Elizabeth Siddal: Creator and Created
by Adele Uphaus Thank you, Adele, for this generous contribution to LizzieSiddal.com.
Alice Jardine’s influential book Gynesis: Configurations of Women and Modernity describes Jardine’s theory of the process through which a woman is created by patriarchy, by history or by the culture she inhabits. Rather than focusing on representations of women in literature or literature written by women, she states in the introduction to her book that she is “concerned about the process of (reading and writing) woman” (Jardine 19). In other words, she examines the transformation of the feminine from subject into verb, an operation that renders her liminal and ephemeral and puts her and her obligatory, that is, historical connotations “to use as intrinsic to new and necessary modes of thinking, writing and speaking” (Jardine 25). Gynesis is the term Jardine coins to describe this undertaking.
By definition, such a scheme must have the effect of stripping women of their own agency. As results of a process, they cannot be subjects, only objects, and as such they cannot create but can only facilitate creation. If a woman does attempt to create, as Nancy K. Miller states in Arachnologies: The Woman, the Text and the Critic, patriarchy will view her product as separate from her and will deny her authority over her own production. Miller uses the story of Arachne, the skilled weaver who attempts to claim equality with the goddess Athena to explain her theory. Everyone assumes that Arachne must have been taught by Athena because her work is so beautiful that it cannot possibly have sprung from her own human creativity. Athena “ a goddess who is nevertheless aligned more closely with patriarchy because she was not born of a woman but sprung fully grown directly from the head of Zeus“ punishes Arachne by turning her into a spider who weaves because it has to, not because it chooses to. This is the “effacement of the spider, the masculine recuperation of the feminine, and it is variant of the phenomenon Alice Jardine has named gynesis, Miller writes (Miller 271). Miller’s essay stresses the necessity of what she calls “overreading” a woman-authored text. Overreading involves reading women’s writing as if it had never been read, as if for the first time. To overread is also to wonder, as Woolf puts it famously in A Room of One’s Own, about the conditions for the production of literature (Miller 275).
The story of Elizabeth Siddal, wife of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is an excellent example of the effacement strategies Jardine and Miller write of. Pre-Raphaelitism was an artistic movement of the second half of the 19th-century that went on to influence art nouveau, the arts-and-crafts style and much of modern design. As Rossetti’s muse and obsession his friend Ford Madox Brown called his excessive interest in her a “monomania” “Lizzie”, as she was called by most everyone, is the subject of hundreds of his drawings and paintings, as well as those of other Pre-Raphaelite artists. John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, for which Siddal modeled as Hamlet’s dying ex-lover, is the most famous painting of her, and the passive, self-destructive figure she portrays in this painting is the image most closely associated with her. We know Lizzie today as she was depicted in these paintings and not as she actually was. She was also a poet and artist in her own right,
but her work has mainly been viewed as a reflection of the work of her male counterparts, not as a product of her own initiative. When we apply the theories of Jardine and Miller to the life of Lizzie Siddal, the extent to which her husband and the other Pre-Raphaelites, and hence history, created her and at the same time denied her the agency and authority to be a creator becomes clear.
Both Miller and Jardine’s essays set up a framework that can be applied to various works of art in order gain new insight into representations of women. Both present us with theory or way of reading and hint at what the application of the theory might look like, leaving room for others to do this work. Jardine reveals that there is a process of gynesis which invokes femininity to enable new and necessary modes of thinking, but what she does not discuss is how the woman conjured up by this process can actively respond to it. However, if we put Miller and her theory of arachnologies in a dialogue with Jardine, especially over the figure of Lizzie Siddal, a form of female response emerges. By “overreading” Lizzie’s painting and poetry, it becomes clear that through her roles as both muse and creator, she exemplifies both gynesis at work and a woman’s reaction to her own gynesis. She and her art exist as a result of the modern and revolutionary goals of the Pre-Raphaelites and as a living critique of the movement that invoked her image.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of idealistic artists who were united in rebellion against the current trends in art, as they were exemplified by the Royal Academy and its influential president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. The three core members Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt met as students at the Royal Academy and formed the Brotherhood in 1848 in order to officially express their ideals. Formed as it was in the year of several notable European revolutions, the Brotherhood “drew its impetus from vaguely revolutionary sentiments,” as David Riede writes, and was framed by Rossetti in particular as “calculated and daring revolt against the authority of his elders” (Riede 44-45). The young men felt that the freshness, purity, and truthfulness of Renaissance art had been stymied by the conventionalities of Reynolds, and they wanted to liberate contemporary art by attempting to bring back some of the techniques they felt contributed to the brilliance of the work of Raphael and his contemporaries. Francine Prose describes these techniques as “simplicity, clarity, [and] the direct, accurate representation of nature” (Prose 105).
