Dante Gabriel Rossetti: an Aesthetic Ascension
Category - Old Master
Written by Kellie A. Hanna

The blessed damozel leaned out
     From the gold bar of heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
    Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
    And the stars in her hair were seven
            --From The Blessed Damozel, 1846

I became enthralled with Rossetti about three years ago after taking a course in Aesthetics and Symbolist Literature in college. I was initially taken by his captivating figures and the ethereal settings of his paintings. After further study, I began to see more of his passion in his work, and it seemed to me that he spoke through his figures.

I find Rossetti to be an interesting personality, and one who stands out from his Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist brethren. While many of his paintings are obviously Pre-Raphaelite in thir religious and medieval tones, I feel that he set the course for the Symbolist movement in both the visual and literary arts, and maintains his own voice among the fold.

Brotherhood and Individualism

Rossetti founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. It was a group of young artists and writers; the most prominent members being John Everett Millais, William Holman, and of course, Rosetti himself. Their principal focus was the reform of English painting through the production of "'pure transcripts...from nature'" and "'a genuine need to express.'" They were inspired by the simple purity of the fifteenth century masters, and so are related to the Gothic Revival, which "had long been an important aspect of the Romantic movement."

Rossetti's first paintings as a Pre-Raphaelite, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (oil, 1849) and Ecce Ancilla Domini (oil, 1850) display a prominence of early religious influence and mysticism. Yet, he saw himself as "a reformer of aesthetic sensibility", and as the group split in order that each member develop his own personal style and manner of expression, Rossetti moved away from his Pre-Raphaelite manner and developed a more richly decorative painting style.

Early Talent

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in 1828 as the son of an Italian patriot who was exiled to England due to his political activities. Young Dante displayed extraordinary talent as both a painter and a poet; while his lively liberal London household held hot debates on controversial topics and political concerns, Rossetti focused on his art. His was an outwardly conservative Victorian society, and beauty--of form, color, and texture--provided for him a vision away from the world he knew.

He studied closely Keats' poetry and letters, and developed a view of art and life that was to become--many years later--the Aesthetic movement represented by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, and the American painter James McNeill Whistler, "who were to insist that art must exclusively be concerned with the beautiful, not with the useful or didactic."


Rossetti felt that "Color and meter...are the true patents of nobility in painting and poetry, taking precedence of all intellectual claims."

While his painting and poetry developed along with the stages of his life--namely his later personal tragedies and his own self-destructive nature--they are beautifully harmonized. He attempted, through both his writing and visual expressions, to elevate reality into an ethereal dream-like world, and sought to explore the relationship between the earthly and the spiritual in love. These interests are particularly prevelant in the the poems The Blessed Damozel (1846) and The House of Life (1870); and in paintings such as Astarte Syriaca(1877) and Beata Beatrix (1863) (both oils).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1848-49
oil on canvas

Tate Gallery in London

Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. Fourth ed.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.

Janson, Anthony F., ed. The History of Art. Third ed.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1986.

~Related Web sites for this Feature~       ~top~

membership | gallery | interact | resources | search | company

Copyright 1995/2002, Artwell. All rights reserved.
Artwell, Artwell.com, The Artesian Well, WebChat@TheWell, The Artist's Haven, Find your inspiration, and the elipse logo are all trademarks of Artwell Inc.