Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti popularly known as Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born on 12 May 1828. He was a British poet, illustrator, painter and translator. At the age of 20, he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, which influenced a second generation of artists and writers. The intention of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was to reform English art by rejecting the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Late Renaissance or Mannerist artists, who succeeded Raphael and also the formal training regime introduced by Sir Josua Reynolds.
The main characteristics of Rossetti’s art were its sensuality and medieval revivalism. Though his later poetry was characterised by the complex interlinking of thought and feelings, his early poetry was influenced by John Keats. Rossetti's personal life was intimately linked to his work, especially his relationships with his models and muses Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris.
Born on 25 July 1829, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall was an English artist, poet and artists’ model. Though she was later touted for her ravishing beauty, Siddall was originally chosen as a model because of her plainness. She was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, when she posed for Walter Deverell’s painting ‘Twelfth Night’. She also appeared in several other early Pre-Raphaelite works, like ‘Ophelia’ by Sir John Everett Millais, which is perhaps the most famous. However, when she met Rossetti in 1849, a whole new chapter in the notions of female beauty began in the history of art and painting. Rossetti was struck by the beauty of the flame-haired Elizabeth Siddal and he felt that his destiny was defined. Within no time, she became the blueprint of the 'Stunner', a term invented by Rossetti, the kind of woman who, from the 1860s to the 1890s, replaced the sentimental child-woman role model exemplified by tiny Queen Victoria. Rossetti immortalised her tall, graceful physique, long neck, erect posture and her flowing red hair and with her help he invented and redefined the ideal female beauty - the long lip, hooded eyes, heart-shaped face, sinuous-limbed, febrile-fingered, hair tumbling off the head in defiance of convention. Conventionally, red hair was considered as the sign of a lascivious nature in English culture. Rossetti challenged the prejudice and was backed by John Ruskin, the critic and Pre-Raphaelite supporter, who described Siddall as a noble, glorious creature, with red gold hair, large limpid eyes and the look of someone in a medieval Florentine fresco.
Against the convention, Rossetti and Siddall moved in together and became absorbed in each other's affections. They coined affectionate nicknames for one another, which included ‘Guggums’ or ‘Gug’ and ‘Dove’. He also dropped one ‘l’ from the spelling of her name to make it Siddal.
Eventually, she only sat for Rossetti and became a monomania for him. He dressed her in clothes inspired by medieval costumes, without the restrictions of corsets or bridled by petticoats or crinolines, endlessly studied and drew her, and taught her to draw. He idealized her beauty in thousands of sketches, where she was portrayed as a woman of leisure, class, and beauty, often situated in comfortable settings. Siddall, in her turn, painted a self-portrait, which differs from the idealised beauty portrayed by the Pre-Raphaelites and produced many sketches and watercolours, as well as one oil painting. Apart from that, Siddall began to write poetry, often with dark themes about lost love or the impossibility of true love.
However, Rossetti was consciously delaying their marriage, as he was aware that his family would not approve it. Siddall, on the other hand, with some justification, believed that Rossetti was always seeking to replace her with a younger muse, which contributed to her later depressive periods and illness. Finally, at the insistence of Ruskin and other friends, they were married on Wednesday, 23 May 1860 at St. Clement's Church in the seaside town of Hastings, without the presence of any family member.
At the time of her wedding, Siddall was very much frail and ill and it was thought that she was suffering from tuberculosis, while others attributed her poor health to an addiction to laudanum, an opium based drug or a combination of ailments. By that time Rossetti was having an affair with the hale and hearty model Fanny Cornforth.
In fact, Siddall was very much disheartened by Rossetti's unfaithfulness and it had affected her physical and mental health. Tragically, she used her frequent and serious illnesses to blackmail him. She became deeply depressed and her long illness gave her access to opium based laudanum to which she became addicted. In 1861, Siddall became pregnant, which ended with the birth of a stillborn daughter and again became pregnant for a second time in late 1861. She could not take it anymore and overdosed on laudanum in the early months of 1862. She died at 7.20 a.m. on 11 February 1862. At her burial Rossetti placed a book of his unfinished poems under her hair next to her cheek and began to paint Beata Beatrix, a mystical Siddall, glowing with an inner spiritual light, the essence of love, hair like a halo.
After the tragic death of Elizabeth Siddall, Fanny Cornforth moved in with Rossetti and became his housekeeper, lover and model. It is believed that Cornforth was the daughter of a blacksmith and her real name was Sarah Cox. She lacked the charm of breeding, education, or intellect. Probably, Rossetti was attracted to her charming combination of beauty and humor. Initially, she met Rossetti in 1856, and became his model and mistress, however Siddall was not aware of their relationship. When Rossetti married Siddall in 1860, Cornforth married a man named Timothy Hughes. But soon the couple separated and after the death of Siddall, Fanny re-entered Rossetti’s life.
In Rossetti's paintings, the figures modeled by Fanny Cornforth are rather voluptuous. Initially, she was engaged to pose as a prostitute for his unfinished painting, ‘Found’, in which he painted her hair the deepest copper. He created ‘Bocca Baciata’, a year after meeting her. Fanny remained in his life for many years and their friendship seems to have been an important one for both of them. His friends pressured Rossetti to end the affair, however the growing girths of both Rossetti and Cornforth was a mutual joke. Over the course of their relationship, Cornforth gained weight and Rossetti fondly called her ‘My Dear Elephant’, while she called him ‘Rhino’.
In 1877, Cornforth was forced to leave Rossetti's house, as Rossetti’s health seriously declined and his family became more directly involved in his private life. Apart from providing a house for her in the vicinity, Rossetti also gave her several of his paintings. Cornforth married for the second time, but repeatedly returned to Rossetti to nurse him, even accompanying him to Cumbria in 1881.
Alexa Wilding, born Alice Wilding, was another favourite model of Rossetti, who featured in some of his finest paintings during the later 1860s and 1870s. She featured in more of his finished works than any other of his more well-known muses. She is comparatively little known, probably due to the absence of any romantic or sexual connection between the pair. Born in 1847, she was living with an aunt and working as a dressmaker with ambitions of becoming an actress, while she became associated with Rossetti. He first spotted her in 1865, while she was walking one evening along the Strand. He was immediately impressed by the auburn-haired beauty and proposed her to be engaged to model for him on a full-time basis. She agreed, but did not report as promised. Rossetti intended to paint ‘Aspecta Medusa’, with her as the model, but gave up the idea in frustration. However, after a few weeks he spotted her again while he was in a taxi. Immediately he jumped from the cab and persuaded her to accompany him and go straight to his studio. He paid her a high weekly fee in advance to sit for him exclusively, afraid that other artists might also employ her. Since then, the two shared a lasting bond. After Rossetti's death in 1882, Wilding was said to have travelled regularly to place a wreath on his grave, though she was not financially very sound.
In 1857, a small group of artists was engaged to paint the Oxford Union Murals, based on Arthurian tales. The group included Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. One night while they were attending a performance of the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford, they noticed Jane Burden and her sister seated in the lower gallery. Struck by her beauty, they asked her right away to pose for the murals. At first she did not show any intention to agree, however after a few days, when she accidentally met Burne-Jones again, she agreed. She posed mostly for Rossetti as a model for Queen Guinevere and afterwards for William Morris, who was working on an easel painting, 'La Belle Iseult'. During the sessions, Morris helplessly fell in love with Burden and soon they became engaged. By all accounts, Jane was not in love with Morris and probably she was in love with Rossetti from the beginning. But, as Rossetti was already married, she married William Morrison 26 April 1859 and they had two daughters. But, after the death of Elizabeth Siddall, her affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti became infamous. She began to pose as a model for Rossetti again in 1865, which began a series of Rossetti masterpieces. In fact, he painted her repeatedly until his death. Possibly, Rossetti had hydrocele and their affair may not have been extremely physical as many believe. However, there is no doubt that emotionally they were deeply involved, which was incredibly painful for William Morris. In order to keep the affair a private, Morris and Rossetti entered into a joint tenancy of Kelmscott Manor in 1871. However, it became a retreat for Rossetti and Morris to have a long-lasting and complicated liaison.
Soon, Morris left for Iceland, leaving his wife and Rossetti to spend the summer in Kelmscott. During that period, Jane Morris became closely attached to Rossetti and became his favourite muse. She inspired Rossetti to write poetry and create some of his best paintings. Rossetti created a soulful series of dream-like portraits during those days. Morris returned to Kelmscott in 1874, after reorganizing his decorative arts firm and politely informed Rossetti that they both cannot stay there with Jane. Rossetti left Kelmscott abruptly in July and never returned again.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti died on Easter Sunday in 1882, at the country house of a friend, where he had gone in a vain attempt to recover his health, which had been destroyed by Chloral Hydrate, which he used to take for insomnia. Jane discovered his dependence on the drug, which eventually led her to distance herself from him, although they stayed in touch until he died. Rossetti died of Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys. However, he had been housebound for some years on account of paralysis of the legs and his chloral addiction is believed to have been a means of reducing the severe pain from a botched hydrocele removal.