However, while the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood found inspiration in the art of the past, it was by no means a backward-looking movement. Rather, it projected forward into the future, and was actually thoroughly modern, even avant-garde, as Riede suggests. The Pre-Raphaelite paintings, with their brilliant colors, lack of perspective and flat, decorative appearance, were immediately identified by the influential Victorian critic and theorist Walter Pater as belonging to the aesthetic movement, which promoted the ideals of “art for art’s sake. The Pre-Raphaelite’s work was art about art, and was therefore acutely aware of itself as art. The self-referentiality and near-hyperrealism of their paintings are clear forerunners of the same tendencies in postmodern art and literature. The artists favored medieval and literary themes from Britain’s past, stories from Dante’s Vita Nuova, Shakespeare, and Arthurian legend, but they also drew from the literature of their Victorian contemporaries, Keats and Tennyson in particular. Thus, with their new ideas about painting that were inspired by pre-Renaissance art and their use of both medieval and contemporary Victorian subject matter, Rossetti and his friends were, as Pamela Todd writes, “paradoxically both modern and medieval, romantic yet seeking scientific realism” (Todd 19-20). Todd goes on to say that “the movement had an explosive impact on English nineteenth-century art and its influence endures still.” One method the Pre-Raphaelites employed to achieve the naturalism and accuracy they sought was to use each other as models and working class women they found on the streets, whom they called “stunners”, as female counterparts. Prose quotes William Michael Rossetti, whose diary describes his brother “parading Tottenham Court Road, together with Hunt and Millais, on the search for models” (qtd. in Prose 105). Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal, a 20-year-old milliner’s assistant who was “discovered” by the painter Walter Deverell in 1849, was their first find.
Lizzie first modeled as Viola disguised as Cesario for Deverell’s painting Twelfth Night. Lucinda Hawksley, the author of a recent biography of Lizzie, quotes William Holman Hunt’s account of Deverell’s first enthusiastic description of his new find:
“Deverell broke in upon our peaceful labours. He had not been seated many minutes when he bounded up, marching, or rather dancing to and fro about the room, and, stopping emphatically, he whispered, “You fellows can’t tell what a stupendously beautiful creature I have found. By Jove! She’s like a queen, magnificently tall, with a lovely figure, a stately neck, and a face of the most delicate and finished modeling exactly like a Phidean goddess.(Qtd. in Hawksley 23.)
Other accounts confirm that Lizzie was tall and very slender, with heavy-lidded eyes and masses of copper-colored hair. Hawksley writes that her features, especially her red hair, set her far from the Victorian ideal of beauty, which praised women who were small and curvaceous (Hawksley 2). Today, however, we find models with Lizzie’s tall, skinny, pale look and striking instead of pretty features draped across every page of contemporary fashion magazines. In addition, her modern look would have been appealing to the Pre-Raphaelite patrons, newly-rich men who had benefited from the Industrial Revolution and wanted, as Riede writes, “modern works representing modern subjects”(Riede 18-19). As the original Pre-Raphaelite model, Lizzie’s looks were put to work to establish the romantic yet modern style the Pre-Raphaelite painters were in search of. Alice Jardine’s description of the process of gynesis, in which women are “valorize[ed] as intrinsic to new and necessary modes
of thinking, writing and speaking” (Jardine 25) perfectly captures the way Lizzie’s image was conceived and used by these painters.
