The son of an émigré Italian scholar, Rossetti was born in London, England. He was the brother of Christina Rossetti and a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt.
At a very early age, he showed a strong interest in literature. Like all his siblings, he aspired to be a poet. However, he also wished to be a painter, having shown a great interest in Medieval Italian art. He studied under Ford Madox Brown, with whom he was to retain a close relationship throughout his life.
Following the exhibition of Holman Hunt's painting The Eve of St. Agnes, Rossetti sought out Hunt's friendship. The painting illustrated a poem by the then still little-known John Keats. Rossetti's own poem "The Blessed Damozel" was an imitation of Keats, so he believed that Hunt might share his artistic and literary ideals. Together they developed the philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti was always more interested in the Medieval than in the modern side of the movement. He was publishing translations of Dante and other Medieval Italian poets, his art also sought to adopt the stylistic characteristics of the their contemporaries.
Nevertheless Rossetti's first major paintings display some of the realist qualities of the early Pre-Raphaelite movement. His "Girlhood of Mary, Virgin" and "Ecce Ancilla Domini" both portray Mary as an emaciated and repressed teenage girl. His incomplete picture "Found" was his only major modern-life subject. It was to have depicted a prostitute, lifted up from the street by a country-drover who recognises his old sweetheart. However, Rossetti increasingly preferred symbolic and mythological images to realistic ones. This was also of his later poetry.
Both these developments were precipitated by events in his private life, in particular by the death of his wife Elizabeth Siddal. She had taken an overdose of laudanum shortly after giving birth to a dead child. Rossetti became increasingly depressed, and buried the bulk of his unpublished poems in her grave at Highgate Cemetery. He idealised her image as Dante's Beatrice in a number of paintings, such as "Beata Beatrix".
The Holy Grail, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
During these years, Rossetti was prevailed upon by friends to exhume his poems from his wife's grave. This he did, collating and publishing them in 1871. They created a controversy when they were attacked as the epitome of the 'fleshly school of poetry'. The eroticism and sensuality of the poems caused offense. One poem , "Nuptial Sleep", described a couple falling asleep after sex. This was part of Rossetti's sonnet sequence The House of Life, a complex series of poems tracing the physical and spiritual development of an intimate relationship. Rossetti described the sonnet form as a 'moment's monument', implying that it sought to contain the feelings of a fleeting moment, and to reflect upon their meaning. The House of Life was a series of interacting monuments to these moments - an elaborate whole made from a mosaic of intensely described fragments. This was Rossetti's most substantial literary achievement.
Rossetti also typically wrote sonnets for his pictures, such as "Astarte Syraica". As a designer, he worked with William Morris to produce images for stained glass and other decorative devices.
Rossetti's later years were darkened by his drug addiction, and his increasing mental instability. He died at Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, England.
See also English school of painting