Painter, designer and poet, Rosetti showed a sensitivity for drawing and writing from a very early age. In 1841 he attended Henry Sass’s Drawing Academy in Bloomsbury, London and then in 1845 he enrolled in the Antique School of the Royal Academy. He eventually left to study with Ford Madox Brown, whose work he admired. Although Brown was a close friend, Rossetti left five months later in August 1848. He then enrolled in the studio of William Holman Hunt, also a Royal Academy student.
During this period, writing also absorbed much of Rossetti’s time. In the autumn of 1848, he finished translating into English the Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri , the 13th-century Italian poet . The Vita Nuova which means “life renewed by love”, recounts tales of Dante’s idealized love for a Florentine girl called Beatrice. Rossetti also planned a series of illustrations for the Vita Nuova which he made in pen and water-colour, and again at the end of his life in crayon and oil.
In September 1848, Rossetti formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. The Brotherhood advocated a return to the simplicity and realism of early Italian art before the time of Raphael. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used the initials ‘PRB’. Their work was characterized by its attention to detail and fidelity to nature. In 1850, Rossetti developed the magazine, The Germ for the Brotherhood. This magazine, which focused on the nature of art, was published four times. The Brotherhood was short lived and by 1852, it ceased to exist.
In January 1855, with the encouragement of the critic and writer John Ruskin, Rossetti began to teach at the Working Men’s College, London. His watercolour works of this time reflect his enthusiasm for Robert Browning’s poetry, Arthurian romance, biblical subjects, Dante and medieval lore.
In 1856 Rossetti befriended two Oxford undergraduates, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.As a member of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., Rossetti illustrated books and executed designs for stained glass.
During the 1850s Rossetti’s favourite model was Elizabeth Siddall. They married in 1860. Rossetti made a series of 60 studies of her, including the painting The Salutation of Beatrice (1859) which features her as Dante’s Beatrice in Heaven. The figure is placed within a confined space, of meticulously rendered nature. It shows Rossetti’s preference for deep gold, pure light green, brown and scarlet at this time.
Rossetti’s work attracted the attention of the Symbolist painters. They felt that his later work which consisted of exaggerated undulating lines coincided with their own evocative and introspective dream imagery.