Though Lizzie started out modeling for many of the Pre-Raphaelites, over time Dante Rossetti claimed her as his own and told all his friends not to ask her to sit for them any more. She also gave up her job at the milliner’s shop, as Rossetti was concerned about her health, which resulted in the relinquishment of an independent source of income (Hawksley 45-46). During the 1850s, she was the subject of countless sketches and drawings by Rossetti. The fascination she held for him was the result of his own particular personal tendencies and artistic goals. Rossetti scholar Jerome McGann writes that Rossetti’s work was nearly always deeply personal, representing his drive to “investigate the problematic relation of spirit and flesh, as well as their means of expression, pursuit, and realization” (McGann 6). As McGann suggests, Rossetti was on a constant mission to find and depict the true soul of beauty, and thus his paintings should be read as part of this search and as acts
of devotion. McGann notes one of the artist’s diary entries, in which he recorded his desire to paint a scene of Venus, the goddess of beauty, surrounded by mirrors reflecting differing perspectives of her (McGann 106). This idea was never actualized, but it represents Rossetti’s hope to deliver to the world a painting the subject of which would be no less than Beauty and art itself. What McGann finds interesting about this goal is the idea of the mirrors depicting various perspectives of Beauty (McGann 106). Such a picture would show the various fragments that make up the whole of an ideal and therefore has a lot in common with the project of the Modernists.
When Rossetti met Lizzie, he was entering young adulthood and was ready to seriously devote himself to the goals described above. As David Riede writes, she provided him with the material he needed to start down the road of aestheticism. In Lizzie, he thought he saw a glimpse of the soul of beauty which he also recognized as his own artistic soul. Riede writes that his relationship with Lizzie enabled the following complex process on the part of Rossetti:
His rather complex personal and artistic relations with Siddal reflect both his desire to live an unconventional, more or less bohemian life and, more significantly, his attempt to see all things in the terms of his art. What might be called his shaping vision as an artist took the form of producing a personal vision of her in art and, Pygmalion-like, of transforming the subject of his art into his lover, and finally into a reflection of himself as an artist. (Riede 52).
Thus, Rossetti’s portraits of Lizzie record his search for a way to represent “soul’s beauty” and his hundreds of re-workings of her image can be seen as a form of his modernist idea of reflecting the myriad perspectives of this concept. His singular fascination with her was symptomatic of his dangerous tendency to “conflate the Shelleyan ideal of the soul within the soul with visionary beauty but also with death, which lent a kind of tragic luster to the visionary quest, a kind of morbid attraction” (Riede 2). It is clear that Lizzie’s image was invoked as part of Rossetti’s modern mode of thinking according to Jardine’s theory of gynesis. An examination of Rossetti’s portraits and of first of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, can show in greater detail how the ideal of Lizzie Siddal was created.
Millais’s haunting painting (Image 1 ), perhaps the best-known painting for which Lizzie modeled, portrays the half-dead Ophelia floating down a river with flowers in her hands, supported by her flowing full skirts. Millais took quite seriously the Pre-Raphaelite’s aim of painting with truth to nature, which was one of the central ways their art took a step forward from that of their contemporaries (Riede 6). The artist spent many hours meticulously drawing studies of foliage along the Thames River, and to accurately capture the water-logged effect of Ophelia’s drowning body, he had Lizzie pose lying in a bathtub full of water, which was warmed by oil lamps placed under the tub. Gay Daly, in her book on famous Pre-Raphaelite couples, tells of how the lamps went out without Millais noticing and of how Lizzie remained in position in the freezing water for five hours without saying a word, falling severely ill as a result (Daly 41). As Daly writes: “The image [of Ophelia] is one of utter passivity. One wonders whether Millais chose Lizzie for his model because he saw in her the capacity for such complete surrender”(41). The resulting painting clearly exemplifies what Audrey Williamson has described as the “new brilliancy and clarity of the Pre-Raphaelites to which modern painting still owes a debt” (Williamson 64). A central part of the formula that makes the painting so modern is Millais’s direct rendering of Lizzie’s ill features, which seem to perfectly match our collective mental image of the dying Ophelia. Thus, he uses Lizzie as part of his modern artistic project and at the same time cements an image of her as perennially sickly and passive.
