A Vision of Fiammetta Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti Painting
As explained by the museum’s notes on the work, A Vision of Fiammetta portrays the subject of fourteenth-century Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio’s Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, the story of a tragic love affair. The central figure, Fiammetta, stands against a dark backdrop, draped in a loosely-flowing red garment, her elegant hands entwining tree limbs as a luminous glow encircles her head. The fiery red hue is repeated not only in Fiammetta’s garment and rosy lips but also as the dark ground is interrupted by a multitude of red and white apple blossoms and by the red cardinal which floats above Fiammetta’s head. Imbued with symbolism, the painting is meant to portray the brief moment between life and death: the short-lived apple blossoms symbolizing the transience of beauty, the blood-red bird a messenger of death, butterflies symbolizing the soul, and an angel seen in the aureole around Fiammetta’s head. As she faces this moment between life and death, Fiammetta betrays little emotion, exuding instead a mysterious, allusive air.
A Vision of Fiammetta Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti is well known as a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of avant-garde artists in late 1840s London that sought to restore art to the moral, religious and noble themes, lush colors and realistic style of early Italian art. In rebellion against the contemporary British academy, the Brotherhood strove for truth in the representation of nature and detail. Though he lacked technical training, Rossetti used his superb skills as a colorist to create richly toned works centered on Biblical subjects, Arthurian themes, and medieval lore. Later, Rossetti’s style shifted to focus on the female figure as he portrayed idealized, lavishly dressed women set against decorative backdrops.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born on May 12, 1828, in London. His father, who had fleed Italy, was a professor at King's College, and his mother was a teacher. Rossetti, therefore, received an excellent school education and had drawing instruction already as a young child. In 1842, he enrolled in the art school at Cary's Academy. This was regarded as a springboard to the Royal Academy.
He was accepted to the Royal Academy four years later. Because the instruction there did not meet his expectations, he asked the painter Ford Madox Brown to be his teacher. Brown also fell back on the conventional academic teaching methods, and so Dante Gabriel Rossetti distanced himself from Brown as a teacher, though they remained friends. In the beginning, he was undecided as to whether he should dedicate himself to painting or poetry, but through the influence of his friends William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, he decided for painting. They shared an opinion on the sad state of British art and named themselves thereafter the "Preraffaelites," in order to programmatically distance themselves from the reigning trend in painting to imitate Raffael. Under the acronym PRB, they founded the "Preraffaelite Brotherhood" with four other friends, including Rossetti's brother. The resulting works excited much enthusiasm, but after the press learned about the programmatic background of the group, vehement criticism followed, which sent Dante Gabriel Rossetti into a depression. The PRB began to dissolve in 1852.
In 1858 in cooperative work with other young artists, he painted the assembly hall of the Oxford University Union with scenes from the legend of King Arthur. Rossetti gave up oil painting after 1860 and thereafter worked mainly with watercolors in small format, which sold well thanks to the sympathetic art critic John Riskin, whom he had met in 1854. In 1860, he married his long-time (since 1850) model Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal. This feminine ideal of the Preraffaelites was Rossetti's muse and source of inspiration until her suicide in 1862. In that year, he moved to Chelsea. Between 1871 and 1874, he lived and worked at the country home of his close friend William Morris, with whose wife he had an affair. He is considered one of the most unconventional painters of the 19th century. Through his methods, he distinguished himself from the Preraffaelite movement; he showed no interest in the exact representation of details, avoided complicated backgrounds, and tended away from landscapes. He, therefore, chose primarily mythological or literary motives, though with no narrative moment. In 1872, he suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Dante Gabriel Rossetti died on April 9, 1881, while vacationing in Birchington-on-Sea near Kent, after many years of drug consumption.
In 1881 Rossetti sold one of his largest and best paintings, Dante's Dream, to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Although his volumes of Poems and Ballads and Sonnets (1881) were quietly but favorably received, he had entered a final pattern of depressive ill health. A sudden decline in February 1882 caused him to move to Birchington, where he revised the comic poem Jan Van Hunks, was visited by his mother, William, and Christina, and died of blood poisoning from uric acid on 9 April 1882. At his death, he left behind the almost completed “Joan of Arc” and “Salutation of Beatrice.”
