Long, high noses, and plump, rounded lips. Curled, lush hair and long, sensuous necks. Gowns folding over themselves, loose and ethereal in decadent Arthurian and Grecian scenes. Striking, a demanding kind of beauty. These were the divine muses — women both commanding and ethereal — of the Pre-Raphaelite painters — women embodying goddesses, saints, legends. Of all the dozens of models, Elizabeth Siddal stands out for her tragedy, conflict, and contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite canon, not only as a muse, but as an artist in her own right. Siddal and her iconic portrayal of Ophelia are inseparable; the stuff of a joint ghost story. But, who is the woman behind the myths? Where can we find what is human among lives and deaths romanticized into characters? I want us to appreciate Siddal not only as a mythologized figure, but as an artist, suffering and creating in her own right, in her very real and human way.
Elizabeth Siddal is remembered as Ophelia as much as she is as Elizabeth. You may know the legend behind the magnificent painting pictured above. Siddal was lying in a bath of water while Millais painted her, with candles beneath to keep the water warm. After many hours, the candles went out, and Millais was too engrossed in his painting to notice; Siddal did not complain, but remained in the icy water until he was finished. Her body never recovered from the subsequent consumption, and her health waxed and waned. In order to cope with her poor physical health and following depression, Elizabeth became heavily dependent on laudanum.
By the time she modeled for Millais, Elizabeth was already well-acquainted with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a loose group of artists renowned for their highly detailed, deeply colorful paintings of Classical and Biblical subjects. There are several rivaling backstories to how she came to meet these artists (perhaps she was discovered at the hat shop she worked at, perhaps her by showing her excellent drawings and paintings to the father of painter Walter Deverell), but we know she did model for Walter Deverell in 1849, at the age of nineteen. This is when she met Rossetti, who took an immediate interest in Elizabeth as a muse and a romantic partner. By 1852, she was modeling exclusively for him, and had quit her job at a hat shop.
By 1855, art critic John Ruskin became her patron for her art and poetry. She began traveling around Europe, her art (and paintings of her) displayed amongst the all-male Brotherhood. Her relationship with Rossetti was rocky; allegedly, despite his outpouring of adoration for her in writing, he cheated on her several times. He proposed to her, and then called off the wedding. With her health flagging, they eventually did marry in 1860 when Rossetti began to fear that she may not live much longer. In the spring of 1861, Siddal, horrifically frail, delivered a stillborn daughter. Postpartum depression seized her, and she rocked an empty cradle for weeks, shushing everyone to not wake her phantom baby. Even though she became pregnant again in late 1861, Siddal’s mental and physical health was worsening; she overdosed on laudanum the February of the following year. Rossetti was shattered, and called four doctors to try and revive her.
But, Siddal could not be saved. She died early in the morning, apparently with a suicide note pinned to her shift. Rossetti hid this, as suicide was considered both immoral and illegal, and it would deny her a Christian burial and tarnish her reputation. She was buried with a book of his poetry six days later. Although her life had been tragic, possibly riddled with infidelity, this is where the Gothic ghost story really begins. Rossetti finds a new muse and lover in Jane Morris, a mutual friend of the couple. Siddal had always feared Rossetti would leave him for a younger muse, and he did. Perhaps riddled with guilt, Rossetti is haunted by her, but that does not keep him from his ghoulish plan. As his career is waning, he exhumes Siddal, stealing back the love poems he had left with her in death. According to legend, her body was just as pale and intact as it had been when they buried her, and copper hair had never stopped growing, filling the coffin with her iconic tresses.
This is how Siddal is remembered, in life and in death — a wraith, a ghost, disembodied. Painter Ford Madox Brown praised her “consumptive beauty,” ignoring the real human suffering by applauding her dwindling health: Siddal was “looking thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever.” The mythologization of her death wrote itself, delectably Shakespearean. She was eerily Ophelian; after the inciting painting, she lost her beloved (baby, not father), she went “mad” with grief, she ended her own life. Rossetti did not jump into her grave until seven years after her death, but the parallels are unsettlingly Gothic.
However, Siddal was a woman, not a wraith. Her own talents, insights, and personality were overshadowed by the legends of her beauty, her tragedy, and the men surrounding her (Siddal was not famous until after her death and the stories that sprung up around it.) This, to me, is a great wrong; Siddal was a woman who deserved more. She was not only a brilliant poet and artist, but a woman who took control of her own life in spite of the restrictions of her era, who collaborated with great artists not only as a model, but as an active participant in the creation. I have been greatly inspired by Stephanie Chatfield to write this article (please check out her website in my sources), and I believe her answer to grounding Siddal is an elegant one: focus on her art. To inter Siddal’s ghost, we must recognize her humanity and see past her status as muse, to see her as an artist, and return to her the recognition she was denied.
I would highly recommend browsing the Lizzie Siddal website gallery. My personal favorite is the self-portrait by Siddal. We see a face that is obscured in other paintings done by men; it does not quite fit the definition of beauty that Pre-Raphaelite painters adhered to, but is a more honest, more intimate reflection upon her own self (while still utilizing the deep colors and intricacies that define the Pre-Raphaelites.) In a way, it allows us to see Siddal as she saw herself, rather than what the men in her life made her in to be — she is not a prop, or a myth or a goddess, but a woman whose passion and talent should not be overlooked.
I sit in thy shadow but not alone. Elizabeth Siddal.
LizzieSiddal.com by Stephanie Chatfield — a wealth of information!
The Women of Pre-Raphaelite Art, Angelica Frey, November 4, 2020 for Art & Object