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Dante Rossetti was born to Italian scholar Gabriele Rossetti and his wife Frances in London in 1828. His sister, Christina, was a poet; brother William a writer and critic; and sister, Maria, an author. He was home educated but attended King’s College School when older. His interests included poetry and art and he went on to study art at Henry Sass’s Drawing Academy and the Royal Academy, and trained with Ford Madox Brown.

After attending an exhibition by William Hunt, Rossetti sought out Hunt’s friendship believing they shared artistic and literary ideals. Together they developed the artistic philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which they founded with John Everett Millais. Rossetti met artist Elizabeth Siddall in 1849 while she was working as a model for other artists. She became his primary model by 1851 and they married in 1860. Siddall was in poor health and travelled to France to try to recover. Unfortunately, she died from a laudanum overdose in 1862, leaving Rossetti to grieve.

Rossetti’s father was a follower of Emmanuel Swedenborg who was known for his visions of the afterlife. Rossetti was also a reader of Edgar Allen Poe and he even illustrated some of Poe’s stories. These experiences triggered Dante’s interest in the occult. Then, in the early 1850s, he became friends with William and Mary Howitt who he met through their daughter, Anna Mary, a fellow student from Sass’s Academy. He learned about Spiritualism and attended a séance in 1858 but wasn’t serious about the belief until Siddall died.

After her death, he saw Siddall nightly at the foot of his bed. He began attending seances with friend James McNeal Whistler. His art, for example, “How They Met Themselves,” was inspired by Spiritualism and the occult. Rossetti’s interest in seances and communicating with the dead was highlighted in a diary kept by William Rossetti. It is composed of 27 handwritten pages entitled “Memoranda by himself.” It records twenty seances that occurred between 1865 and 1868.

Rossetti continued to communicate with Siddall during William’s first recorded séance on November 11, 1865.  The diary identifies 39 participants who attended the seances over the three-year period and lists ten separate locations. Their success varied, with professional mediums, Mary Marshall and Elizabeth Guppy, being most productive in groups of fewer skeptics. Spirits of deceased artists appeared regularly, including John Cross, Frank Oliphant, and Thomas Sedon. At one séance Eau-de-cologne showered them, books jumped from bookcases, flowers fell into the participants’ laps. In two others, one participant saw lights appear and cold air passed over her hands.

Rossetti moved to the country house of a friend in 1882. He tried to improve his health, which had been destroyed by chloral, a sedative mainly used to cure insomnia. He died of kidney disease that he had suffered from for some time.

Ash, Russell (1995), Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Pavilion Books, New York: Abrams

Bullen, J.B. and R. White (2020) “Communication with the Dead: The Séance Diary of W.M. Rossetti.” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 29, p 4-11.

Doughty, Oswald (1949), A Victorian Romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Frederick Muller.


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