Dante Gabriel Rossetti

English Poet, illustrator and translator Dante Gabriel Rossetti sadly passed away 9 April 1882. Born 12 May 1828 Like all his siblings, he aspired to be a poet and attended King’s College School, in its original location near the Strand. He also wished to be a painter, having shown a great interest in Medieval Italian art. He studied at Henry Sass’s Drawing Academy from 1841 to 1845 when he enrolled at the Antique School of the Royal Academy, leaving in 1848. After leaving the Royal Academy, Rossetti studied under Ford Madox Brown, with whom he retained a close relationship throughout his life. Following the exhibition of William Holman Hunt’s painting The Eve of St. Agnes, Rossetti sought out Hunt’s friendship. The painting illustrated a poem by the little-known John Keats. Rossetti’s own poem, “The Blessed Damozel”, was an imitation of Keats, and he believed Hunt might share his artistic and literary ideals. Together they developed the philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which they founded along with John Everett Millais. The group’s intention was to reform English art by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo and the formal training regime introduced by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Their approach was to return to the abundant detail, intense colours, and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art. For the first issue of the brotherhood’s magazine, The Germ, published early in 1850, Rossetti contributed a poem, “The Blessed Damozel”, and a story about a fictional early Italian artist inspired by a vision of a woman who bids him combine the human and the divine in his art.Rossetti was always more interested in the medieval than in the modern side of the movement, working on translations of Dante and other medieval Italian poets, and adopting the stylistic characteristics of the early Italians.

He started out painting in oils with water-colour brushes, as thinly as in water-colour, on canvas which he had primed with white till the surface was a smooth as cardboard, and every tint remained transparent. I saw at once that he was not an orthodox boy, but acting purely from the aesthetic motive. The mixture of genius and dilettantism of both men shut me up for the moment, and whetted my curiosity.Stung by criticism of his second major painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini, exhibited in 1850, and the “increasingly hysterical critical reaction that greeted Pre-Raphaelitism” that year, Rossetti turned to watercolours. Although his work subsequently won support from John Ruskin. For many years, Rossetti worked on English translations of Italian poetry including Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova . These and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur inspired his art of the 1850s. He created a method of painting in watercolours, using thick pigments mixed with gum to give rich effects similar to medieval illuminations. He also developed a novel drawing technique in pen-and-ink. His first published illustration was “The Maids of Elfen-Mere” (1855), for a poem by his friend William Allingham. Rossetti also painted the upper wall of the Oxford Union debating-hall with scenes from Le Morte d’Arthur and to decorate the roof between the open timbers. Seven artists were recruited,and the work was hastily begun and they are now barely visible. Rossetti also contributed two illustrations to the 1857 edition of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Poems and illustrations for works by his sister Christina Rossetti.His visions of Arthurian romance and medieval design also inspired William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones who were much influenced by his works, and met him by recruiting him as a contributor to their Oxford and Cambridge Magazine which Promoted his ideas about art and poetry.

Around 1860, Rossetti returned to oil painting, abandoning the dense medieval of the 1850s in favour of powerful close-up images of women in flat pictorial spaces characterised by dense colour. These paintings became a major influence on the development of the European Symbolist movement. Rossetti’s depiction of women became almost obsessively stylised. He portrayed his new lover Fanny Cornforth as the epitome of physical eroticism, whilst Jane Burden, the wife of his business partner William Morris, was glamorised as an ethereal goddess. “As in Rossetti’s previous reforms, the new kind of subject appeared, These new works were based on the Italian High Renaissance artists of Venice, Titian and Veronese.In 1861, Rossetti became a founding partner in the decorative arts firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with Morris, Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb, Charles Faulkner and Peter Paul Marshall.Rossetti contributed designs for stained glass and other decorative objects. Sadly Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862, shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child. Rossetti became increasingly depressed, and on the death of his beloved Lizzie, buried the bulk of his unpublished poems with her at Highgate Cemetery, though he later had them dug up. He idealised her image as Dante’s Beatrice in a number of paintings, such as Beata Beatrix. Rossetti lived in Chelsea for 20 years surrounded by extravagant furnishings and a parade of exotic birds and animals and was fascinated with wombats, frequently visiting the “Wombat’s Lair” at the London Zoo in Regent’s Park. In September 1869 he acquired the first of two pet wombats, which he named “Top”. Rossetti’s fascination with exotic animals continued throughout his life, culminating in the purchase of a llama and a toucan.

Rossetti also maintained Fanny Cornforth (described delicately by William Allington as Rossetti’s “housekeeper” inher own establishment nearby in Chelsea, and painted many voluptuous images of her.In 1865 he discovered auburn-haired Alexa Wilding, a dressmaker and would-be actress who was engaged to model for him on a full-time basis and sat for The Blessed Damozel and other paintings. Rossetti also used Jane Morris,as a model for the Oxford Union murals he painted with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in 1857, and she also sat for him during these years, she “consumed and obsessed him in paint, poetry, and life”. Rossetti was prevailed upon by Charles Augustus Howell, to exhume his poems from his wife’s grave which he did, collating and publishing them in 1870 in the volume Poems by D. G. Rossetti. This included the poems Nuptial Sleep, the House of Life and The Ballad of Dead Ladies which all created offence and controversy With their eroticism and sensuality but became Rossetti’s most substantial literary achievement. In 1881, Rossetti published a second volume of poems, Ballads and Sonnets, which included the remaining sonnets from The House of Life sequence. Unfortunately The savage reaction of critics to Rossetti’s first collection of poetry contributed to a mental breakdown in June 1872. After he recovered he began creating a soulful series of dream-like portraits featuring Alexa Wilding and Jane Morris

He spent his last days at Cheyne Walk battling deppression , exacerbated by his drug addiction to chloral hydrate and increasing mental instability, until finally On Easter Sunday, 1882, he died at the country house of a friend, where he had gone in a vain attempt to recover his health, which had been destroyed by chloral as his wife’s had been destroyed by laudanum. He died of Brights Disease, a disease of the kidneys from which he had been suffering for some time. He is buried at Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, England. His work influenced went on to influence many including the European Symbolists and the Aesthetic movement. Rossetti’s art was characterised by its sensuality and its medieval revivalism. His early poetry was influenced by John Keats. Among his most famous paintings are he Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and Astarte Syriaca (1877). He also created art to illustrate poems such as Goblin Market by his sister, the celebrated poet Christina Rossetti.

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