Elizabeth Siddal, Pre-Raphaelite model and wife to Gabriel Rossetti, is the source of intrigue for many Victorian researchers. Her mystery began from her vague background as a milliners assistant. From the start, many stories were told of her discovery and yet few stories were told of her past before that point. A frail young woman, she was addicted to narcotics and suffered from a variety of ailments, from the physical to the mental. Her turbulent relationship with Rossetti was plagued with ups and downs, and yet after her death, he mourned her with great sorrow and guilt.
Elizabeth Siddal was a young girl from the working class, who was thrust into the world of the Pre-Raphaelites when discovered as a model in 1849. She was not terribly smart or educated, however, considering her class, she was thought to be as refined and modest as possible. She is generally referred as having been a reserved girl, but she was also explained as being both very beautiful and horribly plain by different sets of people.
It is known for a fact that Elizabeth was working as a milliners assistant upon her discovery, but there are many stories told about how that discovery was made. Walter Deverell, who was at the Royal Academy with Hunt and Rossetti, was looking for a red-haired girl who could pass as a boy to play a Shakespearian role in a painting. Rossetti explains the story as Walter and his mother stopped by a millinery shop and saw the assistant in a back room. He then asked his mother to request permission to use her in a painting. Other accounts were given of the discovery. William Holman Hunt claimed that Deverell had arrived at the studio proclaiming what he found to Rossetti, who accompanied him to the millinery shop to have a look. Irish poet, William Allingham, took credit for introducing Deverell to Ms. Siddal because during his escapades with working class women, he had spotted the young girl and thought her perfect for the role.
Because modeling paid more than millinery work and perhaps because she preferred it to sewing, Elizabeth ended her assistantship at the shop. This is interesting to note because at the time very few women on the census reported their full time job to be modeling for artists. This is not because there were few models, but very few earned enough money to support themselves legitimately, and few wished to declare their employment given the stigma it represented. For Elizabeth though, both millinery work and modeling had negative connotations attached to them anyhow. Though her background was not terribly shameful, she was from a shop keeping family and the Pre-Raphaelites were very obscure about it. Rossetti and Ms. Siddal herself never really discussed her past. But perhaps that was part of the intrigue of the Pre-Raphaelite woman.
The one thing these men continually did was use the same model for many paintings, refining their appearance and many times enhancing the look to fit the theme of the painting. Rather than looking to ancient Greek and Roman statue ideals for the human form, the Pre-Raphaelites preferred what was true to nature, therefore working with a live model for the majority of painted characters. The painters did not want the models to remain at a lower rank than theirs, but dreamed of elevating the women. (Art & Antiques 56)
Elizabeth Siddal spent more than a year modeling for Hunt before moving on to work with other artists. While with Hunt, he painted Valentine Rescuing Sylvia, but was unsuccessful with Lizzies face. Under pressure from his associates, he painted over it, leaving the image of the girl to not resemble Lizzie much at all.
Elizabeth began modeling for Rossetti soon after, and his drawings for Delia may be the catalyst to Elizabeths modeling career. Beginning about 1852, she began studying with Rossetti and soon after, Ruskin offered her a deal. The original offer was for him to either pay her as she painted or pay her a lump sum of 50 pounds per year, but it was decided for her, between Ruskin and Rossetti, that the annual salary made more sense as she was always sick and weak.
Rossetti and Ms. Siddal had a turbulent on and off again relationship until the end of the decade when they finally got married. It seemed rather odd that they should do so considering that she was continually tired and considered an invalid by Rossetti and he had found other women to be with in the meantime. Since Elizabeth was always sick at inopportune times, and Rossetti felt terribly for her, it was probably sympathy that led to marriage. It didnt last long because within a year, she gave birth to a still born baby, which may have been because of her drug use, and then stemming from drug use, she overdosed in the beginning of 1862. It is not certain weather she committed suicide or died accidentally, either way, she was not a happy woman and was better off this way.
As far as her health was concerned, there are again a few theories surrounding the mystery. Her doctors over the years diagnosed spinal curvature, indigestion, headaches, and the vague term neuralgia which is generally thought to be migraines. But none of these would justify the womans invalidity. Doctors also informed her that stress was a problem and that she ought not involve herself in creative activities, such as modeling, painting, or poetry. She was recommended to remain quiet in the dark. Maybe that worsened things. She was known to have depression problems, perhaps manic depression, which untreated can be devastating to the one who is sick and those who surround her. If she was depressed, laying in a dark room alone certainly didnt help things. Lizzie was prescribed an opium derivative to ease her pain, to which she quickly became addicted and it was this which caused her death.
About half of what I read gave sympathy to Elizabeth, and the other half referred to her as a waste of time. Certainly she was an interesting character, but I dont believe by any means she deserved the sympathy she received from Rossetti. Though she was pretty much useless most of the time, he was ultimately devoted to her or so it seemed. I dont believe she was as sick as she made things appear to be. She latched on to Rossetti and whenever he would wander or be untrue, she would take ill and be on her deathbed, to which Rossetti would come rushing. One reading said that as a model she was about to be replaced on a piece because of her illness, and suddenly and miraculously, she recovered to reclaim her place in the painting.
As far as her own painting is concerned, one stands out to me as more effective than Millais Mariana. Siddals Lady Clare exhibits all the qualities of a forgotten woman. It is as if she is pondering before giving up.
There is a sadness and longing, a loss of hope and it appears to be more appropriate for Mariana, who to me appeared to be a bored woman taking a break from her embroidery.
In Lizzies self portrait you can see a conflict in her. It is as if she is split between her weak and sickly self, depicting her a being tired and blank. But she also can appear as cold and not so sweet and innocent as she had been made to be by the Pre-Raphaelites. What I got from this piece was that she was angry about something. That cold stare glares at the viewer and she appears to be contemplating or plotting. I think she was never as sick as she made herself out to be, but instead needed to be wanted and imagined herself sick until she really became ill both mentally and physically. This painting, completed about 1854, strikes great contrast from Rossettis portrait of her only four years earlier.
Rossetti shows her as a sweet and innocent young girl with a gaze that seems to express relaxation and inner peace. Had Rossetti altered his work to depict Elizabeth the way he wanted, or had she changed that much in a few years? I believe Rossetti changed the work to his ideal, and Lizzie was not in great condition from the start.
Additionally different from the Pre-Raphaelite depiction of Elizabeth, she was known to have fits and be argumentative to both guests of hers and when she was a guest at someone elses home. It was explained to people that she was ill and should be forgiven for her rudeness and outbursts, but these dont depict the reserved Lizzie of 1849. Its like I said before, she wasnt as sick as she wanted people to think, this allowed her to get away with things she normally couldnt.
After Lizzies death, Rossetti painted Beata Beatrice as a symbol of his grief. He had originally begun it years before but did not resume until 1864. It came from Dantes Beatrice in Vita Nuova. So even though she was difficult to live with and required a lot of attention, he truly loved her, or really felt guilty for not being able to prevent her death.
I dont really think Lizzie deserved all the attention she was given. She was an artist by hobby, not by career, and certainly not a great artist. She was not a great model, and not very beautiful, and since she was not very normal either, she ought not be discussed so much. But it is the mystery that surrounds her that instigates all the intrigue.
She sat in a cold bath in the winter for a very long time to pose for this piece. Inevitably she became ill and her father threatened to sue for 50 pounds to pay for medical bills and lost wages.
Barnes, Rachel. The Pre-Raphaelites and their World. London: Tate Gallery, 1998.
There are chapters on individual artists, such as Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt, but the book barely touches on the women. While the writing is well-done, this book is better suited for the coffee table.
Cherry, Deborah. Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists. London: Routledge, 1993.
A descriptive biographical overview of women painters from the Victorian era with a good section on Elizabeth Siddal. This book has a pretty useful selected bibliography and is well-documented.
Knapp, Rebecca. A Sisterhood in Beauty. Art and Antiques 18 (February 1995): 52-57.
A brief article concerning mostly Elizabeth Siddal, with some mention of Fanny Cornforth. An easy read, this article is informative and would make a nice supplement reading when discussing the Pre-Raphaelite women.
Marsh, Jan. Imagining Elizabeth Siddal. New Statesman and Society. (September 1988): 32-37.
An article relating Siddals life as a shadow to her husband. The author points out that it was not until after Siddals death that her own history was accounted for. The author is very knowledgeable and well-researched on the subject and this would make a good class reading assignment.
Marsh, Jan. The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. London: Quartet Books, LTD, March, 1995.
The is a very text-rich book, enhanced by a small section of less-likely-to-be-found images. At times, the facts seemed to be very opinion driven, hard time distinguishing between the two. A lot of focus on the mythological aspect of Elizabeth Siddal.
Pearce, Lynne. Women, Image, Text: Readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature. Toronto, Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Briefly looked at this book for inspiration; it combines the study of Pre-Raphaelite painting with related poetry.
Postle, Martin and William Vaughan. The Artists Model: From Etty to Spencer. London: Merrell Holberton, 1999.
A short synopsis of pieces to support the books main purpose: to display images. There is very little concerning the Pre-Raphaelites, however a little is discussed about works by Millais, Rossetti, and Hunt. The book is useful as a general reference of how artists worked with models over the years.
Shafer, Elaine. Elizabeth Siddal: Lady of Shalott. Womens Art Journal(Spring/Summer 1988): 21-29.
Article covering The Lady of Shalott, with background details of the woman. Unsure of the correct date of birth for Siddal, but pretty sure this author has it wrong compared to other writers. Most other information appears valid.
Taylor, Beverly. Elizabeth Siddal as Muse and Creator. Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies – New Series 4 (Spring, 1995): 29-50.
An informative article that seems to spend a lot of time criticizing other authors who discuss Siddel. Taylor lacks a point of view regarding the matter, but the discussion of Siddels poetry is worth a read.
Williams, Isabelle. Elizabeth Siddal: The Health Issue. Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies – New Series 5 (Spring, 1996): 53-70.
This article was surpassingly original, concerning the medical ailments of Elizabeth Siddal and other models and wives concerned with the Pre-Raphaelites. Interesting insight into the world of the Victorian era; well documented.