Dante Gabriel Rossetti, christened Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, was born in London, May 12, 1828. His father, Gabriele Rossetti, was an Italian political exile with pretensions as a poet, who had published an eccentric commentary on Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320, 3 volumes; The Divine Comedy, 1802) and supported himself teaching his native language. Rossetti’s mother, Frances Polidori, although of Anglo-Italian background, was staunchly English in her severe moral standards and religious beliefs. The opposing views of life represented by his father and mother determined a conflict from which Rossetti was never able to free himself. Like his amiable, self-indulgent father in many ways, he was never able to exorcise the accusing voice of his mother’s puritanism. He led the bohemian life of an artist, but felt guilty for doing so.
In 1845, Rossetti entered the Academy Schools of the Royal Academy of Art. There he associated himself with a group of young artists—notably, John Everett Millais and Holman Hunt—who were dissatisfied with the style and subject matter of Establishment painting, but eager to make names for themselves with the Establishment. Because the effects of light and naturalistic detail they sought were also to be found in late medieval art (prior to the painter Raphael), they called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and began initialing their more daring paintings “P.R.B.” In 1849-1850, the Brotherhood published a journal, The Germ, which included several poems by Rossetti, including “The Blessed Damozel” and the prose piece “Hand and Soul.” Also in 1850, Rossetti publicly exhibited a painting for the first time, Ecce Ancilla Domini! Reviews of the painting—as well as of works exhibited simultaneously by Hunt and Millais—were hostile. Stunned, Rossetti determined never to exhibit his work again (a determination which, on the whole, he maintained). The art critic John Ruskin, however, defended the Pre-Raphaelites, first in a series of letters to The Times, then in a pamphlet “Pre-Raphaelitism,” and subsequently became Rossetti’s patron, although Rossetti’s contempt for what he perceived as Ruskin’s bourgeois dilettantism prevented them from ever becoming close friends.
In 1850, Rossetti met Elizabeth Siddal, a sixteen-year-old shopgirl who began serving as a model for members of the P.R.B. By 1852, Rossetti and Siddal were informally engaged. Despite her beauty and the limited artistic ability she developed under his influence, they were poorly matched. It is characteristic of Rossetti that he nevertheless married her in 1860. Their child was stillborn in 1861, and the next year Elizabeth committed suicide.
During the 1850’s, while the Brotherhood itself was dwindling away, the reputation of its individual members had begun to grow. Rossetti never became a popular artist (as did Millais), but he began to receive commissions for his work and to attract a circle of younger admirers—two of whom, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, joined him in painting “frescoes” on the interior walls of the Oxford Union Society in 1857. There, Rossetti met Jane Burden, the woman he loved off and on for the rest of his life. Burden married William Morris in 1859 but seems to have become Rossetti’s mistress in the late 1860’s.
Fanny Cornforth was the third woman in Rossetti’s life. They met sometime in the late 1850’s, and after the death of Siddal, she became Rossetti’s “housekeeper.” Fanny was illiterate and lowborn, but with a striking voluptuous beauty very different from that of Elizabeth or Jane. Generally detested by Rossetti’s friends, she was probably Rossetti’s most loving companion.
Remorseful at the death of his wife, Rossetti had buried the manuscript of his poems with her and given up verse until at least 1866, when his relationship with Jane Morris prompted him to return to writing love poetry. In 1869, the manuscript of his earlier work was exhumed,...
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