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Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) is probably best known as an artist with an incredibly tangled love-life, often splashed all over his canvases. However, the women who appeared in his paintings were much more than just pretty faces; they were women of talent, spirit and intelligence whose lives and careers showed how resourceful and enterprising they really were.
Artists featured in this Curation: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
19 artworks
  • Christina Rossetti and Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti

    When Rossetti sought models for his art, he started at home. In some of his earliest paintings, he used his sister Christina as the model and she was very much involved with the early life of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. However, she declined an invitation to join them, too modest to be named as one of the band. From the start for Rossetti, his sisters Christina and Maria, and his mother Frances were all powerful influences on Rossetti in both his art and his poetry.

    Christina Rossetti and Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti, née Polidori 1877
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    National Portrait Gallery, London
    Christina Rossetti and Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti, née Polidori
    Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

  • Ecce Ancilla Domini!

    Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) posed for her brother in two paintings as the Virgin Mary. Here, she is cowering in her room as the angel visits to bring her the news that she will have a baby. The room seems cramped and the angel is a threatening presence.

    Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) 1849–50
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Tate
    Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation)
    Photo credit: Tate

  • The Girlhood of Mary Virgin

    Christina, posed with her mother, depicts the Virgin Mary in a painting rich with symbolism. There are palms and thorns on the floor, foreshadowing Christ's last week and the pile of books symbolise faith, hope and charity. Christina, who was deeply religious, wrote poems that reflected her faith, some of which became popular carols, such as 'In the Bleak Midwinter' (1872) and 'Love Came Down at Christmas' (1885).

    The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848–9
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Tate
    The Girlhood of Mary Virgin
    Photo credit: Tate

  • Christina Rossetti

    The best known and most controversial of Christina's poems was 'Goblin Market' (1862), a story of sisters Laura and Lizzie and their encounter with the forbidden goblin fruit, which has been interpreted in many ways from religious to sexual and even drug abuse. The poem has been illustrated by artists including her brother, Arthur Rackham and Florence Harrison. In 1973 Playboy magazine published illustrations by Kinuko Craft of a more modern take on the poem.

    Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) c.1866
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    The Fitzwilliam Museum
    Christina Rossetti (1830–1894)
    Photo credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum

  • Beata Beatrix

    Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862), or Siddall, which was the original spelling of her name, entered the Pre-Raphaelite circle as a model for Walter Deverill after being seen working in a hat shop. Her most famous role, the one that would influence how she was seen by biographers for the last 150 years, was as the drowning 'Ophelia' in John Everett Millais's 1851-2 painting. Her death by overdose in 1862 draws many historians to assume that she was suicidal, mad and doomed, like the role she played. Rossetti's art fed into this myth, in a posthumous portrayal as Dante's love, Beatrice, beautiful at her moment of death.

    Beata Beatrix c.1864–70
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Tate
    Beata Beatrix
    Photo credit: Tate

  • Elizabeth Siddal Reading

    The perceived soap opera of Rossetti and Elizabeth's domestic life is the stuff of much fiction and at least three BBC dramas. All the excitement of his adultery and her alleged suicide overshadows her talent as both a poet and a painter that saw her exhibited both in England and America, and won her the patronage of John Ruskin. Unfortunately, what most people remember is that Rossetti had her coffin opened a few years after her death in order to retrieve the poetry manuscript he had dedicated to her. More happily, in the last few years, Elizabeth has moved from the shadow of biography to be more fully appreciated, with the publication of a collection of her poetry and the National Portrait Gallery's 'Pre-Raphaelite Sisters' exhibition.

    Elizabeth Siddal Reading 1854
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    The Fitzwilliam Museum
    Elizabeth Siddal Reading
    Photo credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum

  • Fair Rosamund

    Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) began life as Sarah Cox, blacksmith's daughter from Sussex. After the death of the majority of her siblings and her mother, she travelled to London to stay with her aunt as a treat and whilst there was discovered by Rossetti. Legend has it that he crept up behind her and pulled the pins from her hair. When she confronted him, he invited her to model for a painting of a country girl who had become a prostitute. She agreed and adopted the professional name 'Fanny', possibly after her youngest sister.

    Fair Rosamund 1861
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales
    Fair Rosamund
    Photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

  • Fazio's Mistress

    Whilst not technically a prostitute (despite a story spread by painter William Bell Scott that Fanny was a prostitute who cracked nuts between her teeth), it is true that Fanny allowed Rossetti and his friend, fellow painter George Price Boyce to keep her in lodgings in Soho. She became Rossetti's mistress while Elizabeth Siddal was away, posing for many of Rossetti's first oil paintings of glamorous female subjects, such as 'Bocca Baciata' (1859). After Elizabeth's death, Fanny moved in with Rossetti, first as his lover and later as his carer as his health and mental wellbeing deteriorated.

    Aurelia (Fazio's Mistress) 1863–1873
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Tate
    Aurelia (Fazio's Mistress)
    Photo credit: Tate

  • The Blue Bower

    Fanny was Rossetti's primary model between 1862 and 1865, after which his patrons requested a different look in his paintings. Many writers assume that Fanny became too fat and unattractive for Rossetti to painting but this is untrue. His nickname for her was 'Elephant', but Fanny had been called this from the early years of their relationship. The nickname is linked to the area they lived near - Elephant and Castle. Also, Rossetti continued to make drawings of Fanny until the 1870s, even though his oils focused on Alexa Wilding and Jane Morris. Fanny's love for Rossetti found her alone in old age and she died in Graylingwell Asylum, Sussex, in 1909.

    The Blue Bower 1865
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    The Barber Institute of Fine Arts
    The Blue Bower
    Photo credit: The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

  • Louisa Ruth Herbert

    Louisa Ruth Herbert (1831-1921) was better known as the actress 'Ruth Herbert' who made the role of Lady Audley from the play of 'Lady Audley's Secret' her own. The daughter of a brass founder from Bristol, Ruth moved as a child to London, and her tall striking appearance helped her get her first stage role at 16 years old. As her reputation on the stage grew, she was much in demand as an artist's model among the Pre-Raphaelite artists, who vied for her attention. All this was a side-show for Ruth who was assumed the management of the St James Theatre where she took on a young actor, Henry Irving, to be her assistant. She celebrated her career as an actress and manager in her cookery book 'The St James Cookbook' (1894).

    Louisa Ruth Herbert (1831–1921) 1858–1859
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives
    Louisa Ruth Herbert (1831–1921)
    Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

  • The Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris)

    Jane Burden (1839-1914) was a tall, awkward young woman with a halo of frizzy dark hair and olive skin. Her father was a stablehand in Oxford and it was assumed that Jane would work as a seamstress, until one night Jane was spotted by Rossetti in a local theatre. He and a band of his friends were in Oxford to paint a mural at the university and Rossetti declared her to be the perfect model. While she posed for the young artists, Rossetti romanced Jane, but he left abruptly. William Morris, a shy designer and acolyte of Rossetti's offered himself as an alternative suitor and Jane accepted.

    Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris) 1868
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Society of Antiquaries of London
    Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris)
    Photo credit: Society of Antiquaries of London

  • Study of Mrs William Morris

    Jane took the opportunity of her marriage to elevate her skills as an embroiderer into an art form, creating beautiful Pre-Raphaelite pieces, as well as designing her own 'look' in long billowing silk gowns. After the birth of her two daughters, May and Jenny, Jane became involved once more with Rossetti. His relationship with her turned into obsession, a reflection of his own troubled mental state. He repeatedly drew and painted her from 1865 until his death, even though their love affair fizzled out in the early 1870s.

    Study of Mrs William Morris c.1873
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    The Fitzwilliam Museum
    Study of Mrs William Morris
    Photo credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum

  • Astarte Syriaca

    Jane Morris, through Rossetti's eyes, is an imposing goddess who dominates his vision. In real life, Jane was a modest, intelligent woman who wrote publicly in defense of a seamstress who had been sued by an unfair employer. In later life, she posed for artist Evelyn De Morgan in her 1904-5 painting 'The Hourglass'. Just before her death in 1914, Jane purchased Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds for May and Jenny.

    Astarte Syriaca 1877
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Manchester Art Gallery
    Astarte Syriaca
    Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery

  • Venus Verticordia

    By 1865, Rossetti was finding it difficult to sell his canvases that featured his mistress, Fanny Cornforth. His patrons at the time wanted another model, someone less fleshly and sensuous. Rossetti found the solution when he met Alice Wilding (1847-1884), a seamstress, who he employed to be his exclusive model. He scrapped the faces out of his pictures 'Lady Lilith' and 'Venus Verticordia' and painted in the icy beauty of Miss Wilding, who adopted the glamorous name 'Alexa' as she apparently had aspirations to be an actress.

    Venus Verticordia 1864–1868
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum
    Venus Verticordia
    Photo credit: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

  • Regina Cordium

    Alexa Wilding remains one of the more mysterious of Rossetti's models. She appears constantly in his art from 1865 until his death in 1882 but apparently did not have a romantic relationship with him. She was employed as a model, yet could afford a grand house in Kensington. She never married but had three children. She died only two years after Rossetti, aged only 37 years old.

    Regina Cordium 1866
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Glasgow Museums
    Regina Cordium
    Photo credit: Glasgow Museums

  • Sibylla Palmifera

    Alexa's beauty enabled Rossetti to paint very commercial works that were popular with his patrons. She often portrayed stoic or melancholic women in lush gowns and jewellery. In 'Sibylla Palmifera', Alexa holds a palm, referenced in the title, hinting at spirituality. In the background are roses and poppies and a skull, which speak of love and death.

    Sibylla palmifera 1865–1870
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Lady Lever Art Gallery
    Sibylla palmifera
    Photo credit: Lady Lever Art Gallery

  • La Ghirlandata

    'La Ghirlandata', or the 'Garlanded Lady', shows a woman who blooms like a flower among the deep green foliage. Alexa, as the Lady, is flanked by a double portrait of May Morris who appears as both angels at the top of the canvas. Alexa travelled to Rossetti's summer home, Kelmscott Manor, which he shared with the Morris family, in order to pose for the artist.

    La ghirlandata 1873
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    City of London Corporation
    La ghirlandata
    Photo credit: City of London Corporation

  • Study for Washing Hands

    Ellen Smith (1844-1889) had a short lived career as a model that came to a violent end. She was working as a waitress when Rossetti approached her in 1863. Being small and dark haired, she provided a contrast to his model at that time, Fanny Cornforth. Her beauty led to her being much in demand from many artists. She suffered from rheumatism and so modelling meant that she could work without as much physical strain. Her career was cut short by an attack by a man from her neighbourhood, who slashed her face so she could not model. However, she had saved enough to open a laundry and many of the artists became her customers.

    Study for 'Washing Hands' 1865
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    The Fitzwilliam Museum
    Study for 'Washing Hands'
    Photo credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum

  • The Beloved

    For Rossetti, there was no more inspiring sight than a beautiful woman. In 'The Beloved' (or 'The Bride'), he presents a bevy of beauties including Alexa Wilding at the front and Ellen Smith on her left. Behind Alexa are Marie Ford (dates unknown) (back left) who was also sketched to be the bride in the piece, Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) (back right), a popular model who also appeared in the work of Simeon Solomon and John Everett Millais, and Keomi Gray (1849-1914), a Romany girl who posed mainly for her lover, Frederick Sandys.

    The Beloved ('The Bride') 1865–6
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
    Tate
    The Beloved ('The Bride')
    Photo credit: Tate