Rossetti’s numerous pencil and pen drawings (the Rossetti Archive, a hypermedia collection of the artist’s works, finds 154 such images) of his muse are all equally passive (Images 2-7). With few exceptions, they depict Lizzie reclining languidly and gracefully on couches or in chairs, sometimes reading or sewing, but mostly keeping completely idle. She is never shown making direct eye-contact with the viewer “ her heavy-lidded eyes are always demurely downcast or focused off into the distance. The pictures convey a feeling of the subject’s remoteness and isolation. They are beautiful, but they create and foster an image of Lizzie as passive, distant and somewhat tragic. The other Pre-Raphaelites seem to have also responded to this vaguely morbid portrayal of Lizzie. Lynn Pearce quotes a diary entry of Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti’s tutor, which reports having seen “[Siddal] looking more ragged and more beautiful than ever” (Pearce 53). Clearly, the group was united in their
admiration of sickly, delicate women.
Rossetti also frequently painted Lizzie as Beatrice , the life-long love obsession of the medieval poet Dante Aligheri, with whom, as Francine Prose writes, Rossetti closely associated himself (he was born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, but chose to make “Dante” more prominent when he became an adult). According to Prose, “Much about [Rossetti’s] romance with Lizzie suggests that [he] essentially, if unconsciously, shopped around for a woman to match (and on whom he could act out) his fantasies about Beatrice” (Prose 104). By painting Lizzie the way he did, Rossetti connected her with the ideal of a distant, unavailable love-object that Dante’s worship of Beatrice from afar represents. Prose writes that Rossetti even “seemed to prefer the idea of Dante’s muse, dead for five hundred years, to the actuality of his own model, mistress, muse, and wife” (Prose 103).
Rossetti continued to associate Lizzie with the 13th-century Beatrice even after her death in 1862 (only two years after they finally married) from an overdose of laudanum. In Beata Beatrix , one of his most famous paintings, he puts the finishing touches on the image he created of his wife as a passive, remote, tragic object of worship. Beata Beatrix purports to depict the moment of Beatrice’s death when she is suddenly transported to heaven, but upon close inspection it seems to be more about Lizzie. Once again, she is portrayed as completely passive, partly-dead, with her eyes closed and mouth half-opened, seemingly possessed by a trance. A dove, the symbol of peace, drops a flower into her palm, but somewhat ominously, the dove is painted a lurid red, and it does not bring her a lily or an olive branch but a crimson poppy, a reference to the opiate that killed Lizzie.
This painting preserves the image of Lizzie Siddal that Rossetti created, with all its remoteness and aura of tragedy. Interestingly, one of Lizzie’s close friends, Bessie Parkes, said later that she could not even recognize her friend in the painting: “I feel puzzled by the manner in which the artist took the head and features of a remarkably retiring English girl and transfused them with an expression in which I could recognize nothing of the moral nature of Miss Siddal” (qtd. in Prose 107). The quote serves to show the extent to which Rossetti ignored the personality of the real Lizzie and created a role for her to play that served his own modern artistic project.
Rossetti did not attribute passivity to all his female subjects. In contrast, most of them are endowed with a strong sense of presence and agency. While, as Francine Prose writes, Lizzie was almost exclusively portrayed in a state of moribund repose or actually dead, all the rest of Rossetti’s women look very different: Their bodies, their faces, and most of all their hair look terrifyingly alive (Prose 124). In paintings such as La Ghirlandata, Astarte Syriaca, Monna Vanna, and Regina Cordium (), the women are depicted full-scale in vibrant colors. They are often painted close-up and they fill the bulk of the canvas. With full, sinuous necks and active, contorted hands, they recall the large-than-life goddesses and sibyls of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Perhaps the most important difference between these paintings and the representations of Lizzie is the fact that these women confront the viewer and make direct eye-contact. In the one small self-portrait Lizzie produced (), she gives herself the agency this type of eye-contact connotes. In contrast to Rossetti’s hazy, idealized pictures, she renders herself in crisp, almost sharp detail. Her face fills the small canvas and she looks out at the viewer. Her eyes are not charmingly demure, but rather world-weary. She is a flesh-and-blood 19th-century woman, not a distant and passive idol from myth and legend. However, the image we associate with Lizzie Siddal is not this one, but the one created by Dante Rossetti and his fellow artists. From this and the examples described above, we can see the extent to which the Pre-Raphaelites found inspiration in the ideal of a tragically ill and passive woman, how they ascribed these characteristics to Lizzie, and how they put her image to use, producing works that met the goals of their revolutionary artistic project. The work that Rossetti, Millais and others did with Lizzie in this respect exemplifies Alice Jardine’s theory of gynesis.
