The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design

May 20–October 26, 2014

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Composite of two images

Left: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British, 1828–1882). Jane Morris: Study for "Mariana," 1868. Red, brown, off-white and black chalks on tan paper; four sheets butt-joined (and slightly tented). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Jessie Lemont Trausil, 1947 (47.66). Right: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British, 1828–1882). Lady Lilith, 1867. Watercolor and gouache on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1908 (08.162.1)

Rossetti played a vital role in the Pre-Raphaelite movement as a founding member of the Brotherhood and guiding light to the second generation. A charismatic artist-poet, he attracted a circle of adherents whom he nurtured, and who inspired him in turn, most notably Burne-Jones and Morris. Although Rossetti rarely exhibited in public after 1850, disliking negative press, his passions—romanticism, medievalism, literature, and music—shaped later Pre-Raphaelite art.

From the mid-1850s Rossetti's work was defined by portrayals of gorgeous women, often personifying mystical ideas but derived from actual individuals. During an extended relationship with Elizabeth Siddal he produced ethereal images of womanhood, but after her death in 1862 he moved toward something more unabashedly sensual. Fanny Cornforth, his mistress, appears in Lady Lilith as a legendary temptress whose long golden hair symbolizes her seductive power. In the late 1860s Rossetti balanced such imagery with more spiritualized conceptions inspired by his model Alexa Wilding, and, in his last decade, he became close to Jane Burden, Morris's wife, celebrating her unconventional dark beauty in many works.