The Tragic Life of the Pre-Raphaelite Art Model Elizabeth Siddal
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.
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 , 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. Elizabeth Siddal
The Sittings of Elizabeth SiddalClick thumbnail to view full-size
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Heartache
"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.
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