“The young Rossetti was encouraged by his cosmopolitan parents to use his vivid imagination to develop his passionate interests of drawing and writing. All his life Rossetti was torn between his twin loves of poetry and painting – to such an extent that he regarded the two disciplines as inseparable. Arguably, with his facility and interest in both disciplines, he did himself a disservice as he never dedicated himself to either pursuit sufficiently to become a true master. In his youth he spent hours in the British Museum Reading Room soaking up as much literature as he could, to the detriment of his painting. Because of this he never developed the facility and ability of technique that would have helped him to become one of the really great painters; however he did become widely-read in German, French, and Italian.
“Rossetti took the inspiration for his drawings from stories by his favorite authors, notably Shakespeare, Coleridge, Poe, Goethe, and, in particular, his chief obsession, Dante, with whom he felt a close affinity. Indeed he frequently annotated his paintings usually on the frame – with poems and texts to explain and develop the pictorial narrative and often in particular explaining the elaborate symbolism. For example, for his first real P.R.B. painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, which he painted in Holman Hunt’s studio (at the same time as Hunt was painting Rienzi), he wrote two explanatory sonnets on the frame describing the meaning of the dove, the lamp, the rose, and the vine and his use of the symbolism of color: gold for charity, blue for faith, green for hope, and white for temperance.
“Despite his lessons at the R.A., Rossetti never really got to grips with oil painting, and, discouraged by the academic teaching, he dropped out of the school and went instead to study under Ford Madox Brown who had distinct European leanings in his work. Rossetti had been swept away by his colorful, but naturalistic interpretations of stories, and his medieval-like pictures from stories by some of the great authors of English literature, all done in a Nazarene style. Rossetti met Brown after writing him such a flattering letter that the latter thought that he was just making fun of him and went round to remonstrate with the young man armed with a big stick. However, an initially distressed Rossetti managed to convince the skeptical Brown that he was indeed sincere in his praise and then, deeply flattered, Brown agreed to give him free painting lessons. These consisted of academic studies of bottles, jars, and phials of paint. Rossetti, restless as ever, was quickly bored and after a few months turned to his new friends, Holman Hunt and Millais, for advice and encouragement.
“In common with the other Pre-Raphaelites, Rossetti met some critical hostility – although none of the vilification fired at his friends – for his early paintings. By 1850 he decided to try a work altogether more ambitious and much bigger physically. The first subject he chose was inspired by his contemporary, the poet Browning, but nothing came of it; he tried again with a picture of Dante and Beatrice, but he also abandoned this effort and had nothing to show at the R.A. exhibition of 1851. All this was symptomatic of a greater problem and after 1850 he gave up exhibiting in public; he had always been the least productive of the triumvirate, partly due to his lack of skill with oil paints but rather more to do with his chronic inability to actually get around to finishing a painting before getting distracted by another subject.
“He worked painfully slowly, taking enormous amounts of time to get just the tiniest detail true to life. Ruskin, recognising his failings, tried encouraging him actually to finish a painting, but to little avail. Instead he turned much of his time and attention to writing poems and producing drawings – his favourite medium -and watercolors largely inspired by his readings. All the while he was progressing further and further away from Pre-Raphaelite modernism until he gave up contemporary subjects altogether and concentrated instead on old stories and legends. He also developed his own unique approach to using watercolors which, in essence, involved applying intricate layers of hatched and stippled color with a dryish brush, to produce a finished work that was not unlike art glass in effect.
“Rossetti’s themes often revolved around women, who, he believed, held the mystery of existence within themselves. He saw them as magical beings, shrouded in secrets and sensuality and he frequently explored the themes of female virtue, beauty, and passion until he excluded all other subjects completely. Such women he set into stories mainly from Dante, the Bible, and in particular, Morte d’Arthur.
“Around 1853 Rossetti met and fell in love with Elizabeth Siddal, and for a period she obsessed him. Her face recurs again and again in his work, particularly in his richly detailed watercolors. They became engaged but Rossetti, ever the romantic, fell in love again, this time in Oxford in 1857, with the stunningly beautiful Jane Burden, then only 17 years old. She modelled for La Pia de’ Tolomei and Rossetti, despite his best endeavors, found himself helplessly drawn to her. She did not return his feelings and married William Morris instead. Rossetti loved her from a distance for the rest of his life and painted her likeness again and again in his later years. Jane, more even than Lizzie, became the archetypal Pre-Raphaelite beauty, with her strong sensual face and masses of long flowing hair. They remained good and close friends long after her love for William Morris evaporated (and his for her).
