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Dante Gabriel Rossetti

9 of 29 portraits of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, by George Frederic Watts, circa 1871 -NPG 1011 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

by George Frederic Watts
Oil on linen, circa 1871
26 in. x 21 1/8 in. (661 mm x 535 mm)
NPG 1011


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Inscriptionback to top

Inscr. in red lower right: ‘G.F.Watts’.
On reverse, canvas stamp: ‘Winsor & Newton’.

This portraitback to top

This portrait was intended for George Frederic Watts’s series now known as the Hall of Fame, but as it was never ranked highly therein it has been seldom reproduced or discussed; unlike others, it has therefore not become an iconic likeness of the sitter, despite the paucity of portraits of him.

Artist and sitter had been acquainted since the early 1850s; they had many friends in common, and were on congenial if not close terms. In 1866, for example, Rossetti gave warm support for Watts’s election to the Royal Academy, writing, ‘had things gone as they should, you would have taken early a place suited to youth among them…’ [1] In 1870 he included Watts among the recipients of a complimentary copy of his Poems. [2]

The previous year Watts had responded to a studio invitation from Rossetti with the words, ‘I have been constantly on the point of going to see you, as I am always anxious to know what you are doing, but you and I are not good at visiting! If I am able to get round to Cheyne Walk on Friday or Saturday it will be between 11 and 2…’[3] Late in life, he wrote to William Holman Hunt of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: ‘I should certainly have joined your Fellowship, being proud to remember I always understood and acknowledged its value.’ [4] It is stated that he admired Rossetti’s poetry more than his painting, [5] and that the decision to paint the portrait followed shortly after the publication of Poems in late April 1870. [6] The portrait appears to encompass both talents, however, emphasizing Rossetti’s domed forehead as well as his penetrating gaze. Moreover, Watts probably planned the portrait before the publication of Poems; his current group of sitters included Edward Burne-Jones, [7] William Morris (NPG 1078), John Everett Millais (NPG 3552) and Frederic Leighton, and he customarily spoke of Rossetti in equal terms, as an undoubted genius.

The portrait will have been painted in Watts’s studio in Little Holland House, home of Thoby and Sara Prinsep. The exact date is unrecorded but was probably soon after 9 May 1870, when Rossetti returned to London after two months in the country recovering from vision problems. At age 43, he was enjoying new fame as a poet, and about to resume painting. Five years later, misremembering the date, he wrote, ‘Some four years ago, Watts R.A. painted a head of me for which I only gave him two sittings and which remained unfinished.’ [8] As was his practice, Watts worked on an absorbent ground prepared by Winsor & Newton (whose canvas stamp is on the reverse of the present work) from a blend of whiting, size, honey and a small quantity of pale oil. [9]

Rossetti recalled the work unfavourably: ‘My impression of it was appalling (though probably from its exact truth) and people ever since kept telling me it was horrible.’ In 1875, however, he sought to obtain the portrait:

Accordingly the other day I executed a coup de main. I took a spare chalk drawing, and sent [H.T.] Dunn with it to Little Holland House, sending him [G.F. Watts] also a note in which I said I would be much obliged if he would make an exchange as I wanted the portrait (not for myself) and that the bearer would call next day at the same time for it, to save him trouble. This resulted in my getting the picture next day, though poor W’s note with it plainly showed that it was even as a tooth out of his jaws.

The portrait belied his memory, for while the background and figure, wearing his usual black coat, are thinly painted in dark, generalized tones, in order to highlight the features, the work was finished. ‘Now that I’ve got it I really think it very fine and am quite ashamed to have played him such a trick,’ [10] he added, before writing apologetically to Watts:

On seeing the portrait anew, I really felt I had asked too much of you. I remembered it only as a beginning, and had no idea that it was so happy and brilliant an example of your work, or a framed picture so near completion. In proposing the exchange I wished for it in order to make a present, having always found it impracticable to paint my own portrait. Were it not for this I must in conscience have offered it you back again, seeing the utter inequality of the exchange as it stands; but things being thus, I will instead beg your acceptance of some further memento of my work, such as it is… [11]

Watts replied with exquisite courtesy:

