Artwork featuring Elizabeth Siddal

Let’s Discuss: Lizzie as Ophelia

Here is a study of Lizzie as Ophelia, drawn by Millais.   William Michael Rossetti described the painting of Ophelia as perhaps the best likeness of Lizzie.  I’ve always loved the painting of Ophelia, not just because of Lizzie, but because of the painter’s meticulous attention to detail.  The flowers, the ballooning of that heavy dress in the water…the entire painting is perfectly executed.

I wonder how Lizzie herself felt about the painting, especially after her ordeal as she posed, floating in the water as the oil lamps went out one by one. The water gradually turns from comfortable to lukewarm to icy cold.  Yet Lizzie behaved in a responsible manner, true to her profession as an artist’s model.  She never said a word and remained in that cold water wearing an old, musty gown while Millais continued to work.  Bravo Lizzie.

What do you think of Lizzie as Ophelia?  It seems as if the tale of her posing for it added to her legend.  She is so widely known for this painting and for her death and exhumation that other aspects of her life can be overshadowed.

17 Comments

  • Lizzie

    This painting has fascinated me since I first saw an image of it as a child, and started my obsession with the Pre-Raphaelites in general, and Lizize Siddal in particular. As I learned more about her life, I find myself drawn back to it often as one of the truer depictions of her. Rossetti’s ban on her sitting for other artists shortly after she became involved with him and his sickening destruction of nearly any photograph or record of her presence in “official” Pre-Raphaelite documents after her death has left us with little fact and few images of the real woman behind his fantasy. While the tragic subject and oft repeated story of Lizzie’s suffering for its creation calls to mind the legend which has grown around her, I cherish the image for offering a rare glimpse of her untouched by the overbearing mania of Rossetti. (Yes, I’m sure it was more of a co-dependence, but I am a bit biased)

    As for Lizzie’s feelings towards the painting, I would imagine she was flattered to pose for Millais, who was already regarded as a talented artist and had made a name for himself despite his youth. Several biographers have referred to Lizzie’s early artistic leanings, and posing offered a chance for her to learn by observation, as women were not welcome to study in artistic institutions of the time. Her silence about the rapidly cooling water suggests that she was somewhat in awe of the artist, as she was often described as outspoken by those who knew her, but was reported to remain silent in situations where she felt insecure, such as the disastrous meeting with Rossetti’s mother and sister. Her days as a shop girl were not very far behind her, and she may have feared that complaining about her working conditions would result in another, more cooperative model being chosen, leaving her little choice but to return to her former profession.

    Surely the lawsuit over her doctor’s bill was the idea of her father, who was already involved in a longstanding lawsuit regarding what he thought to be his rightful family inheritance. One can imagine the embarrassment and anxiety such action would have caused Lizzie, who had only recently been “discovered” by the PRB and likely feared the suit would alienate the artists and end her modeling career.

    Accounts of Lizzie’s taste in literature as well as the subjects of her own art lead me to believe she would have likely been pleased with the subject matter. According to Violet Hunt’s somewhat dubious biography, she was very proud of the painting, which caused an uproar when first exhibited and made her face one of the more recognizable of the day, accompanying a group of fellow students to an exhibition featuring the work years later.

  • Nancy

    I also think Lizzie was probably quite proud of the painting. I’m a Siddal fanatic, but even if she weren’t in this painting it would still be one of my favorites. Ophelia is my favorite Shakespearean character and I love the detail Millais sank into this painting. Especially the flowers, which play such a great role in the scene leading up to Ophelia’s death.

    The Olivier movie of Hamlet is a favorite of mine, although I like the modern Kenneth Branaugh (spelling?) one as well.

  • Daisy

    This is my favorite representation of Ophelia. (Although I also like the Arthur Hughes painting with Ophelia in a white dress).

    Has anyone read Fiona Mountain’s book Pale as the Dead? It’s a modern mystery and in it two of the characters (a model and a photographer) recreate the Millais painting for an exhibition that is intended to be a sort of modern twist on preraphaelite works. It’s very good.

