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An Introduction to D.G. Rossetti

Jerome J. McGann

University of Virginia

The Life

Commentary for Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Formal Self-Portrait, pencil, 1861
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London on 12 May 1828 and he died on Easter Day, 9 April 1882. He spent nearly his entire working life in the city of his birth, and indeed he only left Great Britain three times, in each case but the first quite briefly. Though his work is steeped in Italian traditions (both poetical and pictorial), Rossetti never visited Italy. He is first and always an English - more, a London - writer and artist.

His father was the celebrated (and controversial) Dante scholar and Italian political exile Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854). His mother Frances (1800-1886), much younger than her husband, was Anglo-Italian, Polidori on her father's side. (Her brother, Dr. John Polidori, was Byron's doctor and companion during the first part of his exile from England in 1816.) Rossetti had three siblings, two younger than himself. All were remarkable. His sister Christina (1830-1894) became as distinguished a poet as her brother. His brother William Michael (1829-1919), a writer himself, edited his brother's work after the latter's death and served as the first archivist and historian of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. His other sister was the oldest child, Maria Francesca (1827-1876); she published a commentary on Dante and became an Anglican nun.

Rossetti's interests in writing and painting appeared early, encouraged by his immediate family life as well as by the literary interests of his grandfather Polidori. The children were writing from a very early age, and drawings by Rossetti survive from the mid-1830s. He went to Sass's drawing school in 1841 and in 1845 moved to the Antique School of the Royal Academy. He did not work well under academic tutelage, however, and in 1848 he dropped away from school altogether.

The departure proved a crucial event in Rossetti's life. 1848 marks not only a European watershed, it is equally the year of Rossetti's emergence as a serious — indeed, an epochal — figure in British art and poetry. In 1848 the Pre-Raphaelite movement was founded, Rossetti produced his first important painting, and he was working on or finishing a series of remarkable writings (including "The Blessed Damozel" and most of the translations that eventually appeared as The Early Italian Poets in 1861. It was in 1848 that the core set of Rossetti's artistic and poetical touchstones began to coalesce in a practical way.

Bottles
Bottles, oil still life, 1848
Delaware Art Museum
The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending the
Revelry (The Eve of St. Agnes)
William Holman Hunt, The Eve of St. Agnes, oil, 1848
Guildhall Art Gallery, London
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, oil on canvas, 1849
The Tate Britain Gallery

When Rossetti left the Academy school he initially apprenticed himself to Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), whose work he had first seen and admired in 1844. At the 1848 Royal Academy Exhibition he saw William Holman Hunt's (1827-1910) Eve of St. Agnesand was so taken with it that he sought out the young painter and they quickly became friends. Soon Rossetti moved in with him and, under Hunt's critical eye, he tried to develop more disciplined work habits. It was under Hunt's supervision that Rossetti executed his first important painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, begun in the summer of 1848. At the same time he was showing Hunt and his other new friends, including the young prodigy John Everett Millais (1829-1896), his writing work, including his translations.

Rossetti's extraordinary range of talents and interests, combined with his energy and enthusiasm, made him the central figure in the formation of the group of writers and artists who were to name themselves The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hunt's express hostility to academy art gave the movement its initial polemical and theoretical focus. He was particularly inspired by the first two volumes of Ruskin's Modern Painters (1843-1846), and he introduced the others to Ruskin's ideas, which proved so fruitful to so many in and associated with the PRB and its aftermath. But it was Rossetti whose cultural vision and force of character magnetized the group, just as it was Rossetti's work which was to have the longest and most significant impact on poetry and the visual arts.

The movement'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. Their admiration for these pictures determined them to form a group that might bring about a revolution in artistic practice and cultural sensibilities. The three men soon gathered together a group who met monthly to discuss topics of mutal interest. It included Rossetti's brother William Michael, the young sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892), James Collinson (1825?-1881) (a painter engaged to Rossetti's sister Christina), and F. G. Stephens (1828-1907), who would later become an influential art critic.

Conversione  di S. Ranieri
Carlo Lasinio, Conversione di S. Ranieri (detail), from his Pitture a fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa (1828)
Conversione  di S. Ranieri
Carlo Lasinio, Conversione di S. Ranieri (detail), S. Ranieri Prende l'Abito d'Eremita (detail), from his Pitture a fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa (1828)
Partenza di Agar da Abramo
Carlo Lasinio, Partenza di Agar da Abramo (detail), Partenza di Agar da Abramo (detail), from his Pitture a fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa (1828)

The PRB made its debut early in 1849, when Hunt and Millais put up works at the Royal Academy Exhibition and Rossetti at the Free Exhibition at Hyde Park Corner. Despite the "PRB" signatures on their works — the initials would soon become a focus of critical attack — their works were reasonably well received. In the fall of 1849 Hunt and Rossetti left for a brief trip to Belgium and Paris, where they studied and enthused over the works of various painters they chose to regard as their spiritual precursors. On returning the group began to lay plans for publishing a journal that would carry their ideas, they hoped, to an even larger audience. This was the famous periodical The Germ (subtitled "Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art"). Beginning early in 1850, it ran for only four numbers. Despite its lack of initial success, the work would prove an important venture.

Unlike 1849, the exhibition of the work of Rossetti and the other PRBs in 1850 produced a firestorm of hostile criticism. The event brought Ruskin to the defense of the young painters — a signal moment in their history. Ruskin in effect defined the PRB as "serious artists" and his authority in effect established the movement's cultural position. Rossetti and Ruskin became close friends for a time, but they grew apart when Rossetti grew tired of having to fill the role of Ruskin's pupil.

The Germ (British Library Copy, second issue)
The Germ, cover page for issue 2
(February 1850)