My dear Rossetti – It gives me infinite pleasure to find you like the picture. We will not bandy compliments or I might tell you how much I value your drawing. I cannot think you indebted to me and should be very unwilling to take anything more from you in return; that would be to rob you of your time and labour, a very unjustifiable sort of proceeding, though of course I should like to possess any number of your works. [12]

The proposed recipient of Rossetti’s gift is thought to have been his patron F.R. Leyland, who did not, however, acquire it at this date. [13] It is unlikely to have been intended for Rossetti’s former companion Fanny Cornforth (later Mrs John Schott) but a year later he made it over to her, perhaps in lieu of a monetary gift, writing a formal note stating, ‘The portrait of myself painted in oil by G.F.Watts R.A. which is now at 16 Cheyne Walk is the property of Mrs Sarah Hughes and can be taken possession of by her at any time during my life or after my death.’ [14] Although Fanny took possession of the work sometime between 1876 and 1882, the gift never seems to have been openly acknowledged. According to Rossetti’s brother William Michael, ‘My full and genuine belief is that Gabriel never gave it to Mrs Schott, but only, not much liking it, transferred it from his own hands and house to hers.’ [15] It was not found in Rossetti’s house at his death.

It was first exhibited in the Rossetti memorial exhibitions during the winter of 1882–3,[16] followed by the privately organized show of works in the possession of Fanny and her husband held at ‘The Rossetti Gallery’ (hired premises in Bond Street) in May 1883, [17] where a subscription was opened to have the work engraved; this was not immediately accomplished, for unknown reasons, but perhaps due to potential challenges to the Schotts’ uncertain legal title. [18] Sometime in the next few years it was acquired by Leyland, reportedly from a pawnshop. [19]

It was first discussed (unillustrated) in early 1889, with this account by W.M. Rossetti:

Mr Watts produced the picture for his own satisfaction, treating my brother as one of the ‘distinguished men’ to whom he accorded this honour; and he presented it to the sitter. It is a completed yet not elaborately-finished work. To my thinking, the picture is well worthy of its pre-eminent author, but it is not one of the most conspicuously successful of his portraitures; some are more admirable as works of art, and several more striking as likenesses. My brother himself valued the picture, but did not absolutely acquiesce in it as a resemblance. The complexion and the hair appear to me somewhat too ruddy for that period in my brother’s life, and the expression comes nearer to settled placidity than was consistent with either his aspect or his nature. My brother was, in fact, though a tolerably easy-going, still a vehement man; in his character there was more of impulse than I recognize in Mr Watts’s portrait, and in his expression more of stress, though not strain. If his element was not that of ‘Stürm und Drang’, neither was it ‘the shadow nor the solitude’. [20]

He added, however, that when seen in 1883, the portrait ‘impressed me much more deeply and pleasurably than it had done in earlier years. I found it a fine work, bearing good witness to the painter who produced it, and to the other painter whom it records.’ [21]

In fact, though the likeness is a matter of judgement, the technical aspects leave more to be desired. Owing to the absorbent ground and thin paint layers, varnish has penetrated the support, the image has become visible on the reverse and the paint surface is friable.

Around 1890, while the work was in Leyland’s ownership, Watts made a replica copy, perhaps in preparation for the New Gallery’s Victorian Exhibition the following year, where it was shown alongside portraits of eminent men, mainly by himself, Millais and William Blake Richmond. Frederic George Stephens was scathing, describing it as ‘Mr Watts’s one and only complete failure’. [22] W.M. Rossetti hastened to disagree, writing to the artist:

Will you allow me to express my thanks to you for that very beautiful portrait of my brother? I looked on it long with deep interest and satisfaction. It will continue to long distant years to represent my brother to his countrymen in the most advantageous light, and a truthful one too. Certainly in that Victorian Exhibition you have made my brother shine forth pre-eminently among his contemporaries, both for aspect of genius and for those attractive qualities which one might associate with mental superiority. [23]

In further correspondence, he wrote:

I scarcely know whether or not to agree with you in preferring it to the original likeness which Leyland owned. I think the original exceeds (as was natural under the circumstances affecting the two cases) in the look of personal presence and actuality; on the other hand I think that the duplicate exceeds in suavity of expression, and in the sort of beauty which accompanies this, and that it is not less of a definite likeness. [24]

