Elizabeth Siddal

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Elizabeth Siddal, in this 1854 self-portrait, did not see herself the luminous beauty her admirers saw.

Elizabeth Siddal (July 25, 1829 - February 11, 1862) was a British model who was painted and drawn extensively by artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Siddal was perhaps the most important model to sit for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their ideas about feminine beauty were profoundly influenced by her, or rather she personified those ideals. She was Rossetti's model par excellence; almost all of his early paintings of women are portraits of her. She was also painted by Walter Deverell, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, and was the model for Millais' well known Ophelia (1852).

Siddal, whose name was originally spelt 'Siddall' (it was Rossetti who dropped the second 'l') was first noticed by Deverell, while she was working as a milliner. Neither she nor her family had any artistic aspirations or interests. She was employed as a model by Deverell and through him was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelites. The nineteen year old with her tall thin frame and copper hair was the first of the Pre-Raphaelite stunners.

While posing for Millais' Ophelia (1852), Siddal had floated in a bathtub full of water to model the drowned Ophelia. Millais painted daily into the winter with Siddal modeling. He put lamps under the tub to warm the water. On one occasion the lamps went out and the water slowly became icy cold. Millais was absorbed by his painting and did not notice. Siddal did not complain. After this session she became very sick, and never fully recovered. It was long thought that she suffered from tuberculosis, historians now believe that an intestinal disorder was more likely. Whatever the case Siddal never fully recovered and suffered from poor health from then on.

Elizabeth Siddal was the primary muse for Dante Gabriel Rossetti throughout most of his youth. After he met her he began to paint her and almost only her and stopped her from modelling for the other Pre-Raphaelites. These drawings and paintings culminated in Beata Beatrix, painted in 1863, one year after Elizabeth's death. She was used as a model for this painting which shows a praying Beatrice (from Dante Alighieri).

After becoming engaged to Rossetti, Siddal began to study with him. In contrast to Rossetti's idealized paintings, Siddal's were harsh. This is very evident in her single oil painting, a self portrait, pictured above. Rossetti painted and repainted her and drew countless sketches of her. His depictions show a beauty. Her self portrait shows much about the subject, but certainly not the floating beauty that Rossetti painted. This painting is historically very significant because it shows, through her own eyes, a beauty who was idealized by so many famous artists. In 1855 the art critic John Ruskin began to subsidize her career. Ruskin paid a generous yearly stipend in exchange for all drawings and paintings that she produced. Siddal produced many sketches but only a single painting. Her sketches are laid out similar to Pre-Rapaelite compositions and tend to illustrate Arthurian legend and other idealized Medieval themes. Ruskin also admonished Rossetti in his letters for not marrying Siddal and giving her the security she needed. During this period Siddal also began to write poetry.

As Siddal came from a lower class family Rossetti feared introducing her to his parents. Lizzy was also the victim of harsh criticism from Rossetti's sisters. The knowledge that the family would not approve the wedding contributed to Rosetti putting it off. Siddal also appears to have believed with some justification that Rossetti was always seeking to replace her with a younger muse which contributed to her later depressive periods and illness.

Siddal travelled to Paris and Nice for several years for her health. She returned to England in 1860 to marry Rossetti. In the previous ten years he had been engaged to her and then broken it off at the last minute several times. Stress from those incidents had affected her. She was now clinically depressed and her long illness had given her access to and addiction to laudanum. In 1861, Siddal became pregnant. She was overjoyed about this, but the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Siddal overdosed on laudanum shortly after becoming pregnant for a second time. Rossetti discovered the body and a suicide note. Consumed with grief and guilt Rossetti went to the see Holman Hunt who instructed him to burn the note - under the law at the time suicide was both illegal and immoral and would have brought a scandal on the family as well as barred Siddal from a christian burial.

Death, however, was not her last adventure. Overcome with grief, Rossetti enclosed in Elizabeth's coffin a small journal containing the only copies he had of his many poems. He slid the book into Elizabeth's flowing red hair. In 1869, Rossetti was chronically addicted to drugs and alcohol. He convinced himself that he was going blind and couldn't paint. He began to write poetry again. Before publishing his newer poems he became obsessed with retrieving the poems he had slipped into Elizabeth's hair. Rossetti procured an order to have her coffin exhumed to retrieve the manuscript. This was done in the dead of night so as to avoid public curiosity and attention, and Rossetti was not present. Her corpse was reportedly remarkably preserved and her delicate beauty intact when the manuscript was retrieved. Despite this report a worm had burrowed through the book so that it was difficult to read some of the poems.

Rossetti published the old poems with his newer ones; they were not well received by some critics because of their eroticism, and he was haunted by the exhumation through the rest of his life.

Rossetti's relationship with Siddal is also explored by Christina Rossetti in her poem "In an Artist's Studio".

Quotation:

Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.
Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.
But true love, seek me in the throng
Of spirits floating past,
And I will take thee by the hands
And know thee mine at last.
-- From Early Death


References

Daly, Gay (1989). Pre-Raphaelites in love, Ticknor & Fields, New York.

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