In 1849 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the 21-year-old poet-artist and founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, met a milliner’s assistant named Elizabeth Siddal. She was the daughter of a cutlery maker and had artistic aspirations. He was from a highly cultured Anglo-Italian family – his father was a Dante scholar, one of his mother’s brothers was John William Polidori, Lord Byron’s doctor and author of the first vampire story. By 1852 Siddal had become Rossetti’s pupil, lover and primary model and he was possessive enough to stop her sitting for other painters in the Pre-Raphaelite circle. There was a degree of transmutation in the relationship, too: at times Lizzie was more than flesh and blood, personifying his idea of perfect womanhood that justified a love that transgressed social station.
That sort of veneration is inherently fragile and although the pair married in 1860 their liaison was far from tranquil. He painted and drew her obsessively but he also feared his parents’ disapproval and refused to introduce Lizzie to them. She was afflicted with depression, addicted to laudanum and so physically weak that she had to be carried to the church for the wedding. A stillborn daughter accelerated her decline and in 1862 she died from a laudanum overdose, perhaps intentionally. Rossetti was prostrated by guilt and grief.
Nevertheless, six years earlier, in 1856, Rossetti had met Sarah Cox – later Fanny Cornforth – a domestic servant and daughter of a blacksmith. She too became his model, mistress – and consolation. After Siddal’s death she moved in with Rossetti, with the courtesy title of housekeeper. His many pictures of her show a more frankly fleshy and erotic figure than the more sublimated Siddal. Cornforth remained with him until his death in 1882.
And in 1857, Rossetti had met Jane Burden, the daughter of a stableman and laundress, who would shortly marry his friend William Morris. By the early 1870s, however, she and Rossetti were lovers and Jane became the repository for the near mystical feelings he had once known with Siddal. Physically striking – with black hair, inky brows and pillowy lips – she was both another “stunner”, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s (PRB) term for their preferred type of model, and an object of poetic, star-crossed yearning.
The degree to which these three working-class women knew of Rossetti’s simultaneous relationships is unknown but he at least did not doubt the purity of his feelings for each. From 1859 his art changed from the medievalising that characterised his PRB works and he began to produce a series of paintings that amount to composite portraits in which he sought to depict the essence of his emotions for the women in his life.
The paintings are richly sensual fantasies, with the main figure luxuriantly dressed and often accompanied by symbol-rich flowers and fruit. The women, inspired by Titian and his Venetian peers, fill the frame. Some of the paintings were “double works of art”, being accompanied by a poem on the same theme, as he paired the written with the visual in his effort to give form to the beauty of the soul as manifested in the beauty of the body. In two of the works, Monna Vanna (1866) and Lady Lilith (1866-73), Rossetti changed the model in the course of painting. It didn’t matter whether the figure in front of him was Lizzie, Fanny, Jane or another favourite, Alexa Wilding, since he was not painting an individual but a dream and a highly personal ideal.
These pictures were also the subject of a poem by the other woman with a central role in Rossetti’s life, his sister Christina. As a teenager, Rossetti was torn as to whether to follow poetry or art but Christina’s metier was clear. And in “In an Artist’s Studio” she took a lightly critical approach to her brother’s obsession. “One face looks out from all his canvases,/One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans…” she wrote. “Every canvas means/The same one meaning, neither more or less./He feeds upon her face by day and night.” And in the closing lines she laid bare his motivation; the woman (or amalgamation) was painted: “Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;/Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.”
For all the folkloric picaresque of “Goblin Market”or the poignancy of her love (and grief) sonnets such as “Remember”, Christina existed more in the world than her brother. Her dreams were tempered by lived experience: she had helped care for her ailing father, and suffered herself from depression and poor health (she was to die of breast cancer at 64), and she saw further examples of female woe as a volunteer at a refuge for former prostitutes.
“The Rossettis” at Tate Britain is really about Dante Gabriel and Lizzie Siddal, since Christina’s art was the word not the image: “An artist may paint a lifelike picture,” she said, “but he cannot endow it with life like his own” – while poetry, however, could. The other Rossetti siblings, Maria, a writer and Anglican nun, and William Michael, critic and editor of the short-lived PRB journal The Germ, barely feature.
