Newly Digitized Archives Reveal the Inner Lives of Artists

The Delaware Art Museum just put 500 rare documents online

Lady Lilith
Fanny Cornforth posted for "Lady Lilith" and other influential Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The personal lives of artists don’t just result in great art—sometimes, they’re works of art within themselves. Take Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose years-long relationship with a model named Fanny Cornforth resulted in some of the Pre-Raphaelite period’s greatest paintings. Now, you can learn more about Rossetti’s love affair—and other artists’ personal lives—with a newly digitized collection of documents.

In a release, the Delaware Art Museum announced that it has put 500 archival items online in a bid to open its collections to the world. The digital collections portal, which will continue to be updated with new artifacts, includes everything from documents about the museum itself to the correspondence of legendary illustrator Howard Pyle and painter John Sloan, who was part of New York’s influential “Ashcan School.” Among its treasures are revealing letters between Dante Gabriel Rossetti—founder of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—and Cornforth.

The romance between Rossetti and Conforth, born Sarah Cox, resulted in both inspiration and scandal. Cornforth, a servant with luxurious hair, caught the married Rossetti’s eye and became his model. By the time Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth, committed suicide after a stillbirth in 1862, Conforth was his mistress. Soon, she moved in and became his housekeeper, too.

Rossetti’s friends were scandalized by his open relationship with a working-class woman with a Cockney accent. But the relationship continued throughout the rest of his life. Even after she was kicked out of his house by concerned family members, he sent her drawings, fond letters and some financial support, to the horror of his family and friends.

“You are the only person whom it is my duty to provide for, and you may be sure I should do my utmost as long as there was breath in my body or a penny in my purse,” Rossetti wrote to Cornforth in 1872 in a letter that apparently didn’t include money. “If you can get on for the present moment without my help, it will be a great assistance to me,” he wrote five years later.

But Rossetti’s health was worsening, and after his death in 1882 Cronforth suffered from declining physical and mental health. When she died in 1909, she was buried in a common grave.

Though the Delaware Art Museum is known for its collection of Pre-Raphaelite art and artifacts, it was forced to sell at least one of its precious paintings to stay afloat. As Randy Kennedy notes for The New York Times, the museum paid off millions of dollars of debt by “de-accessioning” some of its most important paintings.

The practice has become common for museums struggling to survive, but as reported in 2015, it’s a controversial one—and the Delaware Art Museum was even sanctioned for the sale.

The digitization effort offers a happier reason for the museum's collection to be back in the news—and is a neat way to preserve and share these artistic treasures with the world.

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