Part 2: Enter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the other PreRaphaelites

Self Portrait by Dane Gabriel Rossetti


As a follow-up to The Beginning of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood, which I blogged in May, I’m going on with the story of the friendship between seven artists who made up a secret society of artists in the Victorian era and whose lives were about as worthy of soap-opera as any could be.  Three of them are famous:  John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  In my first installment, I wrote about how Millais helped Hunt enter the Royal Academy and found they shared ideals about the future of painting which were subversive by Academy standards, and how they decided to assail the establishment with paintings modeled on nature and real-life people.  This installment will be about how the third most notable became acquainted with them and contributed his own unique vision.  These articles are drawn from letters I’ve written to my friend, Julie Good Kruger, so please forgive the way narrative jumps about.

Gabriel Rossetti came from a creative family.  There was an Italian revolutionary poet as father and a mother with both common (economic) sense and a good education.  These kept the family afloat in respectability and launched the children in creative endeavor.  Except for the repressive, puritanical authority hovering in the wings of Yorkshire, the Rossetti children of London remind one of the Brontes, in that the children, Maria, Gabriel, William and Christina ensemble created a world of their own and entertained each other by turning out poems, drawings, plays and journals as their chief form of play.  According to Gay Daly  (The PreRaphaelites in Love),“this fruitful collaboration never stopped; all their lives they encouraged, advised, edited, and read proof for each other, creating a network of mutual support that helps to explain the startling range of their achievements.”  It’s enviable.

Gabriel and William Rossetti began going to school away from home at age 9, while the girls were tutored.  The girls insisted on equaling their subject range, but the chief difference in their experience henceforth was probably the boy’s exposure to the environment of London.  A contemporary French visitor to London in the 1840s and 50s wrote:  “I recall the lanes which open off Oxford Street, stifling alleys thick with human effluvia, troops of pale children crouching on filthy staircases; the street benches at London Bridge where all night whole families huddle close, heads hanging, shaking with cold; above all I recall Haymarket and the Strand at evening, where you cannot walk a hundred yards without knocking into twenty streetwalkers: some of them ask you for a glass of gin; others say, ‘It’s for my rent, mister.’  The impression is not one of debauchery but of abject, miserable poverty.  One is sickened and wounded by this deplorable procession in those monumental streets.  It seemed as if I were watching a march past of dead women.” ( Hippolyte Taine)

The misery surrounding them later helped galvanize the nobler goals of the young PRB and other artists and writers of the era.  The plethora of young women needing money, whose reputations were unlikely to suffer any worse by modeling than they already were from waiting tables at local taverns or prostitution, form another portion of the PRB story.  Elizabeth Siddal was an early exception, as she was respectably employed in a milliner’s shop.

At age 13, Gabriel entered Sass’s, the prep school for the Royal Academy Schools.  Due to Mrs. Rossetti’s money management, the Rossetti’s were not as poor as the Hunts.  Millais had breezed through and entered the Royal Academy immediately, but Gabriel, subjected to the usual regimen became bored and began to cut classes, pronouncing them “trivial, mechanical and death to the soul of the artist.”  He drifted around the city, exploring and writing poetry.  His brother William had sacrificed his dreams of becoming a doctor and taken a job as a clerk at the Excise Office to help support the family, Mr. Rossetti having suffered a series of strokes and being forced to retire from his position as professor of Italian at King’ s College.  Despite his scapegrace attitude, Gabriel was accepted at the Royal Academy – he was talented without doubt – but (again) he couldn’t bear to the mandatory two years of drawing from plaster casts before passing on to live models.

The merits of this system may no doubt be debated.  It must have proved vexatious to others besides Rossetti, but these others gritted their teeth and drew.   Gabriel was not unaware that his fellows were getting ahead, so he looked around for an artist to apprentice himself to, according to the medieval system, thinking it more suitable than the classical model.  The artist he settled on was Ford Madox Brown (who is frequently associated with the PRB in retrospect, though he was never an official member of the club).  Gabriel wrote him a letter of introduction, full of such lavish praise, that the thus-far-unsuccessful Brown showed up at Rossetti’s digs armed with a club, ready to deal Gabriel a blow for his impudence.  His petitioner was sincere in his admiration though and by the end of the interview, Brown had agreed to take him on without fee.