Christina’s verses dot some of the gallery walls and emerge from hidden speakers but she is most clearly present in the paintings Gabriel (he was christened Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti) made of her. She was the model for the young Virgin Mary in his first two oil paintings, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49) and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) (1849-50) – strange and uncomfortable pictures fulfilling the PRB’s remit of returning art to pre-Renaissance simplicity and heartfeltness. He also made illustrations to accompany her early verses.
The drawings Rossetti produced once he committed to art and trained first at Henry Sass’s drawing academy and then at the Royal Academy show a young man’s quest for a style. He looked for subjects in Goethe’s Faust and the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, in One Thousand and One Nights and folk ballads, and just occasionally in the life of the street. These youthful essays found more definitive form with the formation of the PRB in 1848, alongside John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, which granted him licence to explore a poetic medievalist.
[See also: An unmissable view of Vermeer’s secret worlds]
The PRB lasted only a few years but its influence was longer lived. Lizzie Siddal was enraptured by both its headiness and the charisma of its members. Rossetti, aged 20 at the time of the group’s foundation, knew how to present himself, wearing shabby evening clothes in the daytime, and exuded both intensity and swagger. When Lizzie daringly moved in with him they began to work together, creating personal fantasies from Arthurian legend, Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” or Rossetti’s own poem “Sister Helen”.
The exhibition suggests that Rossetti learned from Lizzie as much as the other way round but in truth it was a thin bargain: for all the potency of his vision, Rossetti was a limited artist and the untrained Siddal even more so. In recent years Siddal has been brought out of her supplementary role in the biographies of the male PRBs and framed as a proto-Gwen John figure, but her pictures suggest that to be an optimistic reading. The best works to emerge from the relationship were a suite of pencil drawings of Lizzie that Rossetti made in quiet domestic moments, in which he captured her reading, lounging, plaiting her hair or daydreaming. These, especially with the knowledge of her fate, have a simplicity and poignancy that is missing from their more willed work.
It is Rossetti’s most ambitious painting, Found, that demonstrates both his shortcomings and his desire to explore worlds other than the literary past. Inspired by William Bell Scott’s poem “Rosabell” (1838), it shows a “fallen” country girl, literally slumped on the ground, recognised by her rural sweetheart when he comes to town to sell a calf. He is trying to pull her to her feet to take her back to her prelapsarian life; she feels herself too far gone in sin and shame to comply.
It was painting that gave form to his and Christina’s shared sympathy for mistreated women (in Christina’s “Cousin Kate” (1860) a “cottage maiden” laments her seduction: “He wore me like a silken knot,/He changed me like a glove;/So now I moan, an unclean thing,/Who might have been a dove”) and he returned to the picture over the years. He first worked on it in 1854/55 and went back to it repeatedly between 1859 and 1881. Drawings for the figure of the girl show Fanny Cornforth’s features taking the place of the original model, Annie Miller (William Holman Hunt’s fiancée), the setting near Blackfriars Bridge (an area known for its sex workers) diligently studied and the composition and poses carefully worked out but nevertheless the painting remained unfinished.
Rossetti had no such trouble when he came to paint a fallen woman from myth, managing to produce multiple versions of Jane Morris as Proserpine (1874), the beautiful girl abducted and raped by the god of the underworld Hades, but something stopped him completing this modern iteration of the old tale. With a twist of malign fate, Lizzie, Fanny and Jane could all have found themselves in Cousin Kate’s unenviable position. Rossetti’s friend and mentor Holman Hunt produced his own parallel modern morality tale, The Awakening Conscience (1853), but for some reason – a quirk of psychology perhaps – Rossetti’s progressive sympathies, unlike his sisters’, did not or could not make it into the harsh Victorian daylight.
If the PRB was a young man’s phase and social commentary an unsuitable place for his talents, the aesthetic movement, which he helped to foster, was Rossetti’s natural artistic home. It is easy to accuse him of escapism as he immersed himself in his “dreams of fair women” but it would not be fair: he believed that heady and seductive place to be real.
Tate Britain, London SW1, until 24 September
[See also: Raphael, the painter of perfection]
This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age