In May 1892, the present work was sold from Leyland’s estate. At the end of that year, the new owner, Liverpool businessman James Smith, agreed to an exchange with the artist whereby Watts regained the original, apparently in preparation for his plan to present the Hall of Fame to the National Portrait Gallery. [25] He told Smith, ‘I think it better to give the nation the one actually painted from life ... [of] one of our very greatest geniuses (time will I am sure so regard him).’[26] Watts received the original on 10 January 1893, the same day that he told Smith that the replica would arrive ‘in a day or two. I will, if I can find it, send you William Rossetti’s letter [quoted above] which you may like to see and perhaps copy.’ [27]

In December 1895, the original was among the seventeen works (NPG 1000–1016, including portraits of Tennyson, Carlyle, Shaftesbury and Browning) presented by Watts – then a Trustee of the Gallery – in anticipation of its move to the new building in St Martin’s Place. Presumably around this date, it was reproduced in photogravure by Frederick Hollyer,[28] one print being presented by William Rossetti to the city of Vasto, Italy, the Rossettis’ ancestral home. In 1923 the replica oil was bequeathed by Smith to the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool M., 2134).

In more recent opinions, the work has been seen through the lens of biography. It is noted, for example, that by 1871 Rossetti had ‘serious health problems’ and that the portrait records ‘signs of premature ageing … his hair is receding and his face careworn’. [29] It is more likely that Watts intended the expression as pensive, with intimations of artistic contemplation. For whatever reason, the portrait remains relatively unfamiliar and is seldom chosen for exhibition or reproduction in relation to the sitter or the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) Letter from D.G. Rossetti to G.F. Watts, 18 May 1866; quoted Gould 2004, p.85 n.8; Fredeman 2002–10, vol.3, letter 66:103, pp.439–40.
2) Letter from D.G. Rossetti to F.S. Ellis, 12 Apr.1870; Fredeman 2002–10, vol.4, letter 70:92, pp.430–34. Watts is listed as the eleventh of 46 recipients.
3) Letter from G.W. Watts to D.G. Rossetti, 30 Mar. 1869; typescript in G.F. Watts correspondence album 5, f.214, NPG Archive.
4) Letter from G.W. Watts to W.H. Hunt, 1897; quoted Gould 2004, p.33 n.52. In 1903, Vanessa Bell reported Watts’s remark that Rossetti was ‘the greatest genius of them all’; quoted Gould 2004, p.348.
5) See Watts 1912, vol.1, pp.288–9.
6) Gould 2004, p.100.
7) Exh. RA 1870, where Rossetti admired it c.18 May.
8) Letter from D.G. Rossetti to Alice Boyd, 24 Aug. 1875; Fredeman 2002–10, vol.7, letter 75:110, pp.81–2. The drawing given in exchange was a chalk study for the subject picture The Roman Widow (now Fogg AM, Harvard, 1939.105); see Surtees 1971, no.236B.
9) Recipe given by Winsor & Newton, 28 July 1892; quoted Watts 1912, vol.3, p.69.
10) This account of the transaction all from letter from D.G. Rossetti to Alice Boyd, 24 Aug. 1875 (see note 8 above).
11) Letter from D.G. Rossetti to G.F. Watts, 26 Aug. 1875; first published Watts 1912, vol.1, pp.267–8; Fredeman 2002–10, vol.7, letter 75:112, pp.82–3.
12) Letter from G.F. Watts to D.G. Rossetti, 27 Aug. 1875 (now MSS Coll., U. of British Columbia L.); quoted in full Watts 1912, vol.1, pp.268–9; and Fredeman 2002–10, vol.7, letter 75:112A, p.84.
13) This is stated in the MS catalogue compiled by James Smith, now in Walker AG archives (see Morris 1996, p.493 n.4) and accords with Leyland’s relationship with Rossetti in the 1870s.
14) D.G. Rossetti, unaddressed signed document, 3 July 1876; Fredeman 2002–10, vol.7, letter 76:103, p.289. Fanny Cornforth’s legal name at this date was Sarah Hughes; later, after her first husband’s death, she married John B. Schott.