“After trying his hand at illustration using woodcuts – to varying degrees of success – Rossetti turned again to exploring Arthurian subjects. He made a scant living out of selling small, jewel-like watercolors to a select group of collectors, among whom Ruskin was one of the most important. He also painted a series of watercolors which were bought by William Morris as he finished them. Still these Arthurian/medieval courtly romance subjects galvanized him most and these culminated in a commission to decorate the Oxford Union Building in 1857. Needing someone to pose for Mary Magdelene, he hunted around trying a number of models, the most significant of which was Fanny Carnforth, a vivacious Londoner, who became in succession (probably) his model, mistress, and housekeeper. The work entailed in the Union Building was too much for a single artist to complete alone, so Rossetti recruited a group of young friends to help. They did not give themselves a name, but history has dubbed them the second wave of Pre-Raphaelites.
“Now working in Oxford, his love for Lizzie faded but he still married her in 1860 although she was known to be dying. Neither of them had much money and he neglected her, preferring instead to dally with other women. Her health deteriorated and she died tragically young, two years later, by her own hand with laudanum, although the official verdict was accidental death. Deeply saddened but perhaps secretly relieved, Rossetti got on with his own life, first moving from their marital home, which contained too many memories, to Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. He appears to come to terms with his feelings for Lizzie in 1864-70 while he painted Beata Beatrix, ostensibly about Dante and Beatrix, but really about Lizzie. True to form, the painting is full of symbolism: the red dove is an emblem of death, while the sundial is pointing at the hour of nine, the time of her death; the poppy ‘in her hands is the clearest indication of all, bringing as it does the sleep of death, in her case the opiate laudanum.
“With the move to Chelsea, Rossetti changed other aspects of his life. He stopped writing poetry – he had thrown the manuscripts of his poems into Lizzie’s grave – and gave up painting Arthurian subjects. Most importantly, he stopped seeing John Ruskin who had done so much to support him, especially in the difficult early years. The human company he kept was no longer excitingly bohemian but outright disreputable.
“He also developed a strange fascination for animals which he started collecting in alarming numbers: wombats were a particular favorite, but he also had owls, woodchucks, parrots, peacocks, dormice, rabbits, kangaroos, wallabies, even a racoon, salamanders, lizards, a jackass and, last but not least, a Brahmin bull.
“By this time Rossetti had given up all pretence of painting modern morality subjects and instead devoted himself to painting images of women in all their beauty. The compositions he put them in invariably conveyed his own personal state of mind and emotions. In the early days of his infatuation with Lizzie, his pictures of women conveyed innocence and virginal simplicity; in time these became much richer and more sensual as their relationship became physical. Later still, as his love for her faded, the paintings convey disenchantment and disappointment, of lost promises, wishing and hoping for the unattainable. The passage of time becomes a progressively important theme: everything is measured in time and man’s slow passage through life to inevitable death.
“Inevitably Rossetti lost his good looks, becoming fat and balding. He drank altogether too much and indulged in drugs. His overriding fear became that he would lose his sight, as his father had before him – this reckless abuse of his body left him sleepless and morbid, and his doctors diagnosed strain and nervous tension. To prevent insomnia he drank whisky before taking 10 grains of chloral; by the time he died he boasted he was taking 180 grains a day.
“A public attack on him in 1871 in an infamous pamphlet entitled The Fleshy School of Poetry confirmed his hitherto paranoid view that everyone was out to do him down. The following year he was so deeply depressed that he tried suicide, with laudanum. The attempt failed but his health never recovered. He went from bad to worse until he was partially paralysed by the lethal cocktail of morphia, laudanum, and chloral he kept taking, plus the whisky, claret, and brandy he drank to excess. He became a virtual recluse but throughout this time he still communicated by letter to a few select friends none of whom realized the desperate state of his health – most notably Ford Madox Brown and Jane Morris, until he died 10 years later.”
From: “The Pre-Raphaelites”, by Sandra Forty