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"I saw at once that he was not an orthodox boy, but acting purely from the aesthetic motive. The mixture of genius and dilettantism...shut me up for the moment, and whetted my curiosity."

~ William Bell Scott, of a young Rossetti


Strong Women painted by D. G. Rossetti

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849)

Rossetti focused much of his religious fervor on Mary. This painting shows Mary and her bloodline as preordained to be vessel of God’s salvation of Humanity. Along with several poems he wrote about Mary’s youth, and another prominent painting.

The Borgias (1851)

Lucrezia Borgia features prominently in the center of Rossetti’s painting. Lucrezia is central to the painting flanked by her father Pope Alexander the Sixth and her brother. The Borgias were a notorious family including Lucrezia. She divorced her first husband amid accusations of incest with her father, then poisoned her second.

The Beloved (The Bride) (1865--1866)

This painting is set apart from a series of half length paintings of woman because of the many female figures feature and the only black figure ever represented by the artist. This painting seems to represent women’s  power over men through  love and ultimately at the time it was painted marriage.

Proserpina (1872)

The Greek and Roman Goddess of spring is shown consuming a pomegranate. According to myth she was abducted and either ate of her own will or was forced to consume pomegranate seeds (the food of the dead) which cursed her to remain for part of the year in the land of the dead.

Afar away the light that brings cold cheer 
Unto this wall, - one instant and no more 
Admitted at my distant palace-door 
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear 
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here. 
Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey 
That chills me: and afar how far away, 
The nights that shall become the days that were.

Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
Strange ways in thought, and listenfor a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
O, Whose sounds mine inner sense in fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring) —
'Woe me for thee, unhappy Proserpine'.
— D. G. Rossetti

Astarte Syriaca (1877)

Jane Morris with whom Rossetti had an affair, is present as Venus. She is picture alone and unrivaled by masculine control. Wielding the power of sexuality over the audience.

Astarte Syriaca

Mystery: lo! betwixt the sun and moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite was. In silver sheen
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune:
And from her neck's inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the spheres' dominant tune.

Torch-bearing, her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty's face to be:
That face, of Love's all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle, -
Betwixt the sun and moon a mystery.

All past copyright presented here courtesy of


 Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1853)
        by William Holman Hunt (Public Domain)


12 May 1828-9 April 1882

Born in London in 1828, Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti was the son of Italian Dante scholar Gabriele Rossetti and his wife Frances Polidori. He had three siblings named ChristinaWilliam, and Maria, all of whom engaged in literary pursuits. Christina was a poet, William a critic, and Maria a writer and later a nun. Both a poet and a painter, he often paired complimentary works in the two mediums, a practice known as "doublework."

In 1848 he founded the Pre-Raphaelite movement with William Hunt and John Millais in response to the Mannerist movement, characterized by stylized figures and familiar subjects in unfamiliar settings. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought realism and were influenced and fascinated with medieval culture. Like the Mannerists from whom they distanced themselves, they portrayed familiar subjects in unfamiliar settings.

Paintings such as Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and John Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents (1850) sparked considerable controversy. Both portrayed major icons of the Christian faith in their youth, a move that drew stark criticism. Millais' piece in particular was denounced as blasphemous by many prominent figures, including Charles Dickens.

This criticism greatly impacted Rossetti and thenceforth he was hesitant to show his work publicly and began working in watercolors, which he sold privately. The Pre-Raphaelites remained under heavy criticism but were nevertheless able to have a significant influence on the art of their time as well as attract a number of followers. In 1850, Rossetti met his future wife and arguably the most important model of his early work, Lizzie Siddall.

During the following years, he developed a unique style of watercolor involving the mixing of pigment and gum. He maintained his love of the medieval, and began translating Italian poetry which influenced his subsequent works. He preferred myth and symbols to literal modern life. In fact, his only depiction of a real-life scene, Found (1854), was never completed. It featured Fanny Cornforth as a prostitute laying in the street.

