Rossetti acted as Lizzie’s teacher and mentor, but I do not feel that this aspect of their relationship was one-sided. I prefer to view their time together as one of collaboration and believe that they influenced each other in an artistic and symbiotic flow. A good example of this is Siddal’s painting Lady Affixing a Pennant and Rossetti’s painting Before the Battle. Both works have identical subjects, presented in a medieval style. In these paintings we see women attaching banners or pennants to knight’s spears in preparation for battle.
I’ve added a new image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Hamlet and Ophelia (larger version here)
It was well known within their circle of friends that Lizzie and Gabriel referred to each other by the pet name of “Guggums”. Ford Madox Brown wrote about this curious nickname and Rosseti’s obsessive drawing of his beloved “Guggums”:
“Called on Dante Rossetti. Saw Miss Siddal, looking thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever; a real artist, a woman without parallel for many a long year. Gabriel as usual diffuse and inconsequent in his work. Drawing wonderful and lovely Guggums one after another, each one a fresh charm, each one stamped with immortality, and his picture never advancing.”
In another entry, Ford Madox Brown said that Rossetti showed him “a drawer full of ‘Guggums’, God knows how many, but not bad work, I should say, for the six years he had known her; it is like a monomania with him. Many of them are matchless in beauty, however, and one day will be worth large sums.”
Here are a few of Rossetti’s “Guggums”:
Here is a later version of Beata Beatrix, painted in 1870. Lets compare it to the earlier version we’ve discussed. It is certainly more “glamorized”. Any thoughts?
Please post a comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Beata Beatrix.
Beata Beatrix is probably one of the most famous images of Elizabeth Siddal, next to Millais’ Ophelia.
Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix after Lizzie’s death. Although some studies had been done before Lizzie died, the work is mainly posthumous and is considered to be Rossetti’s memorial to his dead wife. Beata Beatrix is one of Rossetti’s finest masterpieces and is filled with symbolism. I am currently reading The Hidden Life of Art, which quotes Oscar Wilde on the interior dustjacket flap: “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril.” And journey beneath the surface we must. At least I, for one, feel compelled to do so. I’d like to start a regular practice of discussing paintings here at LizzieSiddal.com. So I invite your comments.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti always identified with Dante Alighieri, so it was perfectly natural to cast Lizzie as Dante’s love Beatrice. As always, his view of Lizzie is as an extension of his own experience. Dante is his lifelong obsession, so Lizzie must be Beatrice.
How peaceful she looks. Is she in prayer? Meditation? A state of bliss as she transitions from the earthly world to a heavenly one? Or is this state we see in her face and in her posture reminiscent of Lizzie in a drugged state? Rossetti and others must have seen her often under the influence of laudanum. Is this how she appeared to him? And is this his way of seeing her in a different light, forever changing her drugged high to a religious one with this painting.
This marks the second time Elizabeth Siddal is painted or portrayed in death (or at least close to death). In Ophelia, her hands lay open as she floats along the water. Open, but welcoming nothing. There is a vacancy. You know she is already gone. And here, again, in Beata Beatrix her hands are open. Open and ready to welcome the poppies that the Dove (red, the color of love) is bringing her. Poppies – whose seeds are the source of Opium without which, Lizzie could not have had her laudanum.
In the background, we see the figures of Love and Death. We also see a sundial, with the shadow on the number nine. In later versions of Beata Beatrix, Rossetti painted the figures on the background with much more detail but changed the face of Beatrice a great deal. Also, the color of the dove has changed from red to white while the poppies were changed from white to red. (see here)
The proximity of their faces, his hand guiding hers, depicts an intimate setting. It shows a closeness that must have been felt by both Lizzie and DGR during the hours they spent together creating art at Chatham Place. Reading comments elsewhere online, I’ve seen their relationship described in a horribly dismissive way as if Rossetti merely tolerated her dabbling in art the way a parent might a small child. Or, even worse, as if she was a terribly clawing female, eager to copy and mimic his profession. They both mention and dismiss her work in one sentence, and then move on to her death and exhumation. There is a tendency to skip over her life and work in order to jump into the macabre aspects of her story. I find this disappointing, for Gabriel’s own writing and correspondence paints a very different picture (pun intended). He makes it quite clear that he believed in her talent and ability.
To quote Jan Marsh, as she wrote in Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, “I want to stress that in her career she was undoubtedly assisted by Gabriel who, whatever his faults, was unselfish in encouraging others and did much to help and sustain Lizzie. If anything he was too encouraging, too lavish in his praise, too ready to persuade her to paint before she had learnt to draw, for example….But if Gabriel’s support was invaluable it was also reciprocated, for she helped him to produce some of his finest work, as Ruskin (if few others) recognized.”
DGR wrote that:
“It seems hard to me when I look at her sometimes, working or too ill to work, and think how many without one tithe of her genius or greatness of spirit have granted them abundant health and opportunity to labour through the little they can do or will do, while perhaps her soul is never to bloom nor her bright hair to fade, but after hardly escaping from degradation and corruption, all she might have been must sink out again unprofitably in that dark house where she was born. How truly she may say,’No man cared for my soul.’ I do not mean to make myself an exception, for how long have I known her, and not thought of this till late — perhaps too late. But it is of no use writing more about this subject; and I fear, too, my writing at all about it must prevent your easily believing it to be, as it is, by far the nearest thing to my own heart.”
Despite their troubled relationship, I do feel that as a couple they were both dedicated to art and that Rossetti believed in her talent and ability. To dismiss her work is simply too easy. The story of Lizzie’s life and her relationship with Gabriel has all the qualities of a ripping soap opera, the end result being that a Pre-Raphaelite myth has been allowed to overshadow her work as much as Rossetti’s romantic relationships have in many cases overshadowed his.