Rossetti was born in London, the son of an Italian immigrant family, the poet Christina Rossetti was his sister. He decided to become an artist before he had any actual experience of painting. He enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools, but did not stay long. He then studied for a short time with Madox Brown, before transferring his allegiance to Holman Hunt. His friendship with Hunt & subsequent meeting with Millais was the major factor in the creation of the PRB.
During the late 1850s he took to painting in watercolours, in which he felt that his shortcomings of technique were less apparent. Many of his pictures at this time, concerned his lifelong fascination with Dante.
In the early 1850s he met Elizabeth Siddal, the model for Millais famous picture Ophelia. She became his lover, & after an on-off relationship he married her in 1860, when she was already very ill, probably with tuberculosis. Rossetti made many pencil drawings of Lizzie, which are extremely beautiful, & sensitive. In 1862, after the still birth of their child, Lizzie committed suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum. The grief-stricken Rossetti, had a manuscript version of his poems buried with his wife. In 1862 he produced the famous picture Beata Beatrix, nominally a Dantesque picture, but in reality a tribute to his dead wife, who was quite obviously the model for Beatrix. Following this trauma, he moved to a house in Cheyne Walk, where he lived for the most of the rest of his life. He lived in a curious fashion, with a menagerie of wild animals in his garden. His main companion was Fanny Cornforth, a basic cockney girl, & your archetypal “tart with a heart.” In the late 1860s, Rossetti had his wife's body exhumed, to recover his poems. From this unhappy, & bizarre event, the mental problems, which ultimately destroyed him, are most likely to have come.
Rossetti became increasingly obsessed with Jane Morris, nee Burden, the wife of his friend William Morris. For most of the last twenty years of his life, his pictures were of lone women, sumptuously coloured, in luxurious, but often claustrophobic surroundings. Most of these pictures had as their model, a stylised Jane Morris. In the 1870s Rossetti became addicted to chloral ( a narcotic), & alcohol, & Jane Morris broke with him, as he started to lose his reason. His health broken, he died at Birchington-on-Sea at Easter 1882. His younger brother, William Michael Rossetti 1829-1919 was an art critic, & the main chronicler of the life & times of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He married the daughter of Ford Madox Brown. OBITUARY - The Times, Wednesday April 12th 1882.
Mr Dante Gabriel Rossetti died on Monday at Birchington-on-Sea, near Margate, where he had been staying for some weeks for the improvement of his health. Mr Rossetti was born in London in May 1828, the son of Mr Gabriel Rossetti, the famous Italian poet, and Dante scholar, who had come to England as a refugee after the Neapolitan revolution in 1821. He showed artistic gifts at a very early age, and for a short time became a pupil of the Royal Academy. His first important picture was entitled ‘Mary’s Girlhood,’ with one exception the only work ever exhibited in London by the painter. Another early work a triptych called ‘The Soul of David,’ is in the Cathedral of Llandaff.
Mr Rossetti’s name became familiar to the public in connection with the so-called Pre-Raphaelite movement, a style of painting founded essentially upon the early Florentine school, in combination with a strict adherence to nature, and strongly opposed to the platitudes of academic art as practised in those days. The revival of medievalism initiated by such men as Mr Madox Brown in whose studio Mr Rossetti worked for some time, Mr Millais, Mr Holman Hunt, and later on Mr Burne-Jones, has exercised a profound influence on English art. The eccentricities of the school were treated with relentless ridicule by the critics, but the discussion thus raised tended in the end to attract public attention to subjects previously looked upon with indifference, and no amount of abuse was able to crush the fundamental principle of the new movement or the value of the artists, who, as they grew late to maturity, spontaneously abandoned their early mannerisms.