Another way in which Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites created the image of Lizzie Siddal is through their diary entries, letters to each other, and other writings. Dante’s brother William was the chief biographer of the movement. As Lucinda Hawksley writes, William wrote, or at least edited, most of the contemporary accounts of Lizzie, and his view of her was far from objective. Hawksley theorizes that, as a younger brother who idolized his older brother, he may have been quite jealous of Lizzie for captivating Dante so completely and monopolizing his time (Hawksley 57). In any case, his recorded impression of her is not favorable. His writings describe Lizzie as aloof and disagreeable, just as his brother depicted her in his drawings as remote and withdrawn. Her character was somewhat singular “ not quite easy to understand, and not at all on the surface. All her talk was of a “chaffy” kind its tone sarcastic, its substance lightsome,” he writes (qtd. in Hawksley 57-58). This description suggests that Lizzie may not have fit the mold of the “typical” Victorian woman, and, being baffled by her, William Rossetti characterized her as difficult and haughty.
Similarly, what Dante Rossetti chooses to write about Lizzie in his own letters is in keeping with his artistic representations of his model/muse. Hawksley writes that he called her his “meek unconscious dove,” and frequently drew a picture of a dove instead of writing her name” (Hawksley 52). More often than not, what he writes about her in his letters has to do almost exclusively with reports about her health. We can see this in the following quotes from William Fredeman’s collection of his correspondence from 1855-1862: sometimes he writes that Lizzie is “rather better”; then he is anxious about her because he believes she doesn’t eat enough; then her health will not bear [any] excitement and he is most wretched about her; then he writes dismally of the “failing state of her health” and says she is in a “broken state; there might then be a slight rally”, but in the next letter he is once again “in the most agonizing anxiety about poor dear Lizzie’s health, is sorry [he] cannot give any good news of her health, but we must hope for the best” and says he “need not say what an anxious & disturbed life mine is while she remains in this state”. Perhaps the most positive thing he says about her is that she is “pretty well for her”. While there is no doubt that Lizzie did have health problems which stemmed from a dependency on laudanum, a doctor who examined her in 1855 found that Rossetti’s “apprehensions concerning her health were greater than her condition called for” (qtd. in Fredeman 42). From his letters, we get the impression that their life together consisted solely of Rossetti nursing Lizzie at her bedside. His insistence on depicting her to everyone as a constant invalid rather than describing her in any other capacity adds to the withdrawn, tragic picture he created of her through his drawings, and once again renders her passive.
However, from one of the few surviving letters written by Lizzie herself, we get a completely different picture. A witty and sharply observant letter she wrote to Rossetti from Nice describing her experience with officials at the passport office shows that she had a sense of humor and was a gifted writer:
“You have then to go to the Police Station and beg the loan of your passport for half-an-hour, and are again looked upon as a felon of the first order before passport is returned to you. Looking very much like a transport, you make your way to the Post Office, and there present yourself before a grating, which makes the man behind it look like an overdone mutton-chop sticking to a gridiron. On asking for a letter containing money, Mutton-chop sees at once that you are a murderer, and makes up its mind not to let you off alive. Meanwhile mutton-chop has been looking as much like doom as overdone mutton can look, and fizzing in French.” (Qtd. in Prose 109.)
The spirit expressed in this letter could not seem further from that of the pathetic invalid Rossetti painted and wrote about. Francine Prose writes: “How regrettable that the force of personality expressed in this letter went unremarked by the diarists and memoirists who documented the Pre-Raphaelite movement”(Prose 109). Another note Lizzie wrote to Georgiana Burne-Jones also displays this sense of humor and sparkling personality:
“My dear little Georgie, I hope you intend coming over with Ned tomorrow evening like a sweetmeat, it seems so long since I saw you dear. Janey will be here I hope to meet you. With a willow-pattern dish full of love to you and Ned, Lizzie.” (Qtd. in Daly 85.)
