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Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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While reading about Christina Rossetti, I couldn’t help becoming interested in the story of her brother Dante too.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a member of a group that jokingly referred to themselves as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, signing PRB after their names. He was the older brother of Christina Rossetti. Named Gabriel, he choose to add the name Dante, as the Italian poet was an important part of upbringing – each of the four Rossetti siblings published something about Dante at some point in their lives.

Dante fell in love with one of his models, a working class woman named Elizabeth Siddal, but continued to put off marriage to her for ten years, during which time he wasn’t completely faithful to her. Their marriage eventually took place at a time when Elizabeth was struggling with health problems and Dante may well have believed she would not live long. (In this way his story reminds me of Eugene Wrayburn from Dicken’s Our Mutual Friend, though in that case it was the wealthy man who, believing himself to be dying, marries his lower class love only to recover and have to figure out how to live together.)

Christina Rossetti wrote this poem about her brother and Elizabeth:

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel – every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Elizabeth soon gave birth to a stillborn baby, and died of a laudanum (a tincture of opium) overdose not long after. Dante Gabriel slipped his book of unpublished poetry into her coffin with her when she died, but seven years later took again to writing poetry and had her body exhumed so he could retrieve the book. In total they were married two years, and Dante harboured much grief over his unfaithfulness to her and the role he played in her depression and the resulting drug addiction. Christina’s poem Bride Song was probably also about Elizabeth Siddal, and if so it faults Dante Gabriel for not being there for his wife.

After Elizabeth’s death he rented Tutor House in Chelsea. He thought about inviting his mother and sisters to live with him thus relieving his older brother of the responsibility of caring for them but decided against that, inviting instead George Meredith and Algernon Swinburne. He started collecting animals, including owls, rabbits, wombats, armadillos and even a kangaroo. His peacocks apparently annoyed the neighbours because of the loud noises they made. His housekeeper, a model by the name of Fanny Cornforth, had lodgings nearby (for the sake of propriety).

His life continued to go downhill. He had a longtime flirtation with Jane Morris, wife of the socialist and artist William Morris. Eventually he ended up addicted to drugs and grumpy enough he isolated himself from almost everyone.

I found the book Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Lisa Tickner at the library when I was looking for books about his sister Christina, and despite the bleakness of Rossetti’s later life, I sat and looked through the book with my oldest son. We talked about the different painting. What makes a good painting? What parts of the painting draw our attention first? What symbolism shows up in the various background objects? The book shows some of the “studies” he did as rough drafts of the pictures. We could note the repeated faces of Elizabeth Siddal and his later models/loves (Fanny Cornwall and Jane Morris). We talked also about the different mythology and stories he based his paintings upon. One of the pictures, “Found,” shows a woman of ill repute being found by a young man in country clothing – probably a relative. In the background is a lamb in a net, an apt symbol for the woman.

Discussion ideas:

EcceAncillaDominiDante Gabriel Rossetti was criticized for persisting “in the belief that a painting of a beautiful woman was a beautiful painting.” Discuss this. What makes a painting beautiful?

Rossetti’s painting Ecce Ancilla Domini shows the annunciation, where the virgin Mary is told she will bear a son. Compare the image with other images of the annunciation. Do different images suggest a different understanding of how Mary might have felt? Is a painter also a theologian?

When Gabriel published a book of poetry he sent copies of it to friends and to editors he knew would be favorable towards it so as to get good reviews. What do you make of that? How valid are reviews like that? How does it compare with today’s Amazon reviews, where authors give away free copies (or arrange blog-tours) in order to get favourable reviews? Is it okay because everyone does it, or are the reviews in some ways less legitimate?


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