William Michael Rossetti was a brother of the better known siblings: Christina Rossetti the poet and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the writer, painter and all round artiste. William Michael was perhaps best known as being the diarist of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement that included not only the above-mentioned siblings, but also the painter of his portrait: Ford Madox Brown. Madox Brown was rather older than the other members of the group, and he is credited with offering them some guidance in their work and their personal lives alike, but he is also on record as crediting the group with helping him to transform his own work. It was no doubt due to this association that Madox Brown came to paint William Michael – the group had been established for eight years at the time of the painting.
But what does the image show us? A rather intense man, whose age might be guessed at being somewhere in the thirties, if we were not aware of the date. The age on his face might be a sign of life in those days, which was unforgiving, or it might be chalked up to his receding hairline, which displays a large and intelligent forehead. His eyes focus intently on something to the right of the viewer, and are large and clear under decisive brows. Underneath a very manly beard and moustache combination, his face seems to be to be very thin, with deep-set eyes and hollows under his cheekbones – perhaps, again, a sign of hardships he had suffered? However, the longer one examines the painting, the more the man seems to become more human: a hint of a smile along his mouth which seems disposed for friendliness, curiosity and interest in those focussed eyes, and a lack of harsh lines and wrinkles which might otherwise have given his face a hard or unwelcoming appearance.
The Portrait of William Michael Rossetti by Lamplight is only a small portrait, measuring some 16.1 by 17.2 centimetres, but it is full of detail and impact leaving in its wake a sense of having known, however briefly, the man himself. It can be seen in Wightwick Manor in the West Midlands of the United Kingdom, having come into the ownership of the National Trust.