15) Letter from W.M. Rossetti to T. Watts-Dunton, 18 June 1883; Peattie 1990, no.369, p.451. It is evident that William was unaware of his brother’s document of 3 July 1876 (see note 19 below).
16) For information on the efforts of Frederic Leighton, PRA, to secure this loan, see letter from W.M. Rossetti to his wife, 20 Aug. 1882; Peattie 1990, no.355, pp.435–6. In the RA exhibition it was credited to the collection of Mrs Schott and dated to ‘about 1865’, which suggests that Watts was not consulted.
17) ‘…some strictly her property, others no doubt not so in reality, but allowed to pass unchallenged as if they were’ (W.M. Rossetti Diary, 22 May 1883, quoted Peattie 1990, p.436).
18) Letter from W.M. Rossetti to T. Watts-Dunton, 18 June 1883 raising the possibility of ‘awkward questions’ which would damage the ‘pretty little subscription-list for the engraving from that portrait’. See also notice cited in Troxell 1937, p.77.
19) See Watts 1912, vol.1, p.269; cf. the similar provenance of NPG 3033. Hearsay recorded by W.M. Rossetti indicates that Leyland sought to purchase the portrait from the Schotts in 1882, but declined to pay the asking price of £200 (see letter from W.M. Rossetti to his wife, 20 Aug. 1882; Peattie 1990, no.355, pp.435–6).
20) Rossetti 1889a, pp.138–9; the words ‘the shadow nor the solitude’ are from Shelley’s The Triumph of Life.
21) Rossetti 1889a, p.139.
22) Athenaeum, 5 Dec. 1891, p.769.
23) Letter from W.M. Rossetti to G.F. Watts, 30 Dec. 1891 (now MSS Coll., U. of British Columbia L.); extract quoted Gould 2004, p.260; first published in fuller version Watts 1912, vol.1, pp.269–70, where dated to 1892.
24) Letter from W.M. Rossetti to G.F. Watts, 14 Apr. 1892; Peattie 1990, no.470, p.551.
25) Letter from G.F. Watts to J. Smith, 10 Jan. 1893, typescript in G.F. Watts correspondence album 14, f.21, NPG Archive. It is thought that Smith acquired both the replica and another work by Watts for £200; see Morris 1996, entries for WAG 2134 and WAG 2106 (I’m afloat, showing a putto on waves), pp.493 and 499, citing correspondence between Watts and Smith 1892–3. But Smith bought several works from Watts at this period and the original/replica exchange may have been a simple one.
26) Extract quoted in Myers & Co., Catalogue of Autograph Letters etc., Spring 1954 (529).
27) Letter from G.F. Watts to J. Smith, 10 Jan. 1893; typescript in G.F. Watts correspondence album 14, f.14, NPG Archive.
28) Used in 1899 for the first catalogue raisonné of Rossetti’s work by H.C. Marillier. Hollyer’s photograph of the painting was reg. for copyright 1907 Aug. 29: National Archives (COPY 1/512/308).
29) Spencer-Longhurst 2001, p.82.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders, turned slightly to left, fresh complexion, grey eyes, brown hair and beard, wearing black coat over indistinct brown garment, right arm raised over back of upright chair.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1975; 2000; 2008.

Provenanceback to top

The artist, from whom acquired by sitter by exchange 1875; Fanny Cornforth; bought ‘from a pawnboker’ by F.R. Leyland, c.1883; his sale 28 May 1892 (47); bought James Gow; bought James Smith, Blundellsands, near Liverpool; returned to artist by exchange; presented 1895.

Exhibitionsback to top

Dante Gabriel Rossetti retrospective, RA Winter Exhibition, London, 1882–3 (344).

Reproductionsback to top

Reproductions of NPG 1011
Spencer-Longhurst 2001, pl.24.

Treuherz et al. 2003, fig.86.

Other reproductions of the image
Marillier 1899, frontispiece (from photogravure by Frederick Hollyer).

The Bookman, December 1900, p.81 (photograph by Frederick Hollyer engr. ‘Exemplar’).

View all known portraits for Dante Gabriel Rossetti

View all known portraits for George Frederic Watts