When we heard The Rossettis—a sprawling exhibition of paintings, drawings and poetry created by the first family of Pre-Raphaelite art—was opening this month at the Delaware Art Museum, two thoughts came to mind. First, it’s always a good time to show paintings that defy the moral standards of the day (in this case, 19th-century Britain) and second, how did DelArt land a show that recently debuted at the venerable Tate Britain?
“It was the first time Bancroft saw works by [Dante Gabriel] Rossetti,” says Sophie Lynford, DelArt’s curator of the Bancroft Collection. “He described himself as ‘shocked with delight’ when he saw Pre-Raphaelite works. He began collecting, and over his 35 remaining years, he made judicious purchases and brought the first collection of Pre-Raphaelite art to the United States.”
The Pre-Raphaelites were a small but spirited group of painters, poets and critics interested in London’s social underbelly during industrialization. Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 to renew British art with realism, vivid color and complex compositions more akin to medieval art—that is, before the time of the High Renaissance artist Raphael—than the prescribed teachings of the Royal Academy.
They replaced idealized figures with working-class models depicted as willowy with fair skin, flowing locks and forlorn expressions. “[The artists] believed that viewers who were taught to appreciate Pre-Raphaelite paintings would be seeing with what they referred to as an enfranchised eye,” Lynford says. “And if viewers could be taught to see with an enfranchised eye, they could be taught to treat people with egalitarianism and respect. These were lofty goals to place on visual art, and that was one reformist element of the Pre-Raphaelite project.”
There was also a revivalist component, Lynford adds. Rossetti eventually defied the very ideas the Brotherhood espoused, shifting back to an idealized style that made his subjects appear larger than life.
Nevertheless, “Bancroft loved the paintings,” she says, and amassed the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art outside the United Kingdom. That made DelArt a target for the Tate Britain loan and, in exchange, the exclusive U.S. venue for The Rossettis.
The exhibition, as its title suggests, focuses on the Rossettis, first-generation Londoners born to Italian political exiles and raised in Victorian Britain. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings and his sister Christina’s poetry dominate the show, which also features their younger brother, William Michael, who chronicled the Brotherhood from its inception, and Dante Gabriel’s wife Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal, whose sensitive, often religiously themed drawings receive a section of their own.
“The Pre-Raphaelites were a small but spirited group of painters, poets and critics interested in London’s social underbelly during industrialization.”
The Rossettis also leans into the free-flowing hair seen in the paintings. “Rossetti was quite drawn to redheaded women,” Lynford says. “Lizzie Siddal had red hair, Fanny Cornforth had red hair and one of his later models, Alexa Wilding, had red hair.” While it’s part preference, she adds, “There are also representations of women combing their hair and plaiting their hair, and those show the artist’s interest in interior, reflective moments.”
The show unfolds in seven sections, starting with the early years: drawings and watercolors Dante Gabriel made as a teenager and one of his first Pre-Raphaelite paintings, The Annunciation (1849–50).
The next section examines the relationship between Dante Gabriel and Siddal. “[Siddal] has fascinated public attention for quite some time,” Lynford says. “She died of a laudanum overdose, possibly a suicide, in 1862, in their second year of marriage. Her life and work were shrouded in mystery and scandal in the early 1870s. Dante Gabriel had her exhumed because, at her burial, he had thrown into her coffin all his manuscripts of poems, and later retrieved them when he decided to publish them. This exhibition puts her work side by side with that of her husband for the first time and argues that many of the subjects that they both pursued in their art were often initiated by her.”
The third section dives into sex work and the fallen woman, one of Dante Gabriel’s favorite subjects, and includes the unfinished painting Found, which he worked on for 30 years and now belongs to DelArt.
“It was based on a poem he wrote called ‘Jenny,’” Lynford says. “It’s about a young girl who comes from the country to the city to make her fortune, and instead she falls into a life of prostitution. One day her sweetheart from the countryside is bringing a cow to sell in the city, and he turns the corner and sees her standing on the corner. As she turns away from him in humiliation and shame, he reaches out to her.
“The Tate was quite keen to feature this work in their presentation of the exhibition,” Lynford adds, “because it is Rossetti’s most concerted attempt at the social justice style of painting that the Pre-Raphaelites pioneered. It also shows him attempting the Pre-Raphaelite method of painting from life.”
Also in this section, Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” tells a story of two siblings tempted by goblin merchants. “There is same-sex imagery throughout the poem, despite the fact that it is about sisterly love,” Lynford says. “It is almost a manifesto of the pioneering, genre-breaking work of Christina Rossetti.”
The fourth section focuses on The Beloved, a multifigure painting for which Dante Gabriel sought and depicted models of color to express his thoughts on race.
Next come the “double works”—paintings created with poems, and vice versa, “examining his painter/poet career and how the literary and the visual are yoked in Dante Gabriel’s own work,” Lynford explains.
The sixth section explores Dante Gabriel’s affair with Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris, who was associated with the Pre-Raphaelites before becoming known in the British Arts and Crafts movement.
The final section surveys the Rossetti family’s deaths and legacy.
While the founding of the Brotherhood gave the Pre-Raphaelites a birth date, it’s hard to say precisely when the movement ended. The founders were frustrated by Dante Gabriel’s turn to idealized subjects, and their followers were drifting toward aesthetics—that is, art for art’s sake rather than for a narrative or moral purpose.
This might have pleased Bancroft, who, as Lynford attests, was more of a “Dante Gabriel Rossetti-ite” than a purist Pre-Raphaelite.
The Rossettis runs from October 21 through January 28, 2024, at the Delaware Art Museum. Pre-Raphaelite Weekend is November 9–12 and includes tours, teas, talks and more. Visit delart.org/rossettis for additional information.