Rossetti made no separation of his personal and artistic lives and took Fanny as a lover, as well as Jane Morris, the wife of friend and fellow painter William Morris. Rossetti married Lizzie in 1860 and it was around this time that he once again took to oil paintings. This however, was neither a long nor a happy union, as Rossetti's constant and flagrant philandering took its toll on Lizzie and contributed to a depression and dependency on laudanum which led to her death from overdose in 1862.

Lizzie's death was a turning point in Rossetti's life, and he entered a state of depression, burying many unpublished poems with his late wife. However, in a somewhat morbid change of heart, he later had these poems dug up and exhumed from her grave, and published them as the controversial Poems by D.G. Rossetti. Like his paintings, this collection was criticized for its sexuality and emphasis on complex and intimate moments.

He moved to 16 Cheyne walk, his home for the next two decades. The work he did while living here characterizes Rossetti's later work, with a notable departure from the exquisite detail and realism of his earlier work. This period is defined by a slow transition to a wispy, almost impressionist style which is quite apparent in his 1879 portrait of Alexa Wilding, in which she appears almost as an apparition with little to distinguish her from the background. This shift correlates with a mental breakdown in 1872 that led to a chloral hydrate addiction.

Although Fanny Cornforth continued to sit for him, it is Miss Wilding and subsequently Jane Morris who we find Rossetti obsessing over during this time, so much so that he began to use a summer home he and William Morris had purchased as a retreat for himself and Mrs. Morris. They spent the summers of 1871 and 1873 here, along with the Morris children, and this relationship led to a falling out between Morris and Rossetti.

In 1874, Rossetti left their shared summer home at Kelmscott for good and fell into a downward spiral of drug use and mental instability.He eventually succumbed to his addiction and died of complications resulting from a disease of the kidneys in April 1882.

Rosetti's Family

Gaetano Polidori: (1764-1853) An Italian writer and scholar who lived in London. In 1793 he married Anna Maria Pierce and had 8 children, 4 boys and 4 girls. He set up a private press at his home in London, where he printed the first editions of poems by his grandchildren, Dante and Christina Rossetti.

John Williams Polidori: (1795-1821) An English writer, known for his associations with the Romantic Movement. Credited by some as the creator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction. Lord Byron's (influential and wildly known British poet) personal physician.

Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori: (1800-1886) Known for her family connections, two of her children were founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and another a famous poet. Married Gabriele Rossetti.

Gabriele Rossetti: (1783-1854) Published poems that were "patriotic" and supported the "popular movement" in Sicily. His support for Italian revolutionary nationalism forced him into political exile in 1821. Married Frances Polidori and had 4 children.

Maria Francesca Rossetti: (1827-1876) An English author, sister to Christina, Dante, and William. Christina dedicated "Goblin Market" to Maria.

Christina Gorgina Rossetti: (1830-1894) An English poet. Wrote romantic, devotional, and children's poems. Best known for "Goblin Market." Was educated by her mother.

William Micheal Rossetti: (1829-1919) An English writer and critic. One of the seven founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, and became the movement's unofficial organizer and bibliographer.


Family Tree showing relationship of writer John Polidori (The Vampyre, 1819) and the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters of the Rossetti family

12 August 2009 Public Domain

Rosetti's Wife

Lizzie Siddal was Dante Rossetti's somewhat estranged wife as well as the most prominent model of his early work. He painted her in many scenes which originated in Dante, starting with the First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice. Following their engagement, Rossetti began to instruct her and she took up both poetry and painting. However, her art was neither extraordinary nor of the idealized nature of her husband's. In fact, we can likely learn much about the dynamics of their relationship as well as Lizzie's mental state by looking at her work.

Both her words and her images are quite harsh, foregoing an appeal to beauty for something far colder. Her self-portrait is a prime example. Gone is the sultry, lustful expression we are used to seeing and in its stead she sits expressionless, half-closed eyes bulging out. Her poetry is similarly cold, lashing out against the notion of true love. Her works, though not well received, illustrate the effect their relationship had upon her and provide a compelling counterpoint to the romanticized works of Rossetti.

Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
(1860 - Public Domain)

Rosetti's Pets

After the death of his wife Elizabeth, Rossetti began acquiring a menagerie of exotic pets, among them: "owls, kangaroos, wallabies, a deer, armadillos, parakeets, peacocks, a racoon [sic], a Canadian marmot or woodchuck, a Japanese salamander, two laughing jackasses, and a zebu or small Brahaminee bull." His favorite animals were his wombats. His first was named Top, but it died. It is apparent that Rossetti grieved for the loss of Top, if somewhat sarcastically, through his drawing, "Death of a Wombat."

"Death of a Wombat" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
1869 November 6 (Public Domain)
© Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum

Rossetti's sketch about the "Death of a Wombat" was accompanied by a poem of the same name:

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!

This poem was a parody of a stanza from Thomas Moore's poem “The Fire-Worshippers” from his work Lallah Rookh:

I never nurs'd a dear gazelle
To glad me with its soft black eye,
But when it came to know me well
And love me, it was sure to die!

This wasn't his first or only work inspired by Top. He also sketched his model/lover Jane Morris with an angelic figure of the marsupial, ironically before it even died:

"Mrs. Morris and the Wombat" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
1869 September 10 (Public Domain)
© Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum

The drawing, "Mrs. Morris and the Wombat," compliments Rossetti's poem, "Parted Love!"

Oh! how the family affections combat
Within this heart; and each hour flings a bomb at
My burning soul; neither from owl nor from bat
Can peace be gained, until I clasp my Wombat.

This poem about the wombat is very similar in title to "Parted Love," allegedly about Jane. It echoes the theme of battle, with the choice to rhyme "combat" with "flings a bomb at." Both the wombat and the woman wear halos, further connecting the two. It can be guessed that the wombat is not what Rossetti wanted to clasp to gain peace for his "burning soul." However, the wombat Top, being led along by a leash, might also represent Jane's husband, William, who went by the nickname "Topsy," and took "til death do us part" seriously, remaining married to Jane for the extent of his life, despite her affairs with more men than Rossetti.


Rossetti wrote more than 320 poems during his 53 years of life, almost two dozen of which were complimented by some sort of visual element, such as a drawing or painting, earning these multimedia pieces of art the name "doublework."

The Blessed Damozel

One example of this "doublework" is his painting and poem, both entitled "The Blessed Damozel." The painting illustrates the basic premise of the poem, a man on earth staring up into Heaven at one woman in particular - his lost love, holding "three lilies in her hand" - surrounded by other women with embracing couples in the distance.

"The Blessed Damozel" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1878 - Public Domain)

There are some differences between painting and poem, for instance, the poem insists "the stars in her hair, ['yellow like ripe corn'], were seven," while the painting shows only six stars in her auburn hair. However, the story remains the same; most of the focus is on the angelic woman as she thinks about the man she left behind on earth, but a bit of space is left over for the man and his thoughts of her.

The poem was in part a response to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" (he also responded to Poe's poem with this drawing). Rossetti explained,

“I saw that Poe had done the utmost it was possible to do with the grief of the lover on earth, and so I determined to reverse the conditions, and give utterance to the yearning of the loved one in heaven.”

Both poems detailed a mourning lover, Poe described the man suffering on earth, and later Rossetti imagined the woman waiting in Heaven. Poe knew his wife, Virginia, was suffering from tuberculosis when he wrote "The Raven," and she died two years after it was published. Rossetti's poem would probably take on new meaning to him after his wife and fellow painter/poet, Elizabeth Siddal, died from laudanum overdose. Lines 38-41 of Rossetti's poem:

Around her, lovers, newly met
'Mid deathless love's acclaims,
Spoke evermore among themselves
Their heart-remembered names;

echo lines 9-12 of Poe's poem:

Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

Both poems capture the grief of one of a pair of lovers separated by death, but only Rossetti's leaves room for hope that the two might be happily reunited. Poe's protagonist asks the Raven if he will ever again clasp his Lenore, to which it gives the infamous reply of "Nevermore." Rossetti's poem ends with the following:

She gazed and listened and then said, 
       Less sad of speech than mild, --- 
'All this is when he comes.' She ceased. 
       The light thrilled towards her, fill'd 
With angels in strong level flight. 
       Her eyes prayed, and she smil'd. 
(I saw her smile.) But soon their path 
       Was vague in distant spheres: 
And then she cast her arms along 
       The golden barriers, 
And laid her face between her hands, 
       And wept. (I heard her tears.)