Brown wanted Gabriel to go through the same rigors he’d passed through himself in drawing and painting — the classical method – while Gabriel “wanted to surge ahead and embark on large, beautiful, extravagant paintings.”  The apprenticeship was proving to bear the same disadvantages as the Royal Academy.  However, at that point Gabriel met Hunt.  Hunt too had bristled at the classical method, but had all the same worked the grist.  He was inspired by Rossetti’s imagination and the two found a ready friendship in their visions for the future of art.  He agreed that Gabriel could bypass the usual training, because Gabriel was unusual.  (Also, Hunt was more accomplished than Rossetti, so there is little threat to himself in dismissing the requirements of the Royal Academy.  He, after all, had done the work.).

Here is one of Gabriel’s still-life exercises for Brown.  One can see the future Rossetti themes.  He is struggling to find something lovely and thematic in a simple still-life.

It’s called Bottles.

Elizabeth Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855

I don’t know how much this bypass of classical training affected Gabriel’s art in the long run.  I’ve never thought him the equal of Millais or Hunt or many others, but this may be more an expression of taste than skill.  Gabriel’s drawings of Elizabeth Siddal and Annie Miller are very fine.   We’re most familiar with his lush paintings of beautiful women who in fact look much alike, differing mostly in costume and hair color.

La Ghrilandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

They are glamorous in that fantastical, sensual Rossetti way, but there is little story or drama or sense that one is looking at a real woman.  One can just recognize Lizzie or Annie or Jane Morris.  Rossetti did gain skill, but his paintings were more actually PreRaphaelite when they were still awkward.  Ultimately, he developed more of a kinship with the Aesthetic Movement.

That was a long way of saying that perhaps Rossetti was a painter of greater skill than I give him credit for.  I don’t like his artificial women, but cannot judge his capacity by that solely.


Study of Annie Miller for Fair Rosamund by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

When they met, Hunt had just sold his painting of The Eve of St Agnes and was in funds.  He moved out of his parents’ home and rented a studio for himself.  He’d intended to rent the space alone, but Gabriel convinced him to share the space and the expenses.  Hunt was afraid Gabriel would take up his painting time, but his new friend made live so exciting and fun, he agreed.

The two stayed up late, discussing all their enthusiasms.  They both loved Keats, who interestingly was little read or regarded at the time.  Gabriel introduced Hunt to Blake and here is a story worth noting:  Gabriel had purchased ” a notebook full of Blake’s manuscripts and drawings from an attendant at the British Museum, who apparently wanted to get rid of it because it was not worth cataloging.  (Gabriel had been broke at the time, but fortunately William had been willing to lend him the necessary ten shillings.)”  (Daly)  Thus do the creative spirits of the “present” rescue their kindred spirits from the past.   Like Gabriel, the romantic young Hunt had written poetry, but when Gabriel showed him his own poems, Hunt abandoned the medium.  Gabriel was so much better at it.  The new studio became a Mecca for a steady stream of visitors, enticed by Rossetti’s charisma and friendliness, and Hunt recognized with chagrin that hours and hours were being spent in conversation, however inspirational, that might have been spent painting.  Hunt could not be kept from working for long, but during this period of his life he yielded to his new friend’s companionship.  “Hunt confided the hope he shared with Millais of initiating a radical reform to bring painters back to the study of nature, the only true source of inspiration.”   (Daly)

Rossetti’s spirit must have responded to this ideal at once, but in practice the study of nature required a bit too much effort and Rossetti was an excellent talker.

Gabriel did attempt to paint from life during his sojourn with Hunt.  He began his Girlhood of Saint Mary for which his sister Christina modeled as Mary and his mother as Saint Anne.  As I said, painting from nature was one of the hallmarks of the PreRaph movement, at least as Hunt and Millais, its originators, were concerned.   This was just about Rossetti’s last attempt to paint a “homely” subject and persons as they really appeared, according to Gay Daly, although it seems to me that the unfinished Found is painted from life.   It’s Annie Miller after all.

Found by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Gabriel’s revolutionary spirit started to attract followers.  First, naturally, was his brother William, who began taking life-drawing classes in the evening.  Hunt looked at his “conscientious, although rigid transcriptions of the nude” with some dubiousness.

William Rossetti by Julia Margaret Cameron

As a second candidate Gabriel introduced Thomas Woolner, who had aspirations to become an important sculptor, but was at the moment employed carving marble decorations (which is certainly good practice).  Gay Daly describes him as cocky and self-important.  That might have irritated the modest Millais, when he again appeared on the scene, but talent certainly gives a cohort greater credence.  Henry Adams describes Woolner in The Education of Henry Adams as being a “rough” personality and having to make a “superhuman effort” to be polite.  Mmmmmm…..I might not have thanked Gabriel.


Thomas Woolner by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Gabriel’s third recruit was James Collinson, Christina Rossetti’s suitor.


James Collinson

Collinson suffered from narcolepsy and had a tendency to fall asleep in the middle of conversations.

A pupil of Hunt’s named Frederic George Stephens was introduced as a sixth member (Millais being taken for granted, though absent).


Frederic George Stephens by William Holman Hunt

Stephens was handsome and for that reason, I’ve provided two pictures of him.

Frederic George Stephens by John Everett Millais

He is definitely the one that Fred in a recent miniseries was modeled after.  He’d been lamed as a child, which gives an extra poignant fillip to his persona.  He was a student at the Royal Academy, but soon became discouraged with his talents and became an art critic instead.  The thing that is interesting is that he modeled!  He was the model for Millais’ Ferdinand Lured by Ariel and Jesus Washing Peter’s  Feet by Ford Madox Brown (see below).

According to Wikipedia, he communicated the aims of the Brotherhood to the public. He became the art critic and later the art editor of the Athenaeum while writing freelance for other art-history periodicals including The Art Journal and Portfolio. He also wrote for journals on the continent and the United States. His contributions to the Brotherhood’s magazine The Germ were made under the pseudonyms Laura Savage and John Seward. During this time he was heavily influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom he allowed to write reviews of his own work under Stephens’s name.”

That sounds totally like the character in the Miniseries.


Ferdinand Lured by Ariel by John Everett Millais

Stephens supposedly destroyed all his paintings, but three survive (see below).  I’m happy to report that Stephens was successful in his consolation career and went on to become a respected art historian.  He didn’t approve of Impressionism when that came along, probably due to its marginal adherence to nature.

In spite of the resentment between Fred and Gabriel in the miniseries, the person who was most ungracious to Stephens in life was Hunt.  At a later date, Hunt was honeymooning with his second wife , Edith, the younger sister of his first deceased and canonized-by-her-family wife Fanny, and had asked Stephens to ship his art supplies to Jaffa.  He and Edith were going to live in Jerusalem.  The supplies didn’t arrive when expected and Hunt went into a frenzy, thinking the time lost from painting would ruin him.  He had to make do with what he could find in the meantime.  When he finally did receive notice that the shipment had arrived, to quote Gay Daly, “Dropping everything, he jumped on his horse and galloped over the mountains to Jaffa, where he was amazed to discover not his three packing cases but a single large crate.  He there spluttering on the dock as porters struggled to open it .  Eventually they


Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown

hauled out the three smaller cases, then a further twenty-eight parcels – the many additional items of houseware and apparel he had asked Stephens to ship in letters dispatched from Switzerland while he and Edit were honeymooning.  Hunt was angry because Stephens had been so stupid as to send such an enormous crate; he should have known that shippers along the way would leave it till last because of its weight.  It would have been clear to anyone else that Stephens had gone to extraordinary trouble to send every single item that Hunt had requested and to make absolutely sure that the case was strong enough to survive the depredations of any thief or fool.  From Hunt’s distress over the delay, one would think the crates had been years in transit; in fact this unthinkable delay had lasted five months.”  In the meantime, Hunt had begun the Triumph of the Innocents on a sub-standard canvas which caused him years of trouble.  The two men never really recovered from their resentment and a trivial matter a few years later broke the friendship for good.


The Proposal (The Marquis and Griselda) by Frederic George Stephens

For my part, I think the fault was Hunt’s, and after all those years when Stephens played guardian over Annie Miller for him, all WITHOUT sleeping with her, Hunt should have felt bound in gratitude for his friendship.

As a result, “Hunt lost his lieutenant, his confidant, and his most uncritical critic.  The dozens of reviews and items about Hunt’s work that Stephens had supplied over the years to the Athenaeum, tantalizing the public with hints about works still on the easel and praising finished pictures as masterpieces, had done much to make Hunt a major figure on the art scene, and after the break they dwindled away.  In his autobiography Hunt dismissed Stephens bitterly as ‘my quondam friend.’”  There are many reasons why Hunt impresses me, but in this instance, I think he was an ungrateful wretch.

In the meantime, Millais returned from his summer in the country and was understandably hurt to find his friendship with Hunt hijacked by Hunt’s new best buddy, finding “his private dreams and cherished ideas for reform had been shared with a host of strangers who were planning to style themselves as artists when in fact some of them didn’t even know how to draw.”  (Daly)  He teased Hunt, “Where is your flock?  Are you getting up a regiment to take the Academy by storm?  I can quite see why Gabriel Rossetti, if he can paint, should join us, but I didn’t know his brother was a painter.  Tell me.  And there’s Woolner.  Collinson’ll certainly  make a stawart leader of a forlorn hope, won’t he?  And Stephens, too!  Does he paint?  Is the notion really to be put in practice?”  (Millais’ correspondence with W H Hunt)

I can well imagine his feelings.  There is the simple jealousy one feels at having made a best friend, then then watching them being charmed, perhaps even more, by someone new.  Millais and Hunt were very serious about their painting and were really the most viable members of the association.   It is testament to Millais’ personality, however – you see that I want to think well of him – that he soon fell in with the energy being generated.  He was quite social, so he succumbed to Gabriel’s charm…(Daly says) “for the moment.”

They focused on Raphael as the turning point in the history of art, not that they didn’t like Raphael, but since he had been a genius, his virtues had been formalized and become a straight jacket for artists ever after.  “To put painting back on track, young artists would have to drop the aesthetic styles and judgments of the past three centuries and throw off the deadly hand of the Renaissance.  They would need to return to the spirit of the early Italians who had worked with a simple, direct regard for nature….Giotto, Fra Angelico, Orcagna and Ghirlandaio….now dismissed as naïve.”  (Daly)

This is interesting.  One can see the combination of Hunt’s and Millais’ original reformatory ideas wedded with Gabriel’s love of the Italian.  They couldn’t have had much first-hand knowledge of Italian painters, because the National Gallery at the time had only a few.  None of these young men had traveled on the continent (as yet).  Their knowledge of the art predating Raphael was based on the few prints they had seen and on Ruskin’s descriptions.  So, there again is the galvanizing influence of Ruskin’s writings.  It was a slender knowledge base on which to raise a revolution, but it reminds me very much of my own callow experience in college.  Before going to school in England, I’d never been in an art museum in my life, never seen any great paintings first hand — I’d only been exposed by prints on calendars or books (and we didn’t have that many books).  These young men at least had genuinely great art on hand to view and they weren’t against everything they saw.

My first visit we paid to the Constable / Turner Exhibit was a huge experience for me, seeing all Turner’s  large early seascapes and the huge, impressionistic  oil sketches that Constable did before working out his studio landscapes.  I bought the largest stack of art cards I’ve ever bought.  They didn’t do the 8 foot long paintings justice, but I sent them to my parents trying to describe the difference.

Hunt and his companions met constantly in the evening, after the sun had set and painting was no longer possible.  In a month they had hammered out their ideas.  Millais invited them to his Gower Street studio for their first “official” meeting.

Millais brought out some engravings of the medieval frescoes in the Campo Santo.  Hunt held forth on the principles that would inform the group’s work, explaining that he, Rossetti, and Millais had settled on “the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” as a name, not because they would imitate the early Italian painters, but because they would reclaim the innocence and purity that painting had had in those days.  Collectively they would eschew convention and escape the burden of rules under which artists now labored; instead, they would turn to nature as their master, not to copy it slavishly but to render their own perceptions faithfully.  At the same time they would commit themselves to painting themes that had moral value, that inspired those who saw their pictures to lead noble, decent lives.”  

Now for the manifesto, because every revolution needs a manifesto.  The PRB Manifesto, to which they all ascribed their names, was a list of their “Immortals”, those whom they chose to emulate, and it was divided into five categories.  “At Hunt’s insistence, Jesus stood alone at the top.  (Gabriel had wanted Shakespeare to have this spot.)  Category two contained Shakespeare and the author of Job.  Number three listed Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Leonardo, Goethe, Keats, Shelley, King Alfred (?!*), Landor, Thackeray, Washington (J) , and Browning.  Categories four and five…rang(ed) from Boccaccio to Mrs. Browning to Newton to Edgar Allen Poe.”   It may sound eccentric, but a list of one’s heroes is more flexible than a formal treatise and hence more human.

They also decided to meet monthly for a progress report, but thrived in each others company so much that they began getting together every night, after painting hours of course.  “Very young and very earnest, they laid down prohibitions against drinking, smoking, and swearing, although they seem to have drunk the occasional glass of beer, and Woolner at least always had a pipe in his mouth.”  I loved this incident:  “When Tennyson published In Memoriam, an elegy for his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, William Rossetti arranged to get one of the very first copies to review.  Everyone gathered at Gabriel’s studio that evening, and when William arrived, brandishing the copy over his head in triumph, he passed it to Gabriel, who read the entire poem aloud – more than 2700 lines – while his friends sat listening intently.  Friendship was the mainstay of their lives.  Tennyson, already their hero, had spent fifteen years crafting this masterpiece from his grief for his friend Hallam, who had died at the age of twenty-two.  These young men understood its greatness in the moment, and felt privileged to have heard it read in their intimate circle.” (Gay Daly)

None of the Brothers was rich.  All seven were middle or lower middle class.  They were intent on bettering themselves economically and socially, but not by compromising their artistic principles.  “Until the early part of the nineteenth century, painters were generally regarded as little better than tradesmen.  The Royal Academy’s prestige was a recent phenomenon.”  Of course they were challenging the Academy head-on, so the path to adulation was going to be a rocky one.

The brothers no doubt thought about women, but “a man could not sleep with a woman who was not his wife – at least, he could not acknowledge (it)…A gentleman could not marry until he had sufficient income to support a wife in comfort, which meant hiring servants.  It might be years before any member of the Brotherhood had the sort of income a wife required, so it was easier to steer away from romance or even from friendship with women.  Even in the letters the PreRaphaelites wrote during this period, few women are mentioned, with the exception of mothers, sisters, and aunts.  Instead the young men threw themselves into their relationships with one another, forming passionate bonds that lasted, sometimes until death.”  (Gay Daly)

We know Rossetti was aware of women because he’d written a poem at age twenty one about the life of a prostitute.  “There is about it the shock and revulsion of a pure young man speaking about something that he affects to understand but has not in fact experienced.”

“Late night expeditions took the Brothers to Tottenham Court Road and other quarters where prostitutes waited for customers…looking not for sex but for models, and they examined the face of each woman in the hope that she would prove exciting to paint.”  In this they may have been encouraged by Rossetti’s experience – he had sketched prostitutes on the street as a teen, how close one does not know.  One can see them daring each other in jest, but with serious artistic ambitions, the finding of worthwhile models was a serious business.  “When they found a promising beauty, courage generally failed them.  Except for Gabriel, they could not bring themselves to ask a young woman if she would consider coming to the studio, so it seems unlikely that any of them had the nerve to venture out alone and pick up a woman for sex (especially Hunt, who wanted to become the world’s greatest religious painter).”

So, I wanted to end on this note, because a recent miniseries includes so much blatant or surreptitious sex.  It was not the impression I’d gotten of these young guys.  I’m sure they thought about sex as much as young men normally do, but it’s silly to think they were complete hypocrites to their upbringing.  Rossetti was a man that attracted women, because he had large Mediterranean dark eyes, ringed with shadows and long, curling hair that fell to his shoulders, so he was probably used to being looked at and flirted with by the prostitutes he sketched.  Even he said, however, that his poetic prostitute came from a “world that I was then happy enough to be a stranger to.”  All these young men lived long lives, so experience  caught up with them — they fell in love, luckily and unluckily and married — but I don’t tend to believe the sensationalized version of their young lives.  I’m pretty sure that Lizzie Siddal was a virgin on her wedding day (even if Gabriel was not).

But, more on that in the next installment……