  • Elizabeth

    I always liked the painting, being the big John Millais fan that I am, but seeing the painting in reality, when I finally saw it at the Tate gallery a few years ago, filled me with a deeper love for its amazing detail and beauty.

    Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play, and I know it backwards and forwards, and I feel that this is the best interpretation of Shakespeare’s actual words. Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death is one of the most beautiful passages in Shakespeare, and Millais’s painting illuminates them and gives them a reality that I have not seen in any other portrayal of this scene either in film or on canvas.

    I have also found it interesting that some observers of the painting, including Lucinda Hawksley, have concluded that Ophelia is portrayed in the painting as already dead. It is obvious to anyone who reads or hears Gertrude’s words that he has chosen the moment when

    “…Her clothes spread wide;
    And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
    Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
    As one incapable of her own distress,
    Or like a creature native and indued
    Unto that element…”

    So in the painting, she is still alive and singing, unaware in her insanity of how close she is to death. I have always felt that that is the saddest part of Gertrude’s description. Millais actually indicates the singing as Ophelia’s mouth is open in the painting.

    Anyway, my own personal hobby horse there, sorry!

    Thank you so much for putting together this website. Lizzie would have appreciated being celebrated like this, I think.

  • Linda

    Elizabeth said, “So in the painting, she is still alive and singing…Millais actually indicates the singing as Ophelia’s mouth is open in the painting.”
    Yes!!! That’s how I best remember Ophelia from my English Lit class. – Linda
    And, “Lizzie would have appreciated being celebrated like this, I think.”
    I think she might have, at times, but I also think she would often have been surprised at all the fuss raised about her.

  • David Rose

    Hi, many moons ago, sometime around 1970, I passed an antiques shop going to and from work as a barman in a pub in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. In the window of the shop was a marble bust of a woman very much in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition and I fell in love with her. When I had saved enough and being a romantic teenager I bought her.
    The dealer told me (after I had bought her) that the bust was of Lizzie Siddal as Ophelia and had come from the William Morris collection that had been broken up a few years previously. There is no signature – or indeed any mark whatsoever. Do you know of any way that I can authenticate this sculpture?
    cheers
    David Rose

    • Stephanie Pina

      You have intrigued me! I’ve never heard of or seen anything written about a bust of Elizabeth Siddal. Do you have a photo of it?
      Looking at images of Lizzie, do the features of the bust look similar to you?

  • Kris Lundberg

    This is one of my favorite paintings of Lizzie. She’s glorious. In so many productions of “Hamlet”, I’ve seen Ophelia portrayed as this weak, fragile thing…very similar to how the character of Laura is abysmally portrayed in “The Glass Menagerie.” Even though Ophelia’s fate is a bleak one at that, Elizabeth showed her fear, but also her immense strength. It’s so beautiful and inspirational. She was truly timeless.

  • Anne

    A while ago, when looking through an art book, I found a painting by Piero di Cosimo from 1490 called “Venus, Mars and Cupid” (it’s also online here: http://www.wga.hu/html/p/piero/cosimo/allegory/venus_ma.html ), which interests me because I think Venus’s head looks surprisingly like Lizzie’s as Ophelia. I knew that the pre-Raphaelites were heavily inspired by early Renaissance painters, but I hadn’t really thought that their influence extended to the point of who they picked for their models. Now I wonder if there are other Renaissance paintings of people who look like Lizzie or the other models (especially Jane Morris).

  • Carrie

    I was shocked when I did a Google image search for “dead Ophelia” last year for a Halloween costume. Not only is it a beautiful painting, but I realized that I look *exactly* like this woman. Only after looked through your website did I understand Lizzie and her place in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

    It ended up being a great costume, incidentally.

  • Rowan van der Holt

    I found your web site a couple of years ago when doing research for a sculptural tiara I was making for an exhibition. The tiara has developed into a direction for my work, and I thought you might be interested so have attatched my web site. All my best Rowan

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