Elizabeth Siddal made great contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite movement; she appears in a number of important works.
After posing for Deverell, Holman Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti she bravely moved to the other side of the easel and became a Pre-Raphaelite artist in her own right. She has fascinated me throughout my adulthood and today I’d like to explore the many faces of Elizabeth Siddal as seen through the Pre-Raphaelites.
Early Pre-Raphaelite Model
Elizabeth Siddal first posed for artist Walter Deverell, who needed a model for Viola from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Viola is in disguise, so for her first foray into the art world Siddal donned the medieval costume of a male. To wear such a costume with so much leg showing wasn’t proper behavior for a Victorian young lady. Was she embarrassed? Excited? Perhaps she entered into it with the same bold spirit seen in Shakespeare’s fictional Viola.
Siddal is seen to the far left. Her Viola leans forward, looking at Duke Orsino. Viola has disguised herself as a male page and taken the name of Cesario so that she could enter into the Duke’s service. Like Viola, Elizabeth Siddal’s wearing of Cesario’s costume helped her to enter a new world that would alter the course of her life. To the right of Orsino is the clown Feste, shown singing a song. Deverell used Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a model for Feste. In this image that marks Elizabeth Siddal’s entrance to a new world, we see one of the most famous couples in art history. Although they were probably strangers at the time Twelfth Night was painted, Rossetti and Siddal would marry a little over a decade later.
William Holman Hunt also painted Elizabeth Siddal in a Shakespearean role. Unfortunately, we can no longer see her face in Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus. After critic John Ruskin described the ‘commonness of feature’ in Sylvia’s face, Hunt repainted it. We can not look to this painting as an accurate representation of Elizabeth Siddal.
Posing for Rossetti
One of her first sittings for Dante Gabriel Rossetti was for his work The Return of Tibullus to Delia. Siddal sat for Delia and just as she had embraced the medieval costume of Cesario, she boldly became Delia as she posed with her hair between her lips.
It is in the Delia studies and Millais’ study for Ophelia that I feel I get the clearest sense of Elizabeth Siddal’s visage.
William Michael Rossetti wrote that Millais’ Ophelia was the painting that closest resembled his sister in law. These three studies remain among my favorite works that feature Siddal’s face.
Which brings us to what is arguably the most well-known image of Elizabeth Siddal. The tale of how she posed in a bathtub with dire consequences is told repeatedly. I think it proves how dedicated she was and speaks to her professional attitude.
Once again a Shakespearean character, Siddal has become synonymous with Ophelia. Siddal’s later life was overshadowed with addiction, grief, and loss. Combine this with Millais’ famous depiction and it is easy to see why Siddal is almost always seen as an Ophelia-like figure.
Eventually, she sat only for Rossetti and the many drawings he made of her are like a private invitation into their secluded world.
Ford Madox Brown wrote of Rossetti’s countless drawings of her, saying ‘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.‘
Many of Rossetti’s drawings of her depict her at work.
Where Lizzie was usually the subject, here Rossetti sits in the role of model.
Elizabeth Siddal as Artist
We can see both Rossetti and Siddal’s features in her own drawing, Lovers Listening to Egyptian Girls Playing Music.
Queen of Hearts
When Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal finally married in 1860, he began this painting of her as Regina Cordium (Queen of Hearts). This work was created shortly after his painting Bocca Baciata. Both works are indicative of a new style that now characterizes his later works.
Contrast his Regina Cordium painting with his 1854 painting of Siddal.
I’d like to close this post with what I consider to be the most important image of Elizabeth Siddal. Her self-portrait.
She presents herself simply. Perhaps she wanted to move beyond the superficial and just paint the one thing that may have never been painted before: herself as she truly was.
At this point, she had seen herself depicted by most of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as Shakespearean heroines and Arthurian damsels. Now it was her turn to create the one work that sets aside all notions of Ophelia or other Pre-Raphaelite beauties.
This is Elizabeth Siddal, no longer gazing off to the side as she does in Rossetti’s many drawings. Here she is before marriage, before the tragedy of her stillborn daughter. Before the cycle of addiction.
In Christina Rossetti’s poem In An Artist’s Studio, she wrote about the experience of an artist’s model who serves only as a muse and is not treasured for who she truly is. Not as she is, but as she fills his dream. I think of that line often when I look at Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings of Siddal (and later, Jane Morris).
Then I look at Elizabeth Siddal