A new look at some old radicals

The Delaware Art Museum presents The Rossettis

5 minute read
Four pale women surround one at center in a luxurious green robe; a Black child holds a burnished cup of pink roses at front.

In 1848, a group of seven young British artists formed a secret society to rebel against the formalism of Britain’s academic painters. Seeking the purity and immediacy they saw missing in Victorian art and calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the loosely organized group took inspiration from artists prior to 16th-century painter Raphael.

The Delaware Art Museum holds the most comprehensive gathering of British Pre-Raphaelite artworks outside the United Kingdom. But now on view are even more, some never seen here. Through January 28, 2024, The Rossettis—a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of more than 150 objects—illuminates this busy family: painter/poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti; his wife, artist/model Elizabeth Siddal; and siblings Christina, Maria, and William Michael Rossetti.

An international collaboration

Packed with remarkable paintings, watercolors, letters, drawings, books, and poems, The Rossettis boasts several firsts. It’s the first major retrospective of Dante Gabriel’s work in the US and the first exhibition to position Siddal as an artist and bring into focus this Victorian family’s artistic, cultural, and social contributions.

More than four years ago, Tate Britain curator Carol Jacobi approached then-Delaware curator Margaretta Frederick about borrowing some artworks and thus began this international collaboration. The show ran recently at the Tate and has now been creatively installed in DelArt’s expansive gallery by curator Sophie Lynford.

The Rossettis gives a true sense of the family’s scope and impact. Though brimming with objects, the gallery feels remarkably airy and uncluttered, and at every turn in this revelatory exhibition, there is new insight or an unexpected treasure. Even if you’re conversant with the museum’s collection, this exhibition—with fascinating ephemera, new scholarship, and luscious paintings—is ample reason to return.

A Rossetti treasure trove

On the way to the exhibition is a whimsical commissioned work (by artist Zach Bluett) depicting the many pets in Dante Gabriel’s unusual menagerie. And the entire (and imposing) Rossetti family greets you at the gallery entrance in a photo taken by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). That these siblings were first-generation immigrants (their parents fled Italy for political reasons) makes their influential rise and societal contributions even more remarkable. This exhibition provides fresh insights into their art, but it also addresses how the Rossettis challenged Victorian norms of sex, class, and gender.

Currently, the family’s best-known member is Dante Gabriel (1828-1882), and The Rossettis is a treasure trove of his works. From the Tate comes The Beloved (1865-66), a ravishing tribute to “The Song of Solomon,” while from Delaware comes the iconic Veronica Veronese (1872). Especially striking is the Tate’s Ecce Ancilla Domini/The Annunciation (1850). This early oil is an iconoclastic look at a frequently portrayed artistic subject: the angel Gabriel appears determined and impassive, while Mary, a teen shrinking in his presence, appears stunned and apprehensive.

The exhibition’s deep-hued colors elegantly set off the works, and dramatically facing one another on teal blue walls are two paintings that Rossetti created to be viewed as a pair but that were (until now) separated by an ocean: the Tate’s Proserpine (1874) and Delaware’s Mnemosyne (1881). Lynford notes that in forming his collection, 19th-century Wilmington collector Samuel Bancroft “acquired art by many Pre-Raphaelites, but he was drawn most intensely to Rossetti and would be delighted that this show reunites works that haven’t been displayed together for over 150 years.”

Meet the family

Dante Gabriel’s imposing paintings and intimate drawings are placed alongside the art, poetry, and prose of his influential siblings and Siddal (1829-1862). Originally a seamstress in a millinery shop, Siddal (who died tragically young) was long viewed as simply Rossetti’s lover, muse, and model. But she was in truth a 19th-century pioneer, devising unconventional, self-made fashions that set a new, freer style for women. An established independent artist, she exhibited works during her lifetime that were not seen again for 130 years. Here, she is rightly positioned among her peers. In fact, some UK views of The Rossettis posited that Siddal was the superior painter, and influential Victorian art critic John Ruskin was an early supporter of her work who said he would buy anything she produced.

During the era, the more famous Rossetti was poet Christina (1830-1894). She considered painting but gave it up for writing, her poetry first published at age 16. As well as Goblin Market (her best-known full-length work), she wrote moving poems like In the Bleak Midwinter, a beloved holiday carol. Vitrines throughout the exhibition display letters and beautiful books of her poetry, some illustrated by her brother, from both the museum’s Helen Farr Sloan Library and the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection (University of Delaware). A listening station samples 10 of her poems, movingly read by actor Diana Quick, including In an Artist’s Studio (about her brother’s obsession with model Jane Morris: “One face looks out from all his canvases”) and the haunting Remember (“Better by far you should forget and smile / Than that you should remember and be sad.”)

One of the original founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Michael (1829-1919) was the movement’s unofficial organizer and biographer. He studied briefly as a painter, and there are several fine examples of his drawings on view. Though he went on to a civil service career, he maintained a prolific critical output and edited the works of his siblings (and the first British edition of Walt Whitman’s poems). Founder of the literary magazine The Germ, he spent his final decades preserving the family legacy, and Jacobi noted that William Michael “gave us the Rossettis that we have today.”

Radical Victorians

There is an interesting panel illustrating the gilded frames Dante Gabriel created for his paintings, and accompanying the exhibition is a lavishly illustrated publication. Though their movement was short-lived, the Pre-Raphaelites fostered a radical attitude in Victorian Britain that was at least as important as the artworks that they produced. At the time, some people deified them, while others denigrated them. But this lush exhibition demythologizes them, contextualizing them as artists, certainly, but also as a remarkable creative family and a force for social change.

At top: The Beloved (“The Bride”), 1865-1866, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oil on canvas. (Image courtesy of the Tate.)

What, When, Where

The Rossettis. $6-$14 general admission (free on Thursdays from 4-8pm in December); an additional $11 to access The Rossettis. Through January 28, 2024, at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington. (302) 571-9590 or delart.org.


The museum and Copeland Sculpture Garden are wheelchair accessible, with free parking and a barrier-free entrance. Wheelchairs are available; personal care attendants are admitted free.

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