May 12th marks the birthday of artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882), one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Created in 1848 with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, the group, which soon had seven members, defined themselves as a reform movement in the art world. The name “Pre-Raphaelite” derived from a rejection of the classical poses and compositions of Raphael in particular, which they believed had been a negative influence on the academic teaching of art, in favour of more naturalistic poses and settings. The P.R.B. published their own periodical, The Germ to circulate and promote their ideas. All six issues were edited by Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti, who was also an active member of the P.R.B., man of letters, and memoirist. Prominent artists who were influenced by the Brotherhood’s work include Evelyn De Morgan, John William Waterhouse, Ford Maddox Brown & Edward Burne-Jones. Although, ultimately, the Brotherhood would last under five years, its influence on decorative arts and design was profound.
Rossetti’s early Pre-Raphaelite paintings feature religious or mystical themes, then later, the medieval period inspired his art, with subjects taken from Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova (which Rossetti translated into English) and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur . His paintings featured “stunners” (a P.R.B. term for a particular type of beauty they favoured) such as Jane Morris as Proserpine, and Fanny Cornforth as Bocca Baciata. Jane became Rossetti’s lifelong muse and model and featured in many of his paintings. His work influenced his friend, and Jane’s husband, William Morris, in whose firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Rossetti became a partner, contributing designs for stained glass and other decorative objects. Through Morris’ company, the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood influenced many interior designers and architects, garnering interest in medieval designs and other crafts and inspiring the Arts and Crafts Movement which Morris founded. Image and poetry are closely related in Rossetti’s work and he frequently wrote sonnets to accompany his pictures, for example The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary (1849). He also illustrated poems such as Goblin Market by his sister, the influential poet Christina Rossetti.
In 1850, Rossetti met Elizabeth Siddall who became his muse and a leading model for the Brotherhood. They eventually married in 1860 but it was a troubled and complicated relationship. When Lizzie died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862, shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child, Rossetti buried most of his unpublished poems with her at Highgate Cemetery although, he later had them exhumed, publishing them in 1870 in the volume Poems. He continued to idealise Lizzie’s image in paintings such as Beata Beatrix, where she is depicted as Dante’s lost love Beatrice Portinari. After Lizzie’s death, Rossetti leased a house at 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea where he stayed for the next twenty years, surrounded by exotic animals and birds including wombats and a llama. The wombat was allowed to sleep on the dinner table and is believed to have inspired Lewis Carrol’s mad tea party sequence in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. During this time Fanny Cornforth was his housekeeper and mistress.
By 1869, Jane Morris had become the emotional centre of his life and their relationship seemed to be sanctioned at first by Morris; in fact between 1871 and 1974, Rossetti spent long periods living at Kelmscott Manor with both Jane and Morris. This triangle became difficult for all those involved and led to the end of Rossetti’s involvement in Morris’ company. By the mid-1870s both Rossetti and Jane were suffering from ill health and he had abandoned most of his friendships. His last years were spent mostly as a recluse at his house in Cheyne Walk.
A new edition of Poems was published in 1881 together with Ballads and Sonnets, which included his sonnet sequence The House of Life. Rossetti was now addicted to chloral hydrate which he frequently downed with whisky to try to cure his insomnia. This intensified his depression and paranoia and he became mentally unstable. He had been suffering from Brights disease (a disease of the kidneys) for some time. After a failed attempt at recuperation at a friend’s country house, he died on Easter Sunday,1882, in Birchington-on-Sea, Kent. An obituary from 11th April, 1882 can be found here: http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2011/apr/11/archive-the-death-of-mr-d-g-rossetti-1882