a son to Gabriele Rossetti, and his wife, Frances Polidori. Although he was known as Gabriel by his family and friends, he used the name Dante as the first name in all his publications in honor of Dante Alighieri. During his childhood, Dante did not attend formal school but did homeschooling and later attended King's College school. Gabriel was baptized and practiced Anglican. He read the bible often, along with other works of Lord Byron, Dickens, Walter Scott, and Shakespeare. Dante inspirations were to be a poet, and he is described as passionate, self-possessed, ardent, articulate, feckless, charismatic, and poetic.

He also had so much interest in Medieval Italian art painting. In 1841, he joined Henry S. Drawing Academy and completed in 1845, later, he joined the Royal Academy and finished in 1848. After his studies, he was mentored by Ford Brown, and both maintained a very close relationship throughout their entire lives. Rossetti later became friends to William Holman and John Millais, and together they came up with the principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. The group had the intensions of reforming the English art by introducing an approach to the return of the use of intense colors, sufficient detail, and detailed compositions of Flemish and Quattrocento Italian art. In 1850, Rossetti contributed a poem in the ‘Germ Magazine,’ and it was his first publication.


His Beginnings

Dante created his first oil painting in 1849, ‘Girlhood of Mary Virgin,’ and in 1850, he created ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini.’ Both pictures displayed the qualities of the Pre—Raphaelite movement. In the Girlhood picture, he describes Mary as a teenage girl. In all his paintings, Rossetti used watercolor brushes to apply oil thinly on the canvas until the surface was smooth.

Dante and Medievalism

In 1850, Dante met Elizabeth, a model who sat for Pre-Raphaelite painters. He became Elizabeth’s muse and a passionate pupil. For many years, Dante worked on translating Italian poems into English poetry. He also used his technique of a mixture of watercolors, thick pigments and gum to give the effect of medieval illuminations. In 1853, he started his only picture ‘Found,’ which had a modern-life subject, and, even at his death, it was unfinished. It depicted a prostitute, taken by a drover from the street, who recognizes his old sweetheart.

He also developed another unique technique of drawing illustrations using pen and ink. Dante did his first publication in drawing in 1855 called the ‘The Maids of Elfen-Mere.’ Dante's visions inspired two young men, Edward Burne Jones, and William Morris, who recruited him in 1856 as a significant contributor to their magazine ‘The Oxford and Cambridge.’ He also contributed to other poems and illustrations in 1857. In 1859, Dante recruited two models, Bessie and Jane Burden, for the Oxford Union Murals. Morris married Jane in 1859, and Rossetti married Elizabeth in 1860.

The Book Arts

The Pre-Raphaelite artistic practice integrated literature with paintings, through direct literary book references. For instance, Millais artwork ‘Isabella’ of 1849 depicts an episode from Keats ‘Isabella’ of 1818. Dante's philosophy expounded on the role of artistic illustration, as revealed in his letter to poet William referring to his work on the Moxon Tennyson in 1855. Dante critically redefined key bindings of victorian gift books that aligned with the ideologies of the aesthetic movement between 1861 and 1871. In 1862, he collaborated with his sister, who was a poet on their first edition ‘Goblin Market’ and another one in 1866 ‘The Prince's Progress.’

Religion Influence on Works

Between 1833 all through to about 1845, England began to experience a significant revival in religious practices and beliefs. The Oxford movement had started to push for the restoration of Christian ways of life that had been eroded. Since 1843, Dante and his entire family attended services at Christ Church, in Albany Street. Due to the high Anglican movement led by Rev. William Dodsworth, church services had begun to change, and there was an additional practice that introduced the placing of candles and flowers in the altar similar to Catholics.

In the late 1840s and early 1950s, there was a massive Anglo-catholic revival that profoundly affected Dante. In 1849, he painted the 'Girlhood of Mary Virgin' as evidence of his spiritual expression claim. He aimed at communicating a message of moral reforms while exhibiting truth to nature, and in 1849, through his painting ‘Hand and Soul,’ he displayed Chiaro, the main character as an artist who liked spiritual matters. Likewise, in 1847 and 1870, Dante wrote 'The Blessed Damozel' and used biblical language to describe the Damozel.

A New Direction

At around 1860, Dante abandoned his medieval poetic composition of the 1850s and went back to oil painting. He made powerful close-up images of his new lover Fanny Cornforth and Jane Burden, who was the wife of his business partner. He described them in pictorial spaces characterized by flat, dense color, which he based on renaissance artists of Veronese, Titian, and Venice. In 1861, Dante, Morris, and others found the decorative Arts firm. Dante contributed to decorative designs of objects and stained glass. His wife died in 1862. Rossetti buried all his unpublished poems in the grave together with her at High Gate Cemetery, though he later dug them up. He idealized his beloved Elizabeth's image in several paintings, such as Beata Beatrix.

At Cheyne Walk

After his wife's death, Dante leased a house in Chelsea, at Cheyne Walk near a Zoo. In 1869, he acquired his first two pets. Between 1863 and 1865, Dante painted many images of Fanny Cornforth, his housekeeper whom she maintained in her establishment nearby. In 1865, he met Alexa Wilding, a would-be actress who sat for most of his works more than any other model. Dante would pay her a fee every week to sit for him so that she doesn’t get employed by other artists. He also used to paint John Robert Parsons photos during this period. Dante and Morris rented a summer country house in Kelmscott, where they would spend retreats with Morris children while Morris, at times, would travel to Iceland. In 1870, Dantes’s friends convinced him to exhume the poems from his wife’s grave, and he agreed, publishing them as ‘Poems by D. G. Rossetti.’ In 1881, he published more poems, such as the Ballads and Sonnets.

Decline and Death

The first collection of Dante's collection of poetry savaged the reaction of critics, which contributed to his mental breakdown in 1872. He later joined Jane Morris in September at Kelmscott, where he spent his days in whiskey and Chloral Hydrate. During the summer, he showed some improvement, and both Jane and Alexa sat for him, and he created a series of soulful portraits. In July 1874, Dante was cut out of business after Morris reorganized their decorative arts firm, and as a result, he abruptly moved out and left Kelmscott and never returned. Dante spent the last years of his life as a loner at Cheyne Walk, where he sank into a morbid state due to Chloral addiction that led to his increased mental instability. And on Easter Sunday, 1882, he died at a friend's house and was buried at All Saints Churchyard, Birchington-on-sea, Kent, England.