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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante, 1852, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Lady Lilith, 1867, Dante Rossetti,
typical of most of his work.
Today in the U.S. we have a political spectrum, the progressives on the left, the conservatives on the right. Most countries do. Some might say the gulf between the two extremes is wider now than it has ever been before, thanks to social media and various news outlets with pronounced political leanings. But, it is a spectrum, which means there's a middle ground, what we in the U.S. term "independents," though just how many of these folks there are, how "independent" they actually are, and how dedicated they are to their position on the spectrum is always in doubt. Moreover they are the reason we have elections and polls, hoping to determine the degree that this "moderate" group have shifted to the left or the right. It's a fascinating game, one I prefer watching avidly over any kind of sports on TV. In fact, once or twice a year, I get to become a player in the voting booth, and once in a while when some pollster calls. It might surprise some to realize this same spectrum also exists in art. And, at no time in the history of art was this spectrum more pronounced than in England during the middle of the 19th-century. Politically, in this country, we call the right wing of this spectrum ultra-conservatives or "Tea Party Conservatives." Back then, the art world knew them as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the three founders of this group of ultra-conservative painters.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti as seen by himself and William Holman Hunt.
The cover of Christina Rossetti's
Goblin Market and Other Poems,
1862, illustrated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Conservatives in this country are often accused of wanting to live in the past--to undo all the social changes which have occurred during their lifetime or since some other vague moment of euphoric perfection in the past. The Pre-Raphaelites and their founders, Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais wanted to do the same with art. They looked all about them and didn't much like the paintings they saw, either as to content or style. They set as their goal to turn back of the hands of time to what they deemed the perfection of the Renaissance--hence the reference to Raphael, whose work they worshipped. Some were more successful at it than others. Hunt actually dressed in a manner he considered appropriate to the era he wanted to emulate, though he did very few paintings. Both he and Rossetti were literary intellects. Hunt was an idealistic perfectionist (not a good trait for a painter). Rossetti was as much a poet as a painter. His sister, Christina Rossetti, was also a poet whose work he sometimes illustrated (above, left). Their brother was a critic while their oldest sister was an author. Their father was an Italian scholar and mediocre poet who brought his family to London in 1824. Dante Gabriel was second to the oldest of the four, born in 1828. His Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (top), dating from 1852, is an indication of the pride Dante Gabriel Rossetti took in his name.

Like his brother and sisters, Rossetti aspired to be a poet He attended King's College School, in its original location near the Strand. Wishing also to become a painter, Rossetti studied at Henry Sass's Drawing Academy from 1841 to 1845 then enrolled at the Antique School of the Royal Academy, for three more years. There he showed great interest in Medieval Italian art. After leaving the Royal Academy, Rossetti studied under Ford Madox Brown, probably his strongest influence and with whom he retained a close friendship throughout his life. It was through the Academy that Rossetti met Hunt and later Millais. Together they formulated their revulsion of the art they saw in the 1851 London Crystal Palace Exposition. The group hoped to reform English art by rejecting what they considered to be the "mechanistic" approach first adopted by the Mannerist artists who followed Raphael and Michelangelo, as well as the formal training regime introduced by Sir Joshua Reynolds. They aimed to return to the abundant detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of quattrocento Italian and Flemish art.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin,
1849, Dante Rossetti.
Ecce Ancilla Domini,
1850, Dante Rossetti
Rossetti's first major work, The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary (above, left) from 1849, was also his first critical success. He used his mother to model for St. Anne and his sister, Christina, for the Virgin. His second, painting, along the same line, Ecce Ancilla Domini (above, right), displayed the following year, was not so well received, as critics began to realize the revolutionary nature of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and take it seriously. It was seen as a far cry from the typical Victorian era art, which they knew and loved. Perhaps displaying the sensitivity of a poet, Rossetti was stung by the critical rejection of his painting, and from that time on, refused to show his work publically. Today, Ecce Ancilla Domini is considered one of Rossetti's best painting efforts.

Found, 1854-55, 1859-81, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
16 Cheyne Walk, home of Dante Rossetti
Rossetti painted in oils with watercolor brushes, as thinly as in watercolor, on canvas which he had primed with white lead until the surface was as smooth as possible. Every tint remained transparent. Found (above) is an unfinished oil painting by Rossetti. The painting is Rossetti's only treatment in oil of a contemporary moral subject--urban prostitution. Although the work remained incomplete at Rossetti's death in 1882, he always considered it one of his most important works, returning to it many times from the mid-1850s until the year before he died.

Rossetti reading proofs of Ballads and Sonnets, 1862, Henry Treffry Dunn
Beata Beatrix,1864-70,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddal, died of an overdose of laudanum (a painkilling narcotic) in 1862, after having given birth to a stillborn child. Rossetti became increasingly depressed to the point he buried the bulk of his unpublished poems with her. Later he had them dug up. He idealized her image as Dante's Beatrice in a number of paintings, such as Beata Beatrix (left) dating from 1864. After the death of his wife, Rossetti leased Tudor House (above, right) in the Chelsea area of London, where he lived for 20 years surrounded by extravagant furnishings and a parade of exotic birds and animals (above). Rossetti was fascinated with wombats. He kept one as a pet (not recommended, they have sharp teeth and claws). Over time, Dante Rossetti became more and more reclusive, fighting an addiction to chloral hydrate and whiskey, On Easter Sunday, 1882, Dante Gabriel Rossetti died at the country home of a friend, where he had gone to recover his health, which had been destroyed by chloral hydrate just as his wife's had been destroyed by laudanum. He died of Bright's Disease, a chronic disease of the kidneys.

A Vision of Fiammetta, 1878,
one of Rossetti's last paintings.


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