Elizabeth Siddal – a reminder of why we remember

11th February 2014
The Pre-Raphaelites - rarely has such a unique and stoic bunch of ladies and gentlemen had their lives so well documented or picked over by enquiring minds. And never before, or probably since, have so many intriguing, amusing and down-right tragic episodes attached themselves by fact or reputation to a group of creative souls. Among them, one in particular stands out: Elizabeth Siddal, who died on this day in 1862.
black and white drawing, head and shoulders, of young Victorian woman, eyes downcast
Elizabeth Siddal by Rossetti
The Pre-Raphaelites were, if nothing else, devoted to being different, to transcending boundaries and stereotypes. Elizabeth Siddal was not only an accomplished artist's model (a difficult enough task for anyone who has ever tried it), but also a poet and painter in her own right. Perhaps that is why we remember her and the other Pre-Raphaelite models when we tend to neglect so many others throughout the ages. In this context, consider, for a moment, some subject matter from other periods:

Artists and their models

Take the Renaissance, for example. Way back ...
famous Mona Lise painting
Mona Lise - Leonnado da Vinci.
Historians and art critics wrack their brains trying to determine who exacty Leonnado da Vinci's model for the Mona Lise might have been. But do we really want to know? Isn't that enigmatic smile so famous the world over simply because it is ... well, so enigmatic?

Or what about closer to our own times, the 18th Century, for instance. Here is a famous model of George Romney’s ...
young Gerogian woman, bare shoulder, head resting on hand
Emma Hart (later Lady Hamilton) by George Romney.
Romney painted her over and over. She eventually married well to become Lady Hamilton, and subsequently the mistress of Horatio Nelson, the famous English Admiral of Trafalgar fame. Quite a gal. Do we care? Well perhaps we do care ... a little. But only a little.

Or what about this ...
Picasso painting of women, pink
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon - Pablo Picasso
It’s one of Picasso’s 20th century, revolutionary masterpieces, inspired by his visits to a Barcelona brothel. Do we care who the models were? Would we like to know their names? Well, no, not really.

But then look at this. This is just a bit different. What’s going on in this painting?
young women eyes closed, red hair, with dove and sundial in background
Beata Beatrix - Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The model here is Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862). And the artist in question is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There is a lot going on here. Perhaps the artist is thinking about the passing of time, of love and death. And also of somebody special. He is painting a woman who figured so very large in his life - his model, lover, wife and muse for so many years, that we can hardly mention the one without referring to the other. And here is where the art and the legends entwine. It is quite possible that Rossetti, looking back on his times with Elizabeth, as in this painting made after her death, is thinking not just of his model but of all those amazing events that occurred around her, as well.

This is someone who, for instance, became inspired by poetry when she discovered some lines of Tennyson on paper used for wrapping butter. And then went on to write poetry herself.

He is perhaps also thinking of a young woman who almost froze to death in a bathtub whilst modelling for this:
Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia, young woman in water
Ophelia by J.E. Millais
He is thinking of a woman whom he believed he was destined to meet and had known in centuries past, who became his mistress, his wife. Someone who bore him a still-born child and who, in her grief, would rock an empty cradle and speak to its ghost.
drawing of young Victorian woman, hands entwined in long hair
Elizabeth Siddal - by Rossetti.
He is thinking of a woman who was an artist as well, a fellow student of the mysteries of oils and watercolours, of proportion, perspective and narrative.
rough sketch of young woman in long dress seated painting at easel
He is thinking of a woman who died from an overdose of laudanum while he was out one evening, and to whose spirit he believed communicated to him subsequently via spiritualism.
close up, profile of young lady with red hair, Victorian style
And he is thinking of someone into whose coffin, in a gesture of romantic bravado, he placed the only copy of many of his poems – and which he subsequently arranged to have retrieved some years later in a macabre incident of graveyard disinterment in the dead of night.
Elizabeth Siddal's grave in Highgate Cemetery.
These and many more reasons are why we still remember Lizzi Siddal. You simply could not write the history of Pre-Raphaelite art, or perhaps of Western Art itself, at all adequately without her. And how many artist's models can you think of that have that extraordinary distinction?
banner with text linking to a Pre-Raphaelite novel
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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