Lizzie’s own letters underscore the tension between her true personality and the one Rossetti’s words cause us to attribute to her.
We have seen how the image of “Lizzie Siddal” that was created by Rossetti and the other artists who painted her contrasts with the real Lizzie’s own image of herself. Just as she was “created” by the forces of patriarchy, according to Jardine’s theory of gynesis, so also was she a victim of Miller’s theory regarding the process that denies women the agency and authority to create on their own. As mentioned above, Lizzie had ambitions of being an artist. She began sketching and drawing in the early 1850s after becoming Rossetti’s main model and most probably his mistress. However, few people today know her as an artist. As Beverly Taylor writes:
Elizabeth Siddal’s prominence as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s model has until recently nearly obliterated her own efforts as a creator of both painting and poetry. Scholars have neglected her work as an artist while depicting her as a muse who lacked both personality and ability apart from her capacity to inspire Rossetti with her fragile beauty. (Taylor 29.)
Taylor goes on to describe the reaction of several critics to an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite works at the Royal Academy in 1973. Of Lizzie and her art, the critics wrote quite harshly, calling her personality vague and pathetic and declaring that she had “no original creative power” (qtd. in Taylor 29). Her art, they wrote, was merely a dim reflection of Rossetti’s brilliance. Her work met with similar criticism in its own time; her painting Clerk Saunders () was part of the 1858 American Exhibition of English Art, but when the exhibition moved from New York to Pennsylvania, it was removed, because one of the organizers found it “childish and trifling”(qtd. in Fredeman 228). Dante Rossetti’s brother, William, commented unflatteringly on the “executive shortcomings”of her paintings, and accredited the fact that any of her paintings sold to “acts of generosity” (qtd. in Prose 112). All of these indictments have the effect of denying Lizzie any mature creative impulse of her own, rendering her childlike or doglike in her mimicry of Rossetti, and subject to the kindness of strangers, as Blanche Dubois would say.
However, these comments conveniently ignore the fact that Lizzie did achieve success as a professional artist in her own right, no small undertaking. According to Lucinda Hawksley, it would have been a “Herculean task to infiltrate that patriarchal sphere” (Hawksley 102). It is significant that Lizzie was the only female whose work made it into the 1858 exhibition, despite the existence of other female Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as Evelyn Pickering, Lucy Madox Brown, Anna Howitt, Marie Spartali Stillman, Kate E. Bunce and Sophie Anderson (Nichols). Clerk Saunders, the painting so derided above, was even purchased by an American, Charles Eliot Norton of Massachusetts, for 40 guineas (Hawksley 142). Lizzie’s work attracted the patronage of John Ruskin, the most pre-eminent art critic of the Victorian time, who paid her the considerable sum of 150 pounds a year for her output. Francine Prose’s speculation that Ruskin was only interested in Lizzie’s paintings because he was
in love with her [Prose 109-110] seems quite snidely reductive, and her comment only contributes to the tragic/romantic image of Lizzie that was produced by Rossetti and others. In this instance, Prose reads Lizzie as a product of her gender alone; her sexuality is her only tool, she suggests.
But not only was Lizzie the only female in the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition during her own time, but she was also the only woman whose work was shown in a more recent exhibition held in 1984 at the Tate Gallery in London (Hawksley 142). If, as Elaine Showalter suggests in Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness, critics would read for the culture that surrounds and produces a person or a work of art, such as taking into account the difficulty of becoming a successful female artist in the 19th-century, rather than reducing Lizzie’s success to the fact that her work was only admired because she was attractive (an essentializing tactic which has the effect of obliterating agency), they will get a “more complete and satisfying picture” (Showalter 259).
