Joan of Arc by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
On this day in 1828, Anglo-Italian painter and poet Gabriel Dante Rossetti was born in London to a Sicilian father and half-Italian mother. As a young man, enchanted with the literature, art and culture of Medieval Italy, he rearranged the order of his name to Dante Gabriel Rossetti—an homage to the towering 13th Century poet. He began a conventional arts education, but, disappointed, left after a year to work with painter Ford Maddox Brown.
He befriended other painters, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, and together they formed The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—whose goal was to defy the current “classical” and “academic” painting trends, promote Medieval Revivalism (infused with poetic and symbolic meaning), and to strengthen the links between writing and painting by encouraging the two disciplines to practice each other’s art.
Some of the visual characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelite school was the use of Medieval subjects, story lines, and settings; references to the great poets and writers (like Shakespeare, Tennyson and Keats); use of intense, lush color; and a painting style which emphasized precise, photo-realistic detail of all objects in the painting (whether subject, foreground, or background). Additionally, the Pre-Raphaelite school avoided “directional” light in their paintings, creating an evenly-illuminated (sometimes “flat”) composition. Most of all, they sought to contradict the popular trends in Early-Victorian painting and encourage a return to (their version of) an earlier, unspoiled style of painting.
Rossetti’s choice of models—and his subsequent idealization of them—had some impact on the ideal of feminine beauty in Victorian England. He selected tall, thin, swan-necked models with heads full of long, luxurious hair. And he painted them pale, frail almost. Rossetti is known to have married one of his models, lived with another, and believed to have had affairs with others—most famously with Janey Morris, William Morris’s wife at their country home, Kelmscott Manor, in Oxfordshire.
As Rossetti aged, his depression, insomnia, and tendency toward paranoia began to get the best of him. He suffered a mental breakdown in 1872 and attempted suicide while recuperating in Scotland. While he did improve—and was able to begin working again—he continued to drink and self-medicate until he died of liver failure on 9 April 1882. He is buried in Kent, England in the Parish Cemetery of Birchington. He lies beneath a Celtic cross carved by his old friend (and mentor) Ford Maddox Brown.