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The radical and romantic legacy of the Rossettis comes alive at the Tate Britain

The comprehensive retrospective offers over 150 paintings, drawings, photography, poetry, design, and more, showcasing the Rossetti family’s extraordinary creativity.

by Vatsala SethiPublished on : May 17, 2023

In art history, few families can rival the Rossettis for their impact not just on the Victorian era, but on the generations to come. The siblings Dante Gabriel, Christina, and Elizabeth were all talented artists, poets, and writers who played an essential role in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and later the Aesthetic movements. Their radical and romantic approach to life, love, and art continues to inspire and challenge artists even today.

Tate Britain's latest exhibition offers a rare opportunity to delve into their artistic journey. With over 150 paintings, drawings, photography, poetry, design, and more, this comprehensive retrospective showcases the Rossettis' extraordinary creativity and their profound influence on the art world. From their early years to their iconic later works, this art exhibition presents a unique and enlightening perspective on the Rossettis and their lasting legacy.

Lady Lilith 1866-1868, altered 1872-1873, Dante Gabriel Rossetti |The Rossettis | Tate Britain | STIRworld
Lady Lilith 1866-1868, altered 1872-1873, Painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Image: © Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935

The art exhibition begins by celebrating the Rossettis' young talent, showcasing examples of Dante Gabriel's teenage drawings and Christina's first edition of poems published when she was 16. Growing up in a scholarly family in London, the children, of an Italian revolutionary exile, began their artistic careers as teenagers. Dante Gabriel and Christina, in particular, showed precocious skill and enthusiasm for original voices like William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe. The exhibition showcases Dante Gabriel's Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation) from 1850, a stark and evocative painting for which Christina and their brother William Michael posed. This is surrounded by an audio installation of Christina's poetry, reflecting their deep bond and the ways in which their artistic careers intertwined.

The Rossettis Installation View at Tate Britain 2023 | Rossettis | Tate Britain | STIRworld
The Rossettis Installation View at Tate Britain, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Tate (Madeleine Buddo)

The works from the Pre-Raphaelite years demonstrate the artists' inspiration that draws from the spirit of popular revolution, rebelling against the Royal Academy's dominance over artistic style and content. The Rossettis initiated the first British avant-garde movement, questioning the traditional norms of art and life. The exhibition features works such as Dante Gabriel's Found begun (1854), Elizabeth Siddal's Lady Clare (1857), and Christina's poem The Goblin Market (1859), which show the artists' refusal to conform to Victorian society's constraints.

Installation View of the exhibition | The Rossettis | Tate Britain | STIRworld
Installation View of the exhibition Image: Madeleine Buddo, Courtesy of Tate

The exhibition also explores the Rossettis' unconventional relationships, which were a source of inspiration for their art. Dante Gabriel's relationships with English artist Elizabeth Siddal, artist's model Fanny Cornforth, and English embroiderer Jane Morris were fraught with controversy and scandal, but they also inspired some of his most celebrated works. The exhibition takes a fresh look at these relationships and their impact on the art world. For example, Dante Gabriel's aesthetic portraits from the later part of his career, such as Bocca Baciata (1859), Beata Beatrix (c.1864-70), and The Beloved (1865-73), are shown in the context of the achievements and experiences of the working women who inspired them. It also explores how the poetic and artistic evolution of the femme fatale informed works such as Lady Lilith (1866-68) and Mona Vanna (1866).

Monna Vanna, 1866 , Dante Gabriel Rossetti |The Rossettis | Tate Britain | STIRworld
Monna Vanna, 1866, Painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Image: Courtesy of Tate Britain

Siddal's surviving watercolours are presented alongside contemporary works by Dante Gabriel, revealing modern love in jewel-like medieval settings. As a working-class artist who was largely self-taught, Siddal's work was highly original and inventive but has often been overshadowed by her mythologisation as a tragic muse. The art event showcases her rare surviving watercolours and important drawings, highlighting her role as an artist in her own right. The exhibition explores how her and Dante Gabriel's work together marks the turning point from Pre-Raphaelitism to the imaginative and expressive aesthetic style.

Proserpine, 1874, Dante Gabriel Rossetti | The Rossettis | Tate Britain | STIRworld
Proserpine (1874), Painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Image: Courtesy of Tate

Visitors can also experience how the Rossettis' new lifestyles transformed the domestic interior through contemporary furniture, clothing, and design. The exhibition showcases how the Rossettis' trailblazing new lifestyles challenged traditional Victorian ideas of domesticity and gender roles. It also highlights the importance of aesthetics and design in their lives, showcasing furniture, clothing, and other decorative objects. The exhibition concludes by showing how the Rossettis inspired the next generation, including William Michael’s teenage children who ran the anarchist magazine The Torch, and how they continue to influence radical art and culture to this day.

A glimpse into the exhibition The Rossettis Video: © Bronwen Parker-Rhodes

The exhibition is on view until September 24, 2023, at Tate Britain.

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