Mr Rossetti’s individual bias, his speciality, if the term may be used is traceable partly to his Italian origin, and partly to the associations of his youth. His father, as has already been said, was a lover of Dante, and his curious mystico-political explanation of ‘The Divine Commedia,’ still boasts some adherents, especially amongst French commentators. The worship of the great Italian poet was with Mr Rossetti hereditary, and from the ‘Divine Comedy,’ and the ‘Vita Nuova,’ some of his finest pictorial ideas were derived. The large picture of Dante’s vision of the dead Beatrice, recently purchased by the Liverpool Corporation, belongs to this class of subjects, and deserves, by its elaboration, and deep poetic import, to be classed among the artists finest works. Scarcely less beautiful, though less finished, is the early picture which represents the first meeting of the poet with the lady of his love.
Mr Rossetti may be broadly stated to be a colourist rather than a draughtsman. In the former aspect he was, perhaps, unrivalled, certainly unsurpassed by any living painter. There is in his best work a depth and subdued glow of colour which surround his figures with a glow of beauty, whatever the subject may happen to be. Apart from this Mr Rossetti had realised a very high type of female beauty, which, albeit somewhat monotonous, could never fail to rouse the admiration of those not satisfied with the prettiness and cleverness of conventional modern art. Such a picture as the ‘Prosperine,’ one of the artist’s latest works, although consisting only of a single figure, is instinct with all the pathos of antique legend, which would be fully understood without the beautiful Italian sunset which the artist has added by way of explanation. And this leads to the second side of Mr Rossetti’s genius, which in him was inseperable from his artistic gift.
He was as pictorial a poet as he was poetic painter. His first literary effort was inspired by Dante. It took the form of a collection of translations from the ‘Early Italian Poets,’ and was published in 1861, and re-issued under the title of ‘Dante and His Circle,’ in 1874. Both the spirit and the form of the originals are rendered with marvellous fidelity, the translators skill being shown in the prose portions of the ‘Vita Nuova,’ perhaps even more brilliantly in the sonnets. Mr Rossetti’s first volume of poems was published in 1870, and at once established his reputation. The pictorial beauty of ‘The Blessed Demozel,’ the dramatic force of ‘Sister Helen,’ a ballad of genuine popular ring, the deep pathos of ‘Jenny,’ and the profound symbolism of the sonnets, could not fail to impress all lovers of serious poetry, while the rythmical charm of the shorter lyrics was music in the ear.
In addition to this, the absolute originality of these effusions could not be contested by those who were familiar with the history of the Pre-Raphaelite or medieval movement in poetry. Mr Rossetti as we recently pointed out, was the originator of that movement, and his poems were read by the few long before the younger writers who preceded them in date of publication were thought of. That work of this class could not escape adverse criticism of a more or less reasonable kind might have been foreseen, and Mr Rossetti had his full share of both admiration and abuse. He was, and is still, held responsible for the excesses of imitators who have caught his manner without his spirit. Even the vulgarities and affectations of the so-called ‘aesthetes ,’ have been gravely cited against him-with what degree of justice students and readers of poetry may decide for themselves. It was, perhaps, partly owing to these misrepresentations that Mr Rossetti waited ten years before publishing a second volume of poems which in many respects evinced even greater and more fully matured powers than the first. Of this book entitled ‘Ballads and Sonnets,’ we have only recently spoken, and therefore need not return to it, beyond expressing an opinion that the two narrative poems ‘Rose Mary,’ and ‘A Kings Tragedy,’ the short lyric ‘Cloud Confines,’ and some of the sonnets are likely to take permanent rank with the best poetic work of our time.
Mr Rossetti’s death will be deeply felt by the admirers of his art and poetry, and by his personal friends. Although well-read and an excellent talker, he shrank from general society, and in his later years, when ill-health confined him to his house, his circle of acquaintances grew more and more limited. Only a few old friends used to frequent his studio in the quaint Elizabethan house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. As an artist he was very sensitive to criticism-favourable or unfavourable-and he seldom exhibited his pictures, although they were occasionally seen in public, chiefly in provincial towns. It is a curious fact that a painter should on this principle have achieved a reputation scarcely inferior to that of the most popular favourites of the day.
Source: Victorian Art in Britain