The Tragic Life of the Pre-Raphaelite Art Model Elizabeth Siddal

Updated on October 16, 2018
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Art Model Elizabeth Siddal  by Pre-Raphaelite Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti circa 1854
Art Model Elizabeth Siddal by Pre-Raphaelite Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti circa 1854 | Source

She’s like a queen, magnificently tall, with a lovely figure, a stately neck, and a face of the most delicate and finished modelling: the flow of surface from the temples over the cheek is exactly like the carving of a Phidean goddess – Walter Howell Deverell describing Elizabeth Siddal

The Early Years

Elizabeth Siddal was born in 1829 into a working-class family - her father had owned and operated a cutlery-making business which provided the family with a humble standing in life. There is no documentation that she had ever attended school however hand-written letters attest to the fact that she could read and write, and most likely received her knowledge through homeschooling.

When Elizabeth became of age, she had taken on work through a local milliner, a highly sought-after employment position for a young woman at that time. Be that as it may, fate had intervened yet again with the chance meeting of Will Deverell, an artist who spotted her at the millinery shop and requested that she do a sitting for him.

There is a bit of irony in this chance meeting.

Deverell had chosen Siddal based on the fact that he needed a subject to portray Viola as Cesario dressed as a boy in his depiction of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Deverell found Siddal to be 'plain in appearance' whereas history had otherwise deemed her as one of the greatest beauties to have ever emerged from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's circle. With art, discernment is the rule to one's own perception, and to Deverell despite his much later claim to her beauty - this was his truth at that time.


The Painting That Almost Claimed a Frail Beauty:  Milliais's Ophelia
The Painting That Almost Claimed a Frail Beauty: Milliais's Ophelia | Source

Elizabeth Siddal: The Beauty in the Bathtub

The Modeling Years

Though Elizabeth Siddal started her art modeling career sitting for William Deverell, it wasn't long before she held other artist interests, mainly those of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. One artist, in particular, was entirely fascinated with her appearance - Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whom she had met through Deverell.

By 1851, Siddal had started to sit for Rossetti.

Right away the young artist and model became romantically involved. Rossetti took "Lizzie" (as she was endearingly referred) under his wing and tutored her, teaching her how to sketch and paint, and in turn, she produced many drawings and watercolors which even caught the eye of a famous art critic, John Ruskin who encouraged and patronized her talent.

For the next decade, Siddal became a focal point in Rossetti's life. Consumed and possessive with Siddal, Rossetti had made it a rule that she was no longer allowed to sit for any other artist as long as she was with him. The demand was almost hypocritical in so much as Rosetti himself had often used other models and even entertained dalliances here and there. Even still, after a long anticipated wait for Siddall, they had eventually married at the behest of her ill health.

Some of Rossetti's greatest achievements in art feature Elizabeth Siddal, especially the much studied Beata Beatrice, a memoriam, which not only seized the epitome of Pre-Raphaelite beauty but held an uncanny spiritual significance as well.

The Sittings of Elizabeth Siddal

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Regina Cordium Circa 1862  Dante Gabriel Rossetti As the inscription on the watercolour shows, the picture is the joint production of DGR and Elizabeth Siddal.  The Quest for the Holy GrailTwo Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia From Proteus between 1850 and 1851 by William Holman HuntSir Patrick Spens  circa 1856  by Elizabeth Siddal
Regina Cordium Circa 1862  Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Regina Cordium Circa 1862 Dante Gabriel Rossetti | Source
As the inscription on the watercolour shows, the picture is the joint production of DGR and Elizabeth Siddal.  The Quest for the Holy Grail
As the inscription on the watercolour shows, the picture is the joint production of DGR and Elizabeth Siddal. The Quest for the Holy Grail | Source
Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia From Proteus between 1850 and 1851 by William Holman Hunt
Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia From Proteus between 1850 and 1851 by William Holman Hunt | Source
Sir Patrick Spens  circa 1856  by Elizabeth Siddal
Sir Patrick Spens circa 1856 by Elizabeth Siddal | Source

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Heartache

Beata Beatrix between 1864 and 1870 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Beata Beatrix between 1864 and 1870 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti | Source

"Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been;

I am also call’d No-more, Too-late, Farewell"

— Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (The House of Life: 97. A Superscription, 1-2)

The Final Years

It wasn't until after their nuptials when Elizabeth Siddal started to slowly fall out of favor with her artist husband. Even though she remained a faithful wife, he turned his attention and creativity and inspiration toward other models, younger and much healthier than she - art models such as the femme fatale Annie Miller, the comely Fanny Cornforth, the winsome Jane Burden Morris, and the classic Alexa Wilding.

Rossetti's unfaithfulness might have been one of the reasonings for Siddal's depression, her addiction to opioids, and various conditions that led to a weakening of her system, causing frail health and her eventual demise.

Elizabeth Siddal quietly died of a Laudnum overdose in February of 1862. Though reported as an accidental death, it has been suggested that Rossetti might have found a suicide note yet withheld the information so that he could keep his family free of scandal and give his wife a proper Christian burial. Rossetti never fully recovered from the guilt that he suffered over her death and carried the tragedy with him for the rest of his life.

One of three surviving leaves from the book of poetry buried with Elizabeth Siddall. Praise and prayer: manuscript, before 1862[5] MS Eng 769. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
One of three surviving leaves from the book of poetry buried with Elizabeth Siddall. Praise and prayer: manuscript, before 1862[5] MS Eng 769. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. | Source

Cited Sources

Stephanie Pina. Exploring Elizabeth Siddal: Letters Written By Elizabeth Siddal (http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/25/)

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

Surtees, Virginia (1991). Rossetti's Portraits of Elizabeth Siddall, Aldershot: Scolar Press

© 2018 Ziyena Brazos

Comments

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  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR

    Ziyena Brazos 

    3 weeks ago from Somewhere in Time ...

    Liz ... there is so much more to the story being that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the epic to it all, along with his other art models which he had illicit affairs. As I've stated before ... an old-fashioned Victorian Soap Opera :) Thank You

  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    3 weeks ago from UK

    This is a fascinating historical and biographical account, uncovering the story behind the paintings.

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