Many of Rossetti's self-estimated were accurate. Had he been able when young to choose a literary career, he would probably have been a better poet than a painter; he was a genuinely original and skillful writer. In part, his achievement was vicarious: he galvanized others in many ways not easily measured. However, insecurity and self-reproach manifested themselves in all but his earliest poems. Rossetti was haunted by a (perhaps partially accurate) private assessment of his weaknesses as a painter and obsessed with Jane Morris as a model. Yet he was perhaps right that his intense response to such private archetypes was the chief distinction of his work. But it would be wrong to sentimentalize Rossetti as a victim of “tragic loves.” It seemed to serve some inner purpose for Rossetti to idealize women who were withdrawn, invalid, and/or melancholic. Their genuine alienation seems to have provided some counterpart for an inner sense of inadequacy and isolation in him. In some way, he seemed to need serious emotional attachments with women poised on the edge of withdrawal. In any case, a sense of this equilibration heightened the effects both of his paintings and of his poetry.
Critics have differed in assessing the quality of Rossetti's poetic achievement and in their preferences for different periods of his work. However, it is difficult to date Rossetti's work or divides it into periods, since he continually revised poems begun as a young man. The texts to many early poems—” The Blessed Damozel,” “Sister Helen,” “The Burden of Nineveh,” “The Portrait,” “Jenny,” “Dante at Verona,” and several of the sonnets—gradually became near-palimpsests. Though concerned with many of the same themes over the course of his career—idealized, fleeting love and disappointment—in Rossetti's middle and later poetry, sexual love became a near-desperate desire to transcend time. Passion's benefit is not pleasure or mutual relaxation but a poignant hope that one moment may endure. This shift brought radical changes in themes and style and makes it somewhat difficult to compare Rossetti's achievement with that of other Victorian poets. For its modest size, Rossetti's poetic work is wide in manner and subject. He was a talented experimenter, and his heightened rhythms and refrains influenced other mid-and late-century poetry. He was also an important popularizer of Italian poetry in England and a major practitioner of the sonnet. His erotic spiritually and gift for the dramatic were his own, and poets from Swinburne to Wilde benefited from the liberating influence of his example. Rossetti's attempt to create a unified oeuvre of poetry and painting was also pioneering and extended conceptions of both arts. Rossetti also had an indirect influence on the literature of the Decadence. He conceived the idea of the Germ, the first little magazine of literature and art, and with Brown, Morris, Burne-Jones, and Webb helped cofound the movement to extend the range of decorative art and improve the quality of book design.
It would be difficult to imagine later nineteenth-century Victorian poetry and art without Rossetti's influence. His writings can perhaps best be viewed as an unusually acute expression of Victorian social uncertainty and loss of faith. Rossetti's poetry on the absence of love is as bleakly despairing as any of the century, and no poet of his period conveyed more profoundly certain central Victorian anxieties: metaphysical uncertainty, sexual anxiety, and fear of time.
In 1848, as revolutions swept continental Europe and an uprising for social reform known as Chartism unsettled Britain, seven rebellious young artists in London formed a secret society with the aim of creating new British art. They called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the name, whose precise origin is contested, nevertheless indicates the chief source of their inspiration. Disenchanted with contemporary academic painting—most of them were colleagues at the Royal Academy of Art and famously disparaged the Academy’s founding president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), as “Sir Sloshua”—the Brotherhood instead emulated the art of late medieval and early Renaissance Europe until the time of Raphael, an art characterized by minute description of detail, a luminous palette of bright colors that recall the tempera paint used by medieval artists, and subject matter of a noble, religious, or moralizing nature. In mid-nineteenth-century England, a period marked by political upheaval, mass industrialization, and social ills, the Brotherhood at its inception strove to transmit a message of artistic renewal and moral reform by imbuing their art with seriousness, sincerity, and truth to nature.
At London’s Royal Academy and Free Exhibition shows of 1849, several paintings were exhibited with the cryptic initials “P.R.B.” along with the artists’ signatures; among these were Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions (private collection) by William Holman Hunt (1827–1910), Isabella (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) by John Everett Millais (1829–1896), and The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (Tate, London) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882). These canvases, though diverse in subject, embodied the Brotherhood’s initial aims in their keen observation of the natural world and depiction of subjects that lead the viewer to contemplate moral issues of justice, piety, familial relationships, and the struggle of purity against corruption.