In addition, even though she was Rossetti’s pupil, Beverley Taylor points out that Lizzie’s obituary stated that she produced artwork prior to meeting him, and it can be argued that Lizzie influenced Rossetti just as much as he influenced her. They worked closely together, and some of their output during their years of their relationship was collaborative. Sometimes, as is the case in The Quest for the Holy Grail (), Lizzie was responsible for the conception and design of painting while its execution was carried out jointly. Also, she probably influenced Rossetti in his choice of subject matter. From a young age, Lizzie had been devoted to the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, having discovered and fallen in love with one of his poems she found printed on a scrap of newspaper used to wrap butter (Hawksley 14). She often used stories from his poems, particularly from The Lady of Shalott and Idylls of the King, as subjects for her paintings. Her 1853 drawing of the for
mer story was one of the earliest depictions of this soon-to-be hugely popular subject (Taylor 33). Before he met her, Rossetti had painted almost exclusively religious subjects and in the later half of the 1850s he started producing his large, sensual ¾-length portraits of women, but during the years when his relationship with Lizzie was at its height, the majority of his output had the medieval subject matter that was her great love.
In order to return to Lizzie the agency as an artist that has been taken from her, it is necessary to perform the sort of “over-reading” Miller advocates in her essay on arachnologies. Lizzie painted many popular Pre-Raphaelite subjects, but she did so in a way that focused on women as subjects, rather than passive and aloof objects of the male gaze. When her work is studied with Miller’s active, objective eye, instead of as the output of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse, its originality and creativity becomes clear. As Beverley Taylor writes: “Siddal’s work subtly but incisively critiques Victorian gender ideology [her paintings are] aesthetic creations participating in her culture’s ideological debates”. (Taylor 29). It also reveals that Lizzie was aware of and responded to the process, described above, of her own gynesis.
There are striking differences between Lizzie’s Lady of Shalott (), for example, and other Pre-Raphaelite renderings of this same subject. The Lady’s weaving work, instead of her body, is the main focus of Lizzie’s drawing. While she turns to glance at the image of Lancelot riding under her window, the Lady doesn’t leap frenziedly from her chair at the sight of him; she remains calmly at work on her tapestry. The artwork she is producing retains her attention. Unlike William Holman Hunt’s Lady (), who has become tangled in and imprisoned by the strands of her tapestry, Lizzie’s maintains control over her work. As Taylor writes, other images of the Lady turn her into “an icon of female passivity, but Lizzie’s image focuses instead on the lady’s activities as an artisan”(Taylor 33). Critic Elaine Shefer also sees the picture as one concerned with depicting a woman in the process of creating art:
Could it be that Siddal has used the loom symbolically to express another situation: the artist herself, sitting in front of her canvas ” If one were to replace the loom with the motif of the canvas, the drawing would take on a revolutionary character. “(Shefer 103.)
Shefer also suggests that the somewhat awkward position of the Lady on her chair expresses the fact that she may be nervous about being a woman artist, as this was not an activity women were encouraged to seriously undertake (Shefer 103). If so, then this picture can be read as Lizzie’s subtle critique of a society that denies women the agency to be creative.
Other paintings besides The Lady of Shalott reveal that Lizzie was an inventive artist in her own right, and not just an empty vessel through which Rossetti’s genius could filter, and that her choice of subjects often critiqued rather than confirmed Victorian gender ideology. One such painting is Pippa Passes (), based on the poem/play of the same name by Robert Browning. Lizzie chooses to represent the final scene in this play, in which the heroine, Pippa, is enticed to join a group of prostitutes, who have been paid by her uncle to get Pippa out of the way so that her sizeable inheritance will pass to him. Pippa, who as Elaine Shefer points out is a clear self-portrait of Lizzie, passes by the prostitutes, and although they reach out to her, her composed face and straight posture indicate that she has the strength of character to refuse their offer of money and ease.
This scene stands in contrast to the popular Pre-Raphaelite subject, represented by Rossetti in Found () of the already-fallen woman being rescued from her miserable state by a man. In Lizzie’s rendering, as Shefer describes, the woman is able to keep herself from this situation by being strong enough to preserve her integrity (105-6). While Lizzie’s own situation more closely paralleled that of the woman in Found than that of Pippa, her choice of drawing this scene may represent her admiration of Pippa’s character and her assurance of the fact that it was possible for a woman to keep herself from being reliant on men. Through these paintings, Lizzie Siddal spins her own web of stories and associations. Miller’s theory of arachnologies allows us to return to her the presiding creative authority over her own work.
