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
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.
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
~Related Web sites for this Feature~ ~top~
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.