Hunt’s work illustrates a passage from a popular Victorian novel, set in fourteenth-century Rome, by Bulwer-Lytton, and is characterized by a careful description of the outdoor setting. Millais’ Isabella is based on John Keats’ retelling of a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron; the artist re-creates in sumptuous detail the tastes and textures of a medieval banquet, from the creased tablecloth strewn with nutshells to guests at the grandly arrayed gathering. In his portrayal of the life of the Virgin, Rossetti employs an archaizing style and symbolic elements associated with early Renaissance painting: the lily, representing purity, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the cruciform trellis. Other founding members of the Brotherhood—James Collinson (1825–1881; he resigned after converting to Catholicism in 1850), William Michael Rossetti (1829–1919), Frederic George Stephens (1827–1907), and the sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825–1892)—exhibited less frequently than its three prolific leading members.
The works of the Pre-Raphaelites met with critical opposition to their pietism, archaizing compositions, intensely sharp focus—which, with an absence of shadows, flattened the depicted forms—and the stark coloration they achieved by painting on a wet white ground. They had, however, several important champions. Foremost among them was the writer John Ruskin (1819–1900), an ardent supporter of painting from nature and a leading exponent of the Gothic Revival in England. Ruskin particularly admired the Pre-Raphaelites’ significant innovations to English landscape painting: their dedication to working en plein air, strict botanical accuracy, and minute detail. Though he did not initially admire the Brotherhood’s aims, he later wrote that they “may, as they gain experience, lay in our England the foundation of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for three hundred years.” Experience, in fact, served less to unify the Brotherhood and promote its founding ideals than to foster individual identities and styles. By the early 1850s, the Brotherhood dissolved, though several of the artists remained close friends and collaborators for the rest of their careers. In 1854, Hunt left for a two-year sojourn in the Near East, where he broadened his painting style while upholding the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of Christian subject matter in works such as The Scapegoat (1854–55; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight).
In 1853, Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) and William Morris (1834–1896)—two divinity students beginning their studies at Exeter College, Oxford—forged a friendship rooted in common interests: theology, art, and medieval literature. Two years later, they decided to pursue careers in art; mentored by Rossetti, whom they met at Oxford in 1856, they became the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites. While Rossetti and Burne-Jones retained the saturated palette and exhaustive detail of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the focus of their work shifted. With subjects taken from poetry and medieval legends—such as the tales of King Arthur and the Divine Comedy of Dante—they presented an aesthetic of beauty for its own sake, and, with other artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, popularized the Aesthetic movement in the 1860s. Rossetti’s Lady Lilith of 1867 (08.162.1) originally bore a label admonishing the young male viewer not to be ensnared by the beauty of the Faustian enchantress, but the figure, with her revealing dress, languid posture, and long red hair, is rendered with a sensuality that subverts the label’s warning. Burne-Jones treated a number of allegorical and legendary themes, such as The Love Song (47.26) and The Wheel of Fortune (1883; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), and often focused, as did Rossetti, on portrayals of female vice and virtue.
As their works became more decorative, the Pre-Raphaelites were increasingly interested in the decorative arts. In 1861, Burne-Jones and Rossetti joined Morris’ new design firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (reorganized as Morris & Company in 1875), producing murals, stained glass, furniture, textiles, jewelry, and wall coverings inspired by botanical motifs. The firm responded to the rift between fine and applied arts caused by the Industrial Revolution and mass production by reviving the workshop practices of medieval Europe, considered a paragon of spirituality and artistic integrity. By the mid-1880s, a movement to unify the arts, known as Arts and Crafts, took root in England and by century’s end was flourishing throughout the British Isles.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti Quotes
- I have been here before, But when or how I cannot tell: I know the grass beyond the door, The sweet keen smell, The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
- Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell.
- The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.
- A Sonnet is a moment's monument,— Memorial from the Soul's eternity To one dead deathless hour.
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