ARTHURIAN ART

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

   Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London, England on May 12, 1828 and died on Easter Day, April 9, 1882. He spent his entire working life in or near the city of his birth, leaving England only three times. Though his work is steeped in Italian traditions, Rossetti never visited Italy. His father was the celebrated Dante scholar and Italian political exile Gabriele Rossetti. His mother, Frances Polidori, was much younger than her husband but also came from a didtinguished and literary family.
   Rossetti showed talent even at a young age in writing and painting. He went to Sass's Drawing School in 1841; and in 1845, transferred to the Antique School of the Royal Academy. In 1848, he dropped out of school altogether. But it was an important year that would produce his first important painting as well as some of his literary writings. When he left the school, he apprenticed himself for a short time to Ford Madox Brown. At the 1848 Royal Academy Exhibition, he became enthralled by William Holman Hunt's "Eve of St. Agnes" and struck up a friendship with the painter. He moved in with him and worked under Hunt's supervision to finish his first important painting, "The Girlhood of Mary Virgin" and to create the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
   "The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's" founding is customarily dated from an evening in October, 1848, when Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti were studying Carlo Lasinio's engravings after the Campo Santo frescoes in Pisa. The three men soon gathered together a group who met monthly to discuss topics of artistic and cultural interest. It included Rossetti's brother, William Michael; the young sculptor Thomas Woolner; James Collinson, a young painter engaged to Rossetti's sister Christina; and F. G. Stephens, who would later become an influential art critic. The members of the group began displaying the PRB signature on their works. It was not until a year later that Rossetti made public the meaning of the initials, at which time a firestorm of controversy erupted in which Rossetti and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites were accused of being romanists, blasphemers, atheists, and included a rather vicious attack by Dickens on Milais' Christ in the House of his Parents. During that year, they published for a short time, the critical periodical The Germ (subtitled "Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art").
   In 1850, Rossetti met the beautiful Elizabeth Siddal, who became almost his obsession. He painted and used her as his model in all his early works. For the next decade, poverty and Rossetti's occasional wandering eye prevented their marriage. Even during these troubles, Rossetti's devotion to Elizabeth never failed and they married in 1860. Tragically two years later, Elizabeth was to die of an overdose of laudanum.
   Throughout that decade, Rossetti worked on his painting, first in oils and later when he felt unable to express his desires, in water colors. In 1857, while working on the project to paint the walls of the Debating Hall of the Union Society in Oxford, he met some of his greatest friends, including Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Charles Algernon Swinburne. As it turned out, the murals were completed but faded and disappeared because Rossetti did not understand how to properly prepare the walls for the paintings. Two other projects of these years were also important. In 1856, William Morris and his friends published The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, a sequel to earlier publicationThe Germ. The other event was the publication of Moxon's edition of Tennyson's selected poetry, which appeared early in 1857. The book carried illustrations by various artists of the day. Rossetti's contributions, which illustrated "The Palace of Art" and several other poems, defined him as an established artist.
   In 1861, Rossetti finished the poetical translations of medieval Italian poetry that he had been working on since the 1840s, The Early Italian Poets (later revised and reissued in 1874 as Dante and his Circle). The death of Elizabeth early in 1862 brought disarray to Rossetti's life. His plan had been to publish an accompanying volume of original poetry, a volume to be called Dante at Verona, and other Poems. In grief, he buried the manuscript in the coffin with his wife.
   During the 1860s, Rossetti returned to oils and produced a great deal of work as a painter. This was the period when his reputation as an artist grew and he began to command remarkable sums for his work. The Arthurian and Dantes subjects were slowly replaced by a series of erotic female portraits. He moved to 16 Cheyne Walk and there with Swinburne began a decline, retreating from life, his friends and the world, and drifting violently into addiction to chloral. These were also the years of his involvement with Fanny Cornforth, one of the women who attracted his eyes during the period before his marriage to Siddal and who was his principal model in this cloistered life.
   In 1866 and 1867, he wrote two sonnets for recent oil works, "Soul's Beauty" and "Body's Beauty", which appeared in print in 1868, along with a sonnet for the picture, "Venus Verticordia". The poems stimulated his desire to see his original writings in print. He moved to the countryside to dry out and escape the depression of London. Since much of his poetry had been buried with Elizabeth, and as he had kept no copies, Rossetti's friends assisted in having the body exhumed to retrieve the manuscript. Rossetti copied and revised these older works and added several new poems which were printed up in a series of proofs, and eventually published together in his 1870 volume of Poems. The volume was a stunning success but brought criticism for supposed indecencies of character. The volume is dominated by Rossetti's two great love obsessions, his deceased wife, Elizabeth, and his new love, Jane Morris (the wife of William Morris), whose full-lipped sultry beauty and very earthly existence seemed to bring Rossetti back to life.
    Between 1871 and 1874, the relationship with Jane Morris reached an extreme intensity. Rossetti spent much of his time at the Morris's house in Kelmscott; and much of that time, William was not at home. Rossetti wrote a great deal of poetry in these years and almost all of it focuses on his love for Jane. In the end the romance began to dissipate, and Jane left Kelmscott with her family in July 1874.
   With that separation, the final phase of his troubled life began. During these final years which his brother, William Michael, called "the chloralized years", Rossetti's eccentricities and manias began to dominate his existence. Although he continued to paint, he had a renewed burst of poetical vision. The body of work proved so large, in fact, that Rossetti eventually decided two volumes should be published, Ballads and Sonnets, and a "new edition" of his earlier Poems. Both appeared in 1881. After these last volumes were published, he made two vain efforts to restore his health. He went to the Lake District in the fall of 1881 and later, on doctor's advice, went to stay with a friend at his country house in Burchington. Another account has him at a resort near Margate in Kent. There he died in 1882.

Study of Guinevere
Tristram and Isolde Drinking the Love Potion
Arthur's Tomb
Galahad at the Ruined Chapel
The Attainment of the Sanc Grael
Lady of Shallott
How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Percival were fed with the Sanc Grael; but Sir Percival's Sister died by the Way