Artist profile: Rossetti – Elizabeth Siddal

Artist profile: Rossetti – Elizabeth Siddal

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art,
in several segments.

Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862) started writing poetry as a child after reading a Tennyson poem printed on a piece of newspaper that had been wrapped around a pat of butter. (Yup. Newspaper on butter.) She probably never attended school, but her working-class parents taught her how to read and write.

Siddal exploded onto the Pre-Raphaelite scene in 1849 while she was working as a milliner (hat-maker) in London. Discovered by Walter Deverell, she modeled for many painters while continuing to work part time.

She also painted and sketched (as you can see on lizziesiddal.com). She had paintings in a few shows and even had her own show, which was quite a feat for a woman artist at the time. Leading art critic John Ruskin paid her £300 for every artwork she made from 1855 to 1857.

Elizabeth Siddal (c.1861)
Elizabeth Siddal (c.1861) by Rossetti

While I’m not crazy about her Medievalist paintings, I think it’s very important to note that she was not just a model/muse – she, too, was an artist and poet.
Not to say that being a model is super easy. Siddal modeled for John Everett Millais’s Ophelia in 1851, floating in a bathtub in winter. He had put oil lamps under the bathtub to keep the water warm, but he was so engrossed in painting that he neglected to re-light them when they went out. Siddal developed pneumonia and was very ill. She had health problems from then on.

Ophelia (c. 1841) by John Everett Millais
Ophelia (c. 1841) by John Everett Millais

Rossetti may have painted Siddal in 1849, but she was definitely sitting for him by 1851. As he tended to do, Rossetti became obsessed with her, painting her nearly exclusively, and prevented her (by what means, I don’t know – hopefully he just asked her nicely) from modeling for other artists. She quit her job at the millinery and became financially dependent on him. Rossetti also became her art tutor.
They started living together in the early 1850s, but Rossetti did not marry her until 1860. Part of the reason was because his upper-class family did not approve of her working-class origins, but also because he soon had sexual relationships with other women. It seems as though he married her in 1860 because of her failing health – in other words, he thought she was going to die.

I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to be Elizabeth Siddal. While she seems to have loved Rossetti, their relationship was tainted by his many affairs and his obsessive idolizing. I mean, if some guy painted me as more beautiful than I really am, over and over and over… I dunno, it would freak me out.

Rossetti’s sister, Christina, wrote a poem (“In an Artist’s Studio”) about his obsession with Siddal, which reads in part:

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

It’s no surprise that Siddal, with her frequent illnesses and Rossetti’s affairs, became dependent on laudanum. This opiate was commonly given to everyone, including babies and pregnant women, despite its risk of dependency, health problems, and overdose.

(Besides laudanum, Siddal also took Fowler’s Solution, which had arsenic in it. Fowler’s Solution was used to “improve” the skin’s appearance as well as treat a host of maladies.)

Siddal became pregnant in 1861 and was super happy, but had a stillborn daughter – likely due to her laudanum abuse. Her addiction worsened as she self-medicated her depression. She died of an overdose in 1862, shortly after discovering she was pregnant again.

Now, there’s the possibility she killed herself, but I personally don’t think she did, because she seemed to be happy about being pregnant. It’s entirely possible that she overdosed, because there was no standard dosage for laudanum at the time, and she was an addict, so she could have easily forgotten what she had taken that day.

Rossetti himself began an addiction after she died. He buried his poems about Siddal with her; seven years later, he wanted to publish them. His agent, Charles Augustus Howell (a blackmailer who inspired the Sherlock Holmes story Charles Augustus Milventon) exhumed the coffin. According to him, Siddal’s body was well-preserved and her copper hair had grown to fill the coffin. That’s probably just a dramatic lie he told Rossetti, but again, it was always about her looks. The poems Rossetti published were not well-received because they were pretty erotic for the time period.

Anyway, now that you have been depressed by Elizabeth Siddal’s tragic demise, here are some of Rossetti’s artworks of her. Feel free to compare them with her own self-portrait, which is defiantly not idealized.

Elizabeth Siddal's self portrait (1854)
Elizabeth Siddal’s self portrait (1854)
Beata Beatrix (1870)
Beata Beatrix (1870)

Rossetti painted Siddal as Dante’s Beatrice, firmly associating her with the character (as Millais did for her with his painting of Ophelia). The poppy the bird holds is a reference to laudanum; the overall hazy, dreamy atmosphere of the painting alludes to laudanum’s effect on its addicts.

Regina Cordium (1860)
Regina Cordium (1860)
Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal (1860)
Elizabeth Siddal (1860)
Elizabeth Siddal (1853-58)
Elizabeth Siddal (1853-58)

You can see a host of Rossetti’s paintings and sketches of Siddal at The Rossetti Archive.

Other parts in the Rossetti artist profile series
Introduction
Fanny Cornforth
Jane Morris

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