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The Pre-Raphaelite Art Model: Elizabeth Siddal

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An Arts Major and Published Indie Author who writes on various subjects pertaining to Humanities.

Elizabeth Siddal was born in 1829 into a working-class family. Her father owned and operated a cutlery-making business, which provided the family with a little 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 was old enough, she sought employment as a local milliner. Fate had intervened yet again with the chance meeting of Walter Deverell, an artist who spotted her at the millinery shop and requested that she do a sitting for him. As you’ll soon see, there is a bit of twisted irony in this chance meeting.

Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal 1854 by Pre-Raphaelite Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal 1854 by Pre-Raphaelite Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth's Art Modeling Career

Elizabeth Siddal had started her art modeling career by sitting for Walter Deverell. The artist had chosen her because he needed a subject to portray Viola as Cesario dressed as a boy in his depiction of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. He 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 perception, and as for Deverell despite his much later claim to her beauty—this was his truth.

It wasn’t long before Siddal held the interest of other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. One artist, in particular, found himself fascinated with red-headed stunner's appearance—Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As the co-founder of the famed group, it wasn't long before Elizabeth took advantage of her admirer's fanciful whim.

Two Lovers by female Pre-Raphaelite artist Elizabeth Siddal 1854

Two Lovers by female Pre-Raphaelite artist Elizabeth Siddal 1854

Siddal's Artistic Endeavors

By 1851, Siddal had sat for Rossetti. Right away, the young artist and model became involved in a heated romance. Rossetti took “Lizzie” under his wing and tutored her, teaching her how to sketch (as pictured above) and paint, and she produced many drawings, watercolors, and poetical prose which even caught the eye of a famous art critic, John Ruskin who encouraged and patronized her talent. Despite her claim to fame as an art model, her true talent was in her artistic expression, which remains underrated and shadowed by her illustrious modeling career.

 Elizabeth Siddal circa 1860

Elizabeth Siddal circa 1860

Rossetti's Amorous Attachment to Siddal

For the next decade, Siddal became a focal point in Rossetti’s life. She could not with other artists while modeling for him. The demand seemed hypocritical, given the artist’s occasional penchant for other models. After a long expected wait for Siddall, they had married at the behest of her ill health.

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Some of Rossetti’s most significant achievements in art featured Siddal, the much studied Beata Beatrice, a memorial which not only seized the epitome of Pre-Raphaelite beauty but held an uncanny spiritual significance as well.

Beata Beatrix 1877 by Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Beata Beatrix 1877 by Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal's Final Years

It wasn’t until after their nuptials when Siddal fell out of favor with her artist husband. Even though she remained a faithful wife, he turned his attention, creativity, and inspiration toward other models, younger and much healthier than she—art models such as her rival, the rumored coquette Annie Miller.

Rossetti’s unfaithfulness might have been one reasoning for Siddal’s depression, her addiction to opioids, and various conditions that led to a weak system, causing frail health and her eventual demise.

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

Cited Sources and Works

  • 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
  • Kirsty Stonell Walker. Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: Fifty Makers, Shakers and Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era – Unicorn Publishing Group, February 15, 2020

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 ziyena

Comments

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 15, 2021:

It seems Siddal and Rossetti both went out in the same vein: addicted to drugs and suffering from depression. Pretty ironic when you think about it.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and movement were a pretty select group, weren't they? Rossetti's life appears to be intertwined with many of the models of that era. Tight circle.

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