While this is by no means a happy ending and could be interpreted as the moment when the woman witnesses her man going to Hell, another reading could suggest that she simply misjudged the amount of time it would take for him to get to Heaven and is in tears because she realizes she'll have to wait the rest of his (possibly long) life.

The Portrait

Another of his poems, "The Portrait," again delves into the issue of a dead lover. The titular portrait is of a woman the narrator once loved who is now "below the earth" and  "above the skies;" her body is buried and her soul is in Heaven. The poem itself was buried along with Elizabeth's body as "the earth [was] over her," until he wanted it and others among his works back and had them exhumed from her grave. When Elizabeth was alive, she often modeled for his paintings and paintings of the other Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti painted her again after she died (from the memory of her alive, not of her dead body). "Beata Beatrix" was painted in her memory, and later he painted her again posthumously in "Regina Cordium or the Queen of Hearts."

"Beata Beatrix" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1870 - Public Domain),_1864-1870.jpg

Several similarities can be found between the seemingly unrelated "Beata Beatrix" and "The Portrait." There is of course the obvious - "Beata Beatrix" is a portrait - but there are textual comparisons to be made as well.

This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone

Rossetti painted the Elizabeth he remembered, creating his own image of her that has outlived him by 129 years circa 2011. The same can be said for the poem the painting resembles; it too has created another of his images of her, with "sweet lips" and a "sweet heart," plus the poem "The Portrait" has lasted even longer than the portrait "Beata Beatrix."

Parted Love

Rossetti pairs themes of an absent love (and perhaps once again a love no longer living) and a life at war in his poem "Parted Love." 

What shall be said of this embattled day
And armed occupation of this night
By all thy foes beleaguered,---now when sight
Nor sound denotes the loved one far away?
Of these thy vanquished hours what shalt thou say,---
As every sense to which she dealt delight
Now labours lonely o'er the stark noon-height
To reach the sunset's desolate disarray?

Stand still, fond fettered wretch! while Memory's art
10 Parades the Past before thy face, and lures
Thy spirit to her passionate portraitures:
Till the tempestuous tide-gates flung apart
Flood with wild will the hollows of thy heart,
And thy heart rends thee, and thy body endures.

This sonnet may be about Elizabeth, but it also may be about another of his models/romantic interests, Jane Morris--the wife of his friend and Pre-Raphaelite brother, William Morris. It was written in 1869, 7 years after Elizabeth's death, and 4 years after he started to become intimate with Jane. The tone of the poem seems to imply more of a military metaphor for the anticipation of waiting for a living lover to return than for the longing for a reunion with a dead love. After all, it is far more likely that at the time Jane's "body endure[d]," whereas the corpse of Elizabeth probably did not. 

"Parted Love" is far less linked to the visual arts than either of the previous poems discussed, but it still mentions "her passionate portraitures." This might be assumed to be Rossetti's portraits of Jane, but it could also refer to those he painted of Elizabeth, or even perhaps the portraits the female artist made herself before her death.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

A group of men founded in 1848 who agreed on a common sense of English art. The group consisted of Ford Madox Brown, Edward Bume-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. "Their ambition was to bring English art (such as it was) back to a greater "truth to nature." The characteristics of these paintings consisted of "serious-usually religious or romantic- subjects, and their style was clear and sharply focused. It entailed a unique insistence on painting everything from direct observation." "Raphael was the artist they considered to have achieved the highest degree of perfection, so much so that the students were encouraged to draw from his examples rather than from nature itself, thus they became the "Pre-Raphaelites." The group felt anything after Raphael, was corrupting the beauty and wonder of art. William Michael Rossetti recorded the aims of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhoood at thier founding meeting in September 1848.