Lizzie’s poetry, as well as her painting, has also been passed over as maudlin and cliched. In general, it is melancholy and preoccupied with death, as was much of Rossetti’s poetry. However, the same sharply observant personality that comes across in her own letters is also evident the following poem, the bitter Lust of the Eyes:
I care not for my Lady’s soul
Though I worship before her smile;
I care not where be my Lady’s goal
When her beauty shall lose its wile.
Low sit I down at my Lady’s feet
Gazing through her wild eyes
Smiling to think how my love will fleet
When her starlike beauty dies.
I care not if my Lady pray
To our Father which art in Heaven
But for joy my heart’s quick pulses play
For to me her love is given.
Then who shall close my Lady’s eyes
And who shall fold her hands?
Will any hearken if she cries
Up to the unknown lands?
This poem shows that Lizzie was acutely aware of the situation she found herself in, in which her own character and her own personal goals and desires, suggested by her “wild eyes”, were sublimated to serve the artistic project of an idealistic young painter who set out to, and did, completely reform the 19th-century art world. This poem and Lizzie’s paintings represent her own reaction to the process of gynesis which created her. Rossetti’s sister Christina Rossetti was also clearly aware of the process that had “Lizzie Siddal” as a result. Her poem “In an Artist’s Studio” seems to suggest the extent of her understanding of her sister-in-law’s position and how it was ruining her. Here again, we find a woman’s response to the overwhelming forces of gynesis.
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
The mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel, every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
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. (Qtd. in Daly.)
Elizabeth Siddal’s life allows us to put Alice Jardine’s theory of gynesis and Nancy Miller’s theory of arachnologies into practice. Through the framework set up by these critics, we can see clearly how Lizzie was the product of a modern artistic vision and how she was “written” by her lover and his friends. We can also see how patriarchy often has the conscious or unconscious effect of separating a woman from her own artistic output by denying her the agency to have created it in the first place. In a positive light, however, Miller’s essay shows us how to do the work necessary to uncover a woman’s active response to the forces of patriarchy which have invoked her image, thereby answering a question Jardine’s essay indirectly poses. Are women aware of their own gynesis? The example of Lizzie shows that they are. While it takes a much greater degree of effort, involving an “over-reading” of her painting and poetry, we can return artistic authority and personality to Lizzie
Siddal and other female artists. Putting the theories of Miller and Jardine in a dialogue with each other allows us to recognize the processes that create and write “woman” and shows us how to look beyond these processes in hopes that we might be able to hear her voice.
Daly, Gay. Pre-Raphaelites in Love. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989.
Fredeman, William, ed. The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Formative Years, 1985-1862. Vol. 2: 1855-1862. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2002.
Hawksley, Lucinda. Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Walker & Co., 2004.
Jardine, Alice. Preliminaries. Gynesis: Configurations of Women and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.
McGann, Jerome C., ed. The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Third installment. Online. Internet. 11 November 2006. <http://www.rossettiarchive.org/>.
Miller, Nancy K. Arachnologies: The Woman, the Text, and the Critic. Poetics of Gender. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.
Nichols, Kathleen. Gender, Literature and Art Part Vb: PR Models, Lovers, Art-Sisters. June 2003. Online. Internet. 11 November 2006. <http://faculty.pittstate.edu/~knichols/lizzie.html>
Pearce, Lynn. Woman/Image/Text: Readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature. Toronto & Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Prose, Francine. The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Riede, David G. Dante Gabriel Rossetti Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
Shefer, Elaine. Birds, Cages and Women in Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite Art. American University Studies: Ser. 20, Fine Arts; Vol 12. New York, Bern, Frankfurt & Paris: Peter Lang, 1990.
Showalter, Elaine. Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness. New Feminist Criticism. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Taylor, Beverly. Beatrix/Creatrix: Elizabeth Siddal as Muse and Creator. The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. Vol 4 (Spring 1995): 29-42.
Todd, Pamela. Pre-Raphaelites at Home. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2001.
Williamson, Audrey. Artists and Writers in Revolt. Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press, 1976.