Published  26/05/2023

The Rossettis

The Rossettis

This exhibition is both broader and narrower than its title suggests. In a nutshell, it brings together undeniably beautiful – if, on reflection, a little disturbing – poetry and paintings about obsessive love

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lady Lilith, 1866-68 (altered 1872-73) (detail). Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935.

Tate Britain, London
6 April – 24 September 2023


The introduction to this exhibition states: “The Rossetti’s passionate, anti-establishment personalities challenge our ideas of Victorians. They experimented with everything – art, life and love. They demanded poetry and painting express lived experience and feeling, and searched for modern beauty.” Really, this just about sums it up, since, with a different focus in each of the nine rooms, this well-curated show explores each of these facets of the lives and works of this family of “radical romantics”. Although the first room introduces us to the four siblings – Maria (1827-76), Gabriel (1828-82), William (1829-1919) and Christina (1830-94), the children of scholars of Italian heritage, who were encouraged to write, try their hand at art and find their own creative voices from an early age – the exhibition is primarily one of art by Gabriel and his wife Elizabeth (née Siddal), set to poetry by Gabriel and Christina.1 Nevertheless, there are some excellent loans, which make it worth the visit, and the catalogue contains some in-depth essays, which paint a clear picture of the Rossetti family and friends.

Certainly, Gabriel and Christina are the best-known of the siblings, and they published poems at just 15 and 16 years old respectively. A copy of this first publication of 42 of Christina’s poems, Verses (1847), was illustrated by Gabriel, printed on their grandfather’s private press, and dedicated and presented to their mother on her birthday. It is a beautiful object to behold, and evidence that the Rossetti siblings worked closely together. All four of them followed in their father’s footsteps by publishing critical and popular translations of Dante Alighieri, and their shared books were only ever inscribed with the single name “Rossetti”. Christina’s fame and worth was to outstrip her siblings in life and in death, however. With the publication of 900 of her poems, she left, on her death, the equivalent of £0.5m. This was three times as much as Gabriel. He, on the other hand, despite wavering between art and poetry as his career path, ultimately married both, in an aspect of his work illustrated clearly in this exhibition: his penchant for producing so-called “double works of art”, in which he pairs a drawing or a painting with a poem. He did this not just with his illustrative work, but with many of his later, large paintings of auburn-haired beauties, as well. While many of the poems were written by his own hand, he also turned to verses from literature, including those by Dante – whom he admired and likened himself to so much that he adopted his name as his own – Shakespeare and Tennyson, as well as from popular ballads.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. La Ghirlandata, 1873. © Guildhall Art Gallery.

The exhibition fittingly opens with a room dedicated to poetry. Verses by Christina are written on the walls, and there are spots on the carpet, where you can stand and listen to them being read aloud (my issue with this being that many spots can be activated at once, causing something of a muddle of voices “chattering” in the background, which is more than a little distracting). The poems chosen for this room speak primarily of love, and this is flagged up early as also being the central theme of Gabriel’s art. As the co-curator, Carol Jacobi, writes in the catalogue: “Love is explored in all its forms: romance and sex, devotion and sacrifice, temptation and addiction, enchantment and betrayal; brotherly and sisterly love; love across classes; love between parent and child; love from conception to death, and beyond the grave.”2

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), 1849-50. © Tate, Purchased 1886.

Visually, the exhibition opens with one of Gabriel’s first completed paintings, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) (1849-50), facing you immediately as you enter the first room. This is a beautifully simple depiction of the scene of the Annunciation, with a youthful Mary sitting on her bed, drawing back in fear as the angel approaches with a white lily, borne aloft by light (the Holy Spirit?) from beneath his feet. The stone floor and walls, the bed linen and their clothes are all white, and, besides simplicity, the picture evokes innocence and purity. Furthermore, it is apt for the opening gambit, since it announces what is to come – including the collaborative development of Gabriel and Christina. Here, she served as the model for Mary, and, despite alterations to her colouring, she remains immediately recognisable.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1848-49. © Tate.

Other family members served as models for Gabriel, too. In The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49) – the first of his “double works of art”, on display in the next room – William sat for the angel, and their mother for St Anne. In both paintings, the figures are very different from the curved, draped figures of traditional religious paintings, and, by comparison, quite modern. This exemplifies what would later become a pre-Raphaelite aesthetic tenet, based on the belief that by achieving a near-photographic realism and minute level of detail in their representations of biblical subjects and medieval literary themes, they could create a moral beauty and truer art. 

At the same time, however, Gabriel’s paintings are clearly deeply influenced by the art of the Italian quattrocento (the classic “pre-Raphaelite” era). He is often criticised for an awkwardness of perspective and anatomy, but, rather than a product of his immaturity, this might also be read as a deliberate allusion to the art of the period before Raphael – before the codification of academic rules and conventions.3 The second and third rooms look at his early development as an artist, beginning with a number of his pen and ink drawings and caricatures. Here, there is a fabulous variation of techniques, ranging from pictures almost completely inked in (for example, Man with a Woman wearing Trousers, 1844) to the use of negative space to create the figure (for example, the supernatural figure of Mephistopheles in Faust: Margaret in the Church, 1848, in which the ghostly shape appears in the gap in the crosshatching). This goes hand in hand with Gabriel’s interest in shadows (see, in particular, The Shadowless Man, c1846). His caricatures – including those of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and John Ruskin – are witty but accurate. Visitors are also shown how time spent abroad impacts Gabriel’s development, by widening his horizons and influences. Another object of fascination on show is his copy of a notebook belonging to William Blake (known as “the Rossetti Manuscript”), which he bought while an art student, and which greatly influenced him – and later Elizabeth – in the years to come.