1. To have genuine ideas to express;

2. To study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;

3. To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-paroding and learned by rote;

4. And most indespensable of all, to produce throughly good pictues and statues. Uploaded by gilcarosio on Jan 16, 2009 Uploaded by HerAeolianHarp on Feb 21, 2011
*View this youtube clip to watch a documentary discussing The Pre-Raphaelites and Fallen Women

Topics for Discussion

The decline of Rossetti's health and eventual death was due in part to his addiction to chloral hydrate, much like an overdose of the drug laudanum was the cause of his wife's death. Both were poets and visual artists, despite their respective chemical dependencies. They were not the only ones during their time harboring both creativity and an addiction, however (think Samuel Taylor Coleridge.) Is there a connection between artistic abilities and drug use? How does their situation in the 19th century compare with the drug/art scene of the 20th/21st centuries?

Rossetti was both a painter and poet. He wrote poems that stood alone and painted pictures that were independent works of art, but he also created poems and paintings that supplemented each other. How does his "doublework" compare to his single works? Does the paired piece of art add to or take away from its match? Was he more respected as a painter, poet, or both?

Rossetti's professional and personal life were inseparable, and he often became romantically and sexually entangled with his models. The intimate nature of his works hinges on a subtle element of allure, and desire. Considering the damage it caused to both his friendship with John Morris and his relationship with Lizzie Siddal, what are some implications of his disposition to blur the line between professional and personal? Is it permissible, given the art it fostered? Also, he routinely portrayed these women as powerful,and often rather masculine. Does this seem to come from admiration of their power over him, or fear? Or something else altogether?

Resources and Links

1. "A quick view of D.G. Rossetti's art work."  Uploaded by [DraculVanHelsing|] on Mar 30, 2008

2. Cruise, Colin. "'Sincerity and Earnestness': D. G. Rossetti's Early Exhibitions 1849-53." _The Burlington Magazine _146.1210 Dante Gabriel Rossetti  (2004): 4-12. JSTOR. Database. 10 Dec 2011

3. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Rossetti lamenting the death of his wombat, a pen drawing.” The British Museum, 1869. Web. 12 December 2011.

4. Fellow, Harold White. “Rossetti's Wombat: A Pre-Raphaelite Obsession in Victorian England.” National Library of Australia, 16 April 2003. Web. 12 December 2011.

5. Golden, Catherine. " Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Two-Sided Art." Victorian Poetry 26.04 (1988): 394-402. JSTOR. Database. 10 Dec 2011.

6. Johnson, Wendell. "D. G. Rossetti as Painter and Poet." Victorian Poetry 3.1  (1965): 9-18. JSTOR. Database. 10 Dec 2011.

7. McGann, Jerome. The Rossetti Archive. Version 4. The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and Nineteenth Century Scholarship Online Consortium, Spring 2000. Web. 12 December 2011.

8. Moore, Thomas. “The Fire-Worshippers.” The Norton Anthology of Literature: Norton Topics Online, 2010-2011. Web. 12 December 2011.

9. Ormond, Leonée. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Old Masters." The Yearbook of English Studies, 36.2 Victorian Literature  (2006):153-168. JSTOR. Database. 10 Dec 2011.

10. Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Raven.” Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore, 1845. Web. 12 December 2011.

11. Rossetti, W. M.; Rossetti,Dante; Hartley, Harold. "Dante Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 1.3  (1903): 273-295. JSTOR. Database. 10 Dec 2011.

12. Stein, Richard. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painting and the Problem of Poetic Form." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 10.4, (1970): 775-792. JSTOR. Database. 10 Dec 2011.

13 Wikimedia Commons. The Wikimedia Foundation, 20 November 2011. Web. 12 December 2011.

14. Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 12 December 2011.

15. George P. Landow. "Pre-Raphealites: An Introduction." The Victorian Web. June 2007. 12 December 2011.

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