Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Myth, Beauty, and Tragedy

Dante Gabriel Rossetti remains one of the most influential figures in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement that sought to overturn the artistic norms of the mid-19th century.

classic and original painting reproductions

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Early Life and Influences
  3. The Essence of Myth and Beauty in Rossetti’s Art
  4. Tragedy and Melancholy: The Undercurrents of Rossetti’s Work
  5. Notable Works and Their Symbolism
  6. Legacy and Influence on Modern Art
  7. Conclusion
  8. Questions and Answers



Born in 1828 in London to Italian émigré parents, Rossetti was enveloped in a world of scholarly and artistic pursuits from a young age. His work is renowned not just for its vivid beauty but also for the layers of depth and complexity it adds to the traditional narratives of mythology and romance.

Rossetti’s art is a blend of the mystic and the earthly, a marriage of his literary interests and his bold, unconventional aesthetic that challenged the fashions of Victorian art. His fascination with medieval and classical myths provided not only the subjects of his paintings but also a framework through which he explored contemporary themes of love, passion, and tragedy. This exploration was not an escape into the past but a direct commentary on the moral and societal struggles of his own time.

This article aims to dissect the elements of myth, beauty, and tragedy in Rossetti’s work, uncovering how these themes intertwine within his oeuvre to reflect both personal experiences and broader Victorian societal issues. By delving into his early influences, notable works, and the enduring legacy he left behind, we gain a comprehensive understanding of Rossetti’s artistic journey and its significant impact on the directions of modern art.


Early Life and Influences

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born into a culturally rich environment that was instrumental in shaping his artistic and intellectual development. His father, Gabriele Rossetti, was a poet and a political exile from Naples, while his mother, Frances Polidori, was the sister of John William Polidori, the famous writer and physician to Lord Byron. This literary background profoundly influenced Rossetti, ingraining a deep appreciation for poetry and the visual arts early in his life.

Rossetti’s education was equally eclectic and profound. He attended King’s College School, and later the Royal Academy, though he found the formal training there restrictive and misaligned with his artistic aspirations. The young artist was instead drawn to the medieval and early Renaissance art that emphasized spiritual and naturalistic themes, starkly different from the grandiose, classical subjects that dominated the art of his time. This exposure is evident in his later works, which frequently reference medieval literature and romantic symbolism.

Literature was just as pivotal in his formative years, particularly the works of Dante Alighieri, which not only influenced Rossetti’s choice of subjects but also his approach to blending narrative with imagery. Rossetti’s translations of Dante’s works, especially “La Vita Nuova,” show his dual focus on visual and poetic expression, which became a hallmark of his career. This intermingling of literary and artistic interests helped forge Rossetti’s unique style, characterized by its symbolic complexity and emotional intensity.

Moreover, Rossetti was inspired by the burgeoning theories of art and beauty discussed among the intellectual circles of London. He formed close friendships with other artists and writers, such as John Ruskin and William Morris, who shared his disdain for the mechanistic approach to art that was taught at the Royal Academy. Together with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, Rossetti founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, aiming to reform art by rejecting what they considered the corrupting influence of Raphael and promoting a return to the detailed, colorful, and complex compositions of earlier art.


The Essence of Myth and Beauty in Rossetti’s Art

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s oeuvre is deeply imbued with themes of myth and beauty, elements that not only define the aesthetic of the Pre-Raphaelite movement but also reflect Rossetti’s personal artistic and poetic inclinations. His paintings often feature mythological and literary characters, through which he explores complex human emotions and the philosophical concepts of beauty and truth.

Rossetti was particularly fascinated with the concept of the femme fatale, a figure that appears frequently in his works. This archetype, embodying both seduction and danger, allowed Rossetti to explore the dualities of human nature and the Victorian anxieties about femininity and sexual power. Paintings like “Lilith” and “Proserpine” showcase this intrigue, portraying these mythic women not just as objects of beauty, but as potent symbols of both creation and destruction, autonomy and entrapment.

Moreover, Rossetti’s engagement with Arthurian legends and other medieval stories—such as those depicted in “The Day Dream” and “The Beloved”—illustrates his commitment to themes of chivalric romance and tragic love. These narratives provided a scaffold for Rossetti to express his own ideals and critiques regarding Victorian society’s morals and the roles ascribed to love and honor. The lush, vibrant details in these paintings do not merely serve aesthetic purposes; they also reinforce the emotional and symbolic depth of the narrative.

The Day Dream by Dante Gabriel Rossetti-s
The Day Dream by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


The Beloved by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Beloved by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. See it at Tate Gallery, London


The interplay between visual and verbal elements is another critical aspect of Rossetti’s approach to myth and beauty. His practice of writing sonnets and poems that complemented his paintings was revolutionary, enhancing the viewer’s experience and understanding of his artworks. For instance, the sonnet he wrote for “Beata Beatrix” deepens the painting’s connection to Dante Alighieri’s “Vita Nuova,” illustrating the intertwining of life, art, and love—a synthesis that is quintessentially Rossettian.

Rossetti’s portrayal of beauty is thus not merely superficial or decorative but is laden with symbolic richness and emotional depth. His use of mythological and literary themes was a conduit for expressing contemporary concerns and for exploring the perennial questions surrounding human existence and aesthetics.

Joan of Arc by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Joan of Arc by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Tragedy and Melancholy: The Undercurrents of Rossetti’s Work

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s art, while celebrated for its vibrant beauty and rich symbolism, is also deeply infused with themes of tragedy and melancholy. These elements reflect not only the broader Victorian fascination with death and the ephemeral nature of beauty but also Rossetti’s personal experiences of loss and despair.

Tragedy first touched Rossetti personally with the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, in 1862, a pivotal event that profoundly affected his artistic direction and emotional state. Siddal, who frequently modeled for Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite circle, became an almost mythic figure in his paintings posthumously. In works like “Beata Beatrix,” she is depicted in a state between life and death, capturing both her beauty and the profound grief of her loss. This painting, in particular, illustrates the merging of personal tragedy with literary influence, as it references Dante Alighieri’s “Vita Nuova,” where Beatrice is both muse and saint, embodying the spiritual ideal and the mortal loss.

Rossetti’s fascination with melancholy also manifested in his depiction of doomed love and unattainable desires, themes that recur throughout his work. Paintings such as “The Blessed Damozel” and “Proserpine” explore the tension between the earthly and the divine, the temporal and the eternal. These works convey a sense of longing and melancholy, reflecting Rossetti’s own struggles with depression and isolation.

Moreover, Rossetti often used opulent colors and intricate compositions to express these themes of melancholy and tragedy. His use of shadow and light, the haunting expressions of his figures, and the symbolic use of objects like the pomegranate in “Proserpine” (symbolizing captivity and death) enhance the emotional resonance of his paintings. These artistic choices create a visual language that communicates deeper existential concerns, making his works not only visually stunning but also emotionally compelling.

Through his exploration of these darker themes, Rossetti adds a layer of psychological depth to his paintings, positioning his work within the broader Romantic tradition that values emotion and individualism. His ability to weave personal pain into his artistic fabric not only enriched his art but also provided a cathartic outlet for his emotions, thus deepening the connection between his life experiences and his artistic expressions.


Notable Works and Their Symbolism

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portfolio is marked by several iconic paintings, each rich with symbolism and narrative depth. In this section, we explore some of these notable works to better understand how Rossetti used visual symbols to convey complex themes and emotions.

Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-1870) is perhaps one of Rossetti’s most personal and symbolically complex paintings. Created as a tribute to his late wife, Elizabeth Siddal, the work is less a portrait than a spiritual and emotional representation. The painting depicts Siddal as Beatrice from Dante’s “Vita Nuova,” at the moment of her transcendence to the afterlife. A red dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit or a messenger of love, delivers a poppy to her hands, representing sleep or death. The background of the painting, merging urban Florence with a surreal, dream-like quality, encapsulates the meeting of earthly life and heavenly peace, reflecting Rossetti’s grief and his hope for her spiritual ascension.

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. See it at the Tate Gallery


Proserpine (1874) is another of Rossetti’s masterpieces, imbued with rich symbolism. This painting features Jane Morris, wife of his friend William Morris, as the Roman goddess Proserpine. She is portrayed holding a pomegranate, a symbol of marriage and also of captivity, as she is fated to spend part of each year in the underworld as the wife of Pluto. The somber, introspective mood of Proserpine, coupled with the claustrophobic, shadowy backdrop, perfectly illustrates themes of entrapment and longing for freedom—a reflection of both the mythological narrative and possibly Rossetti’s own entangled personal sentiments.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. See it at Tate Gallery, London


The Blessed Damozel (1875-1878) stands out for its depiction of heavenly yearning and earthly separation. Inspired by Rossetti’s own poem of the same name, the painting portrays a beautiful young woman leaning over the battlements of Heaven, looking down towards Earth. The stars in her hair and the halo around her head indicate her celestial status, while her mournful expression and the gestures of longing directed towards the earth reflect the painful separation from her earthly lover. The inclusion of lush roses and the river of life flowing beneath her emphasize the themes of love, loss, and the hope of eventual reunion.

The Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. See it at Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool


Through these artworks, Rossetti not only explores themes of love, death, and transcendence but also creates a visual lexicon that resonates with Victorian audiences familiar with the literary and mythological references. Each piece serves as a narrative that invites deeper reflection on the universal experiences of grief, love, and the human condition.


Legacy and Influence on Modern Art

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s contributions to the art world extended far beyond his lifetime, influencing subsequent generations of artists and shaping modern artistic expressions. His legacy is evident not only in the continuation of the Pre-Raphaelite ideals but also in the broader shifts towards symbolism and expressionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Rossetti’s emphasis on symbolism and personal emotion heralded a departure from the strict realism and historical narratives favored by his contemporaries. His approach opened up new avenues for artistic exploration, particularly in the use of symbolism to convey deeper psychological and existential themes. Artists like Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch, though not directly connected to the Pre-Raphaelites, echoed Rossetti’s integration of symbolic imagery and emotional depth in their works, particularly in the way they portrayed complex human experiences and emotions.

Furthermore, Rossetti’s revival of medieval and literary themes inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement, led by his friend William Morris. This movement emphasized the importance of craftsmanship and the beauty of design, which resonated with Rossetti’s own ideals about art’s aesthetic and spiritual functions. The decorative arts, particularly textiles and wallpapers designed by Morris and others, often incorporated Pre-Raphaelite motifs and ideals, blending utility with beauty in everyday objects.

In the realm of poetry and literature, Rossetti’s influence was equally significant. His poetic works and the integrated approach of combining text and imagery inspired the Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents, who prioritized the beauty of the art form over its moral or educational content. Poets like Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne admired Rossetti’s ability to weave complex emotional landscapes and used similar techniques in their own writings.

Rossetti’s impact on modern art is thus multifaceted, affecting not just painting but also literature, decorative arts, and the broader cultural understanding of what art could and should express. His works continue to be celebrated for their visionary approach and emotional resonance, offering inspiration and insight to both artists and art lovers across the globe.



Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s artistic legacy is a profound testament to the power of integrating personal expression, literary depth, and visual beauty. Through his works, Rossetti not only challenged the conventional artistic norms of his time but also offered a new way to perceive art’s role in society. His paintings, characterized by their rich symbolism and deep emotional undertones, continue to captivate and inspire audiences, serving as enduring examples of the Pre-Raphaelite ideals.

Rossetti’s influence extends beyond the confines of the Victorian era, impacting modern art movements and continuing to resonate in contemporary artistic practices. His approach to art—as a deeply personal, emotionally charged, and intellectually complex endeavor—remains relevant, encouraging modern artists to explore and express the multifaceted experiences of human life.

As we reflect on Rossetti’s contributions, it is clear that his work was not merely about creating beauty or reviving historical themes; it was about using art to explore and express the complexities of human emotion and thought. Rossetti taught us that art could be both a mirror and a window—reflecting our innermost selves and offering views into other worlds and experiences.

In closing, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s body of work stands as a bridge between the traditional and the modern, the real and the ideal, reminding us of the enduring power of art to touch our lives, challenge our perceptions, and enrich our understanding of the human condition.


Questions and Answers

What artistic movement do the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood belong to?
The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood belong to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which emerged in the mid-19th century. This movement sought to reject the conventional artistic practices of the time, emphasizing a return to the detail, intense colors, and complex compositions characteristic of Quattrocento Italian art, before the influence of Raphael.

What is widely considered the most famous Pre-Raphaelite work of art?
One of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite works is John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia.” This painting is celebrated for its vivid detail, emotional depth, and the tragic beauty of its subject, qualities that epitomize the Pre-Raphaelite approach to art.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of painters in what country?
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of painters in England. They formed in 1848 in London, aiming to reform the art by eschewing what they considered the mechanistic approach taught by the Royal Academy at the time.

How did Rossetti’s personal life influence his art?
Rossetti’s personal life, particularly the tragic death of his wife Elizabeth Siddal and his own psychological struggles, deeply influenced his art. Themes of loss, beauty, and melancholy pervade his works, reflecting his personal experiences and emotional responses.

Which Rossetti paintings prominently feature his muse, Elizabeth Siddal?
Elizabeth Siddal is prominently featured in several of Rossetti’s paintings, including “Beata Beatrix,” which is considered a tribute to her following her death. Siddal’s likeness also appears in “Lady Lilith” and other works, where she often embodies the complex, ethereal beauty that is characteristic of Rossetti’s artistic style.