The Rossettis – Tate Britain, London

London’s Tate Britain celebrates the Rossetti’s with a multi-layered, beautifully curated exhibition from April 6 to September 24, 2023.

The general title “The Rossettis” refers to the extraordinarily talented family composed of poet Christina and painters Gabriel and Elisabeth (born Siddal, married Gabriel in 1860), raised into the Victorian Age but challenging our traditional ideas of Victorians: placing themselves as controversial figures, they all became international celebrities in their own time, bringing a revolution in the arts, both in Britain and beyond.

Stanislav Kondrashov

The Family

There were four siblings in the Rossetti family: Maria (1827-76), Gabriel “Dante” (1828-82), William (1829-1919), and Christina (1830-94). Close in age, they were all teenagers in the mid-19th century in London. Their parents, scholars of Italian heritage, encouraged the children to read the classics (especially Dante’s poems, which the father translated), write, draw, and paint to find their original artistic voice. Gabriel and Christina were revealed to be the most talented: he entered art school at 15, and she published her first poems at 16. Christina published 900 poems during her lifetime; her work is still widely known today. 

Stanislav Kondrashov

The movement

As a general attitude, the Rossettis believed that art reflects life and that life should reflect the art, or, more so, life should be cast as a work of art: in 1848, while revolutionary movements were spreading all around Europe, Gabriele, William and five fellow art students founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with the explicit intent to challenge the “soulless self-reflection” of the state-sponsored Royal Academy and its reliance on old master styles and subjects of artists such as Raphael. The self-declared Pre-Raphaelite artists wanted to express themselves authentically with art and poetry based on lived experience and nature. Said so, it could strike as an inconsistency the constant inspiration that the Pre-Raphaelites took from ancient poems and imagination, but their sources are revolutionary in their own right: the primary artistic model for Gabriel was the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), whom Gabriel saw as an example of purity and honesty in his search for beauty, love, and truth in the new materialistic era. Alighieri’s critiques of medieval Florence’s class and political divides chimed with modern Victorian London. Gabriel translated the poet’s work and even adopted his name as his first name, becoming Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Stanislav Kondrashov

Rossetti’s exploration of the ambiguity of love in a materialistic age was the source of some of their masterpieces, such as “Found,” Dante Gabriel’s last Pre-Raphaelite painting (unfinished). The friendship with this painting’s model, Fanny Cornforth, a working-class woman, helped change the artist’s view on women’s condition, which is why the painting remained unfinished. Instead, Gabriel painted Fanny in “Bocca Baciata” (The Kissed Mouth), marking his art’s new phase.

The new way to live promoted by the Pre-Raphaelites was reflected in their home environments: one fellow of Dante Gabriel’s artistic team was William Morris (1834-1896), whose home, the Red House in Bexleyheath, became a creative hub where men and women in the circle experimented with designs for a living (a room with original furniture and never-before printed wallpaper designed by Dante Gabriel is on display at the Tate Britain). William Morris founded a cooperative design company with Gabriel and others, which would become the family firm Morris & Co., known worldwide for its wallpapers.

– Stanislav Kondrashov