A Tate Modern exhibition devoted to the radical Rossetti generation

Beata Beatrix
La Ghirlandata
Goblin Market
Lady Lilith
The Annunciation
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin
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Growing up in Victorian England as the sons and daughters of an Italian political refugee profoundly impacted the four Rossetti children. They became poets and painters worthy of being celebrated by the Tate Modern. This exhibition combines their poetry and paintings and seeks to explain why they should be remembered.

Christina & Dante Rossetti were child prodigies

While all the children were talented, Gabriel (who went by his middle name, Dante) and Christina were the stars. Christina and Dante published poems when they were fifteen and sixteen. Dante chose to focus on painting at the advice of an advisor, who told him he could make more as a painter. In 1846, he began studies at The Royal Academy of Arts. Christina went on to publish more than 900 poems and became the more famous poet of the two. Christina’s most renowned poem, Goblin Market, is a complex and allegorical work that explores themes of temptation, sisterhood, desire and redemption. Dante drew the book’s illustrations.

The founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

At The Royal Academy of Arts, Dante and his fellow artists Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais became frustrated with the artistic conventions of the time. They criticised the Academy’s adherence to academic rules and standards, prioritising heroic narratives, superficial beauty and decorative effects over emotional depth and sincerity. They acknowledged that Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520) did this best, but now the Academy stifled creativity. It was also disingenuous in that it was disconnected from contemporary life and lacked relevance to the concerns and experiences of the Victorian era.

Following in his father’s footsteps, in 1848, Dante founded a secret society with his siblings and artist friends. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood aimed for a more genuine and detailed approach to art by emphasising attention to nature, not using studio props or artificial settings, opting instead to capture the natural world in its authentic form.

Dante (the painter) loved to point stories from Dante (the poet)

The Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from Arthurian legends, biblical themes, mythology and literary classics, but their favourite was Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. They painted in a style similar to medieval and early Renaissance but with minute attention to every detail. They painted natural outdoor scenes, used each other as models and favoured vibrant intense colours to create a heightened sense of realism and emotional impact. They celebrated the individual at a time when so many people were just part of an industrial machine. They packed their paintings with layers of meaning using symbols, hand gestures and settings to evoke specific emotions. They added PRB to their painting’s signatures.      

every canvas section is so intricately detailed that they could be their own masterpiece

Charles Dicken was not a fan of Dante Rossetti

Dante’s first two PRB paintings were The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and The Annunciation. At the time, critics did not receive him well – the author Charles Dicken hated his work. Dante did not take well to criticism and vowed not to exhibit again. Critics did not like the way Dante portrayed Mary in The Annunciation; unlike traditional paintings receiving the news that she is pregnant with Jesus, in this version, she is a scared girl in her bedroom wearing only a nightgown (modelled by his sister Christina) leaning away from the angel Gabrial (modelled by his brother William) who is naked under a simple frock. Mary’s hair is down, which during Victorian times, alluded to sexual promiscuity. The implications of the painting were too scandalous for mainstream audiences – but it still sold.   

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a not-so-secret society

The secret of the PRB did not last long, mainly because they published a magazine that revealed their manifesto, and the society was dissolved in 1853. A less publicised activity of the PRB was their lookout for “stunners”, their term for unconventionally beautiful women they could paint. These stunners were known for their lustrous, flowing hair, pale complexions, and enchanting, almost ethereal appearances. They often embodied a sense of mystery, sensuality, and otherworldliness. For Dante, these relationships often went beyond modelling.

Why the Tate Modern is remembering the Rossettis

Christina Rossetti’s poem Remember begins with the lines, “Remember me when I am gone away, Gone far away into the silent land; When you can no more hold me by the hand,”. The Tate Modern is remembering the Rossettis for good reasons. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood secret society was short-lived but initiated a structural shift in British painting that influenced nineteenth and twentieth-century art and literature. Before the PRB, the system supported by the Royal Academy made all European images indistinguishable from one country to the next. After the movement, British people had a class of paintings they could call their own. The Rossettis’ legacy touches our lives through romantic fiction, TV drama, fashion, advertising, interior design, fantasy, cartoons and many more aspects of our culture. They celebrated individuality when conformity was the norm, inspired radical writers and artists and brought a new, poignant beauty into the world. This is why the Tate Modern is celebrating the accomplishments of the Rossettis.

Text Martin Wray / Photo courtesy of Tate Modern