Christina Rossetti. Goblin Market, 1865. © Tate.

Not to entirely omit the other two siblings, visitors can also see copies of The Germ, a periodical established by the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood to disseminate its ideas, in which William played a crucial role, including authoring the sonnet on its cover. The siblings’ revolutionary attitudes are also highlighted, including their questioning of the idea of the “fallen woman”. While Gabriel and William did this through their art (Gabriel’s final pre-Raphaelite painting, Found, c1854, for example, takes sexual fall and redemption as its subject), Christina and Maria explored themes of social justice in their writing and involvement with the Anglican church. Furthermore, Christina volunteered in a refuge for women who worked as prostitutes, and Goblin Market (1859), which became her most successful poem, is an allegory of feminist salvation.

In rooms four and five, the viewer is introduced to Elizabeth, as an artist in her own right and in terms of her relationship with, and influence on, Gabriel. During their mid-20s, they worked together in his studio, and each was intent on building a career without exhibiting at the Royal Academy. Travelling exhibitions and the world trade in printed material made Gabriel one of the first painters to become internationally well known. His success paved the way for the innovative and alternative models of later 19th-century artists. What this exhibition expounds, however, is the bilateral nature of the influence of Gabriel on Elizabeth and Elizabeth on Gabriel. This is made visible through the considered pairings (or groupings) of their work (for example, Elizabeth’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci, c1855, in which the seated woman clasps her hands and stretches her arms in a posture replicated in Gabriel’s graphite and ink drawing Sister Helen, c1870, and Elizabeth’s Annunciation, c1850-60, which might have been used as a study by Gabriel for his watercolours The Annunciation, 1855-58, and Mary Nazarene, 1857). As Glenda Youde sets out – and successfully achieves – in her catalogue essay on the couple: “… similarities between the work produced by the two artists would have led to the conventional art-historical viewpoint which dismisses Elizabeth’s work as imitative or derivative, merely a poor copy of that of her tutor. I will argue the opposite, showing how Elizabeth’s original ideas so inspired Gabriel that he had all her drawings photographed and continued to ‘borrow’ from her designs long after her death.”4 There is also an excellent essay by the pre-Raphaelite scholar Jan Marsh, showing how research has progressed even since the exhibition of Elizabeth’s work at Wightwick Manor in 2018, and there are a good number of her works included here – from the Tate collection and private lenders – which were not on show there, too. While I hope these will become ever less hidden in years to come, as research rightfully reinstates Elizabeth into the canon, it is nevertheless exciting to see so many on display now.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Monna Vanna, 1866. © Tate.

It is, however, the rooms with Gabriel’s later paintings that are the most visually compelling – and doubtless the favourites among visitors, as well. In these, he has moved on from pre-Raphaelitism, and the works on show epitomise the aesthetic ideal of “art for art’s sake”, creating delightful, if voluptuous and seductive portraits of full-red-lipped, auburn-haired, buxom beauties. When exhibited at the Hogarth Club in 1860, for example, Bocca Baciata (1859), a close-up portrait of working-class model Fanny Cornforth, bejewelled, with ivory skin and a lock of flame-coloured hair wrapped alluringly through her fingers, was chided by fellow Holman Hunt as representative of “gross sensuality … advocating as a principle mere gratification of the eye and if any passion at all – the animal passion to be the aim of Art”.  

In room six, there is a focus on Gabriel’s pencil studies of the different models who posed for The Beloved (1865-66), a composition thought to be inspired by Titian’s Woman with a Mirror (1515). The painting depicts six figures, who, it is said, represented for Gabriel a universal vision of female beauty. Significantly, it is his only oil painting to include any people of colour, despite there being professional models of colour in Britain at the time. This decision follows directly from Gabriel’s visit to Manet’s studio in Paris, where he saw his painting Olympia (1863), with its black female attendant. On his return to London, Gabriel wrote to a friend, the artist Ford Madox Brown, of his search for a young black model to include as the foreground figure in his composition. In 1865, having painted in the face of one young girl, he wrote to another friend: “One change I propose is to take out the little mulatto girl and paint in a pure black girl or boy if I can get one. I mean the colour of my picture to be like jewels, and the jet would be invaluable.”5

The same painting by Titian also inspired Gabriel’s Aurelia (Fazio’s Mistress) (1863-73), shown in the next room, who is seen plaiting her hair. This is an example of one of his “double works of art”, referencing a poem by the Renaissance poet Fazio degli Uberti, His Portrait of His Lady, Angiola of Verona, which opens with the lines (as translated by Gabriel):

I look at the crisp golden-threaded hair
Whereof, to thrall my heart, Love twists a net

The image is very close to his pencil drawing Elizabeth Siddal Plaiting her Hair (date unknown) as well as to his painting Lady Lilith (1866-68) (also paired with a poem, which is inscribed on to the picture’s frame), which Gabriel described as his “picture with hair”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lady Lilith, 1866-68 (altered 1872-1873). Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935.

During the Victorian period, hair was “a site of contested discourses” and “patriarchal control”.6 Once a girl reached womanhood, and married, she was expected to keep her hair demurely tied back. A drawing of Fanny Cornforth (1862), with her hair spread across the pillow, therefore implies not only male presence but also male ownership. The paintings of women brushing, twisting and plaiting their hair, however, subvert this etiquette, and are a further example of Gabriel’s progressive views and support for the increase in public-facing roles and opportunities for women. Lilith, as Adam’s first wife in the Talmudic story, was created as his equal and refused to be subjugated, fleeing from the Garden of Eden to escape patriarchal tyranny. Whether or not it is true, the story of Gabriel burying his poems with Elizabeth, when she died two years into their marriage, tells how, when he later had them exhumed, they had to be extricated from amid her hair. Either way, a less threatening lock of Elizabeth’s dark-auburn tresses is showcased here alongside a lock from Gabriel’s raven mop, reminding us of the significance of hair in Victorian England, beyond its artistic import.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Beata Beatrix, 1864. © Tate. Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple 1889.

Elizabeth continued to exert an influence on Gabriel even – and, in some ways, particularly – after her death. The apparitional Beata Beatrix (c1864-70), in which his likeness of Elizabeth emits a golden aura, draws a parallel between Dante Alighieri’s despair at the death of Beatrice and Dante Gabriel’s own desolation at the loss of his beloved. He continued to make images of her long after her death, just as he did when she was alive (and an earlier room contained a full wall of drawn portraits of Elizabeth, nearly always with a look of melancholy). This habit of becoming obsessed with one model, and portraying her over and over, was to repeat throughout Gabriel’s life, with Jane Morris (the wife of William Morris, with whom Gabriel had an affair in the 1870s) being another particular focus of his passion. The first paintings using her likeness are two small Arthurian scenes, made while she was modelling as Guinevere for the Oxford Union library in 1857. Then, alongside many informal sketches, the exhibition also showcases 13 of a series of 26 photographs of her in Gabriel’s garden in Chelsea, taken by the photographer John Parsons in the summer of 1865. These were intended as source photos for Gabriel to work from, rather than as portraits in and of themselves, and he helped prescribe the poses. The culmination of his obsession with Jane, however, were the eight versions of Proserpine (three of which are in the exhibition), on which Gabriel was still working at his death.

This tendency towards “monomaniac repetition”7 is described prophetically by Christina in her poem In an Artist’s Studio (1856):

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.

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, nor with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

This symbiosis, between Gabriel and his lovers, as well as between Gabriel and Christina, is, for me, what I take away from the exhibition. Yes, it is a study of the Rossettis, but first and foremost, it is a study of Gabriel and the women in his life; of Gabriel and his core theme of love, which, for him, is something all-encompassing, soul-destroying, and perhaps even parasitic.

There is one final room, which seeks to evidence the continuing relevance and influence of the Rossettis – across romantic fiction, TV drama, fashion, advertising, interior design, fantasy, cartoons and more – but this is somewhat weak. We surely know it already, without being told, and the examples included are not all that strong. Additionally, Ken Russell’s 1967 film, Dante’s Inferno: The Private Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poet and Painter, is being projected on to a wall by the way out of the exhibition. Under other circumstances, it would have been pleasant to be able to sit and watch it, but with no mention of such a lengthy film’s inclusion in the exhibition blurb (such that I might have allotted extra time for my visit), nor the provision of any seating, this was not an option. Instead, I breezed through this wasted space, keeping the images of Elizabeth, Jane and Gabriel’s other loves burning brightly in my mind’s eye.

1. I shall use the same convention of forenames to distinguish the siblings (and, for consistency, anyone else) as the exhibition curators and catalogue editors.
2. The Rossettis: Dreaming with Eyes Open by Carol Jacobi, in The Rossettis, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2023, page 16.
3. Revolutionaries: The Rossettis and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood by Elizabeth Prettejohn, in The Rossettis, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2023, page 73.
4. Dante Gabriel and Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti: The Artistic Partnership by Glenda Youde, in The Rossettis, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2023, page 116.
5. The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited by William E Fredeman, 10 volumes, 2002-15, volume 3, page 272, cited in Sensitivity and Possibility: Reading Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Beloved Through Fiction by Chiedza Mhondoro, in The Rossettis, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2023, page 172.
6. A Cultural History of Hair in the Age of Empire, edited by Sarah Heaton, 2019, volume 5, cited in Troubling Women: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Portrayals of Modern Beauty by Margaretta Frederick, in The Rossettis, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2023, page 186.
7. Troubling Women: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Portrayals of Modern Beauty by Margaretta Frederick, in The Rossettis, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2023, page 172.

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