“Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been" - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

12 May 1828, the English painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London.
“Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; / I am also call'd No-more, Too-late, Farewell;” (Dante Gabriel Rossetti)
Rossetti's imagination of Jane Burden-Morris as the unhappy Pia de' Tolomei from Dante's Purgatorio

Study nature attentively, sympathise with what is direct and serious and whatnot – Rossetti couldn’t care less about at least half of the doctrine of the actual Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. And while most of the members of this congregation of artists that had set its sights on revolutionising British art in 1848 fell for the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, became members of various academies and produced more conventional, suave and debonair artworks, Rossetti at least took up the mythical, medievalising thread of the brotherhood and made it an integral part of British 19th century painting. By inspiring and furthering artists like Burne-Jones and Morris and immortalising his various liaisons as legendary heroines, from Lillith to Proserpina and Pandora.

Unhappy Elizabeth Siddal featuring as titular heroine in Rossetti's "Salutation of Beatrice"

Certainly not easy to get along with, Rossetti’s life was full of the worst examples about of how not to handle love and friendship and, of course, the stereotypical Bohemian abuse of intoxicants under a declining health. One biographer described his last years as a “haze of chloral and whisky” and even his long-time lady love, his friend Morris’ wife and model Jane Burden-Morris, walked out of him, along with his mates and business and art collaborators. He gained weight until one of his other affairs, Fanny Comforth, called him “her rhino” while he dubbed her “elephant”, his hands began to shake and he could finish his last works only with the help of assistants, grew depressive and completely eccentric to a point of paranoia and didn’t leave his house for years. He died after a stroke at the age of 53 as one of the most influential artists of his age.

Depicted above is Rossetti’s portrait of Jane Burden-Morris as “Proserpine”(1874), an image that became iconic for the term “femme fatale”, inspiring generations of artists, painters and poets alike.

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