On this day in 1882: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

9th April 2018

The wonderful Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti died on this day in 1882. Born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, he was a British poet, illustrator, painter and translator.

It was in 1848 that he, along with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, one of the most influential movement of it’s day – indeed it’s influence can still  be seen in art today. In the second generation of artists that joined the Brotherhood, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, it was Rossetti who was their main inspiration with their art and who attracted them to the Pre-Raphealites.

Like his sibling, Christina Rossetti, he aspired to be a poet and he went to King’s College School in London and also had a dream of becoming a painter. Studying at Henry Sass’ Drawing Academy from 1841 to 1845 he also enrolled in the Antique School of the Royal Academy, leaving in 1848. After this, he studied under Ford Madox Brown – who he had a close friendship with all throughout his life. 

The Brotherhood’s early doctrines, defined by William Micheal Rossetti (Dante’s brother) were summarised by four declarations:

  1. to have genuine ideas to express;
  1. to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
  2. to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and
  1. most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.


In Rossetti’s eccentric menagerie he had kangaroos, wallabies, armadillos, a racoon and larger animals such as a zebu, he was even discussing an African elephant with Charles Jamrach (a leading dealer in wildlife, birds and shells in 19th century London.) Whilst now this seems crazy for a garden in Chelsea, it wasn’t uncommon for those in high society to own their own menagerie.

When his own wombat arrived, he described it as a “a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness” in a letter to his brother. He named the wombat Top, named after Morris’s nickname ‘Topsy.’ Morris acquired this nickname after a character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin due to his nervous disposition and wild temper which when enraged could lead to seizures and blackouts. Rossetti was well known in his taunting of Morris to amuse himself and their friends when he got angry and flew into a rage.

Top didn’t live a long life, only lasting in England a few months and dying in November 1869, following the Wombat’s death, Rossetti had him stuffed and displayed in the entrance to his house. His self portrait mourning the loss of Top is a famous piece of work of Rossetti’s.

Death of a Wombat” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
1869 November 6 (Public Domain)

Jane Morris came to the attention of Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites in 1857 when they wanted her to model for their art. She married 1859 she married William Morris, but shortly after began a long affair with Rossetti. Sharing a deep emotional attachment, Morris and Rossetti’s relationship was the source of many of Rossetti’s mid-to-late paintings, regarded by many as being among the best of his career. He thought her to be the ideal Pre-Raphaelite beauty and was by all accounts, madly in love with her.

He married Elizabeth Siddal in 1860, another Pre-Raphaelite model and one of his muses. He even banned anyone else from using her as their model in their art. She died from an overdose of laudanum in 1862, shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child. Heartbroken, Rossetti became increasingly depressed and buried many of his unpublished poems with her at Highgate Cemetery – though later ordering them to be dug up.

A man who held great influence with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who still today has an influence on writers and painters, Rossetti was enormously talented and was forward thinking and pioneering with his ideals. There was no shortage of eccentricities in his incredible life and we hugely recommend you having a more in depth read about his life – especially on his menagerie, it always captures our imagination that there was stores like Jamrach’s in the 19th Century!