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Do You Know Who Elisabeth Siddal Was?

Elizabeth Siddal (1829 – 1862) was born and lived in London and had an interesting life, at times a fairy-tale like. She was a model for artists, in today’s terms a super-model. Elizabeth was a young woman who changed Victorian beauty standards. However, Elizabeth Siddal was not only known for her striking looks. She sought recognition as an artist, painter and poet, in a society that was deeply traditional with clearly defined gender boundaries.

She was noticed and discovered by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an art group whom she joined as a model and then became their muse. Overtime, Elizabeth Siddal became an artist in her own right. With her persistence and talent, she won over the Pre-Raphaelites, then their supporters, patrons and finally the renowned art critic John Ruskin.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Regina Cordium, 1860

Elizabeth Siddal was a red-head, tall, slender but of gentle health. Her origins were modest, and she worked at dressmakers where she was noticed by Walter Howell Deverell, a painter and a close associate of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Walter did not possess a courage to approach Elizabeth and instead he sent his mother as an intermediary. A permission was sought from her parents to allow Elizabeth to pose for Walter’s painting.

Modelling was not considered a “reputable” profession at the time. Models were looked down on as easy girls with taste for good life. In other words, models were thought of as prostitutes. However, the parents provided their consent and Elizabeth Siddal became a model for Deverell and then in turn for Hunt, Rossetti and Millais. She caused a ruckus amongst the Brotherhood and became so popular that she could choose who she was going to pose for.

John Millais, Ophelia, 1851–52

Elisabeth became famous outside the Brotherhood’s circles as a model for Ophelia a painting by John Millais. She made red hair, at the time unpopular in Victorian aesthetics, a symbol of the Pre-Raphaelites. Her modelling contributed to quality and content of the artists’ works and became a part of the creative processes as an inspiration and stimulation.

Elizabeth started a long and tumultuous relationship with Gabriel Rossetti, dynamic, talented and temperamental artist, one of the Brotherhood’s founding members. It is said that Rossetti drew Elisabeth’s portrait several hundred times.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1870

In 1853, Elizabeth Siddal became Rossetti’s painter student and quickly made enormous progress. Even the great John Ruskin, a renowned art critic and supporter of the Brotherhood, was astounded by her work. John Ruskin offered her a yearly salary which was several times larger than the income Elisabeth had working at the dressmakers. The support offered by Ruskin allowed her to focus on her fine arts which she followed the style of Pre-Raphaelites using romantic themes inspired by works of classics such as Dante and Shakespeare, but also of contemporaries’ like Tennyson and Keats.

Elizabeth Siddal, Lovers, 1854

After a while, to avoid controlling and stifling influences from Rossetti and Ruskin, Elizabeth moved to Sheffield where she attended art school. At the time, women artists were considered amateurs. Their contribution was not viewed as that of equals but simply as subsets or subgroups of the wider male dominating art movements.

The art by women was viewed through a prism of the men they were connected to and not as that made by independent personalities and artists. Those that took part in creation were considered as a passing fad and not a fully-fledged members of art movements.

Elizabeth Siddal, Lady Cler, 1857

Elizabeth Siddal managed to achieve a degree of artistic independence. However, her relationship with Rossetti continued despite his numerous affairs. In 1860, after hers serious illness Rossetti asked her to marry him. These were happy days, during which they were surrounded by friends including other famous art couples: William and Jane Morris, Georgiana and Edward Burne-Jones and Joanna and Henry Wells. In her memoires, Georgiana Burne-Jones speaks of Elisabeth as a great friend.

Unfortunately, the happiness was not lasting. Elizabeth Siddal developed dependency on Laudanum and suffered a still-birth, most likely as a consequence of drug abuse. Elisabeth suffered from post-natal depression followed by another unsuccessful pregnancy. She wrote a note to Rossetti after which she ended her life by drinking a whole bottle of Laudanum. Rossetti hid the letter, because suicide was considered unchristian. Hurt and depressed, Rossetti buried Elisabeth with the notebook of his handwritten poems dedicated to her.

In a bizarre twist, seven years after the funeral Rossetti requested exhumation so that he could recover the book of poetry.

Elizabeth Siddal, Portrait, oko 1860.

According to urban myth, Elisabeth was spotted in the coffin laying unchanged and as perfect as during the life.

Elizabeth Siddal never reached her potential. To this day she remains misunderstood. Her life with Rossetti and the myth following the exhumation never allowed a true picture to emerge.

Elizabeth Siddal continues to be viewed as a melancholic unhappy personality. However, many records made by her friends by way of notes, diaries and letters speak differently. They often speak of happy and bright moments in her life.

However, when her work is assessed to this day, it is often through a prism of her relationship with Rossetti, her sad end, the fact that she was never recognised as an artist during her life and the myth of the eternal beauty. It is rarely that Elizabeth Siddal is viewed simply as a talented painter and multifaceted artist that she was. The perception of Elizabeth Siddal remains unaligned with her real life and work to this day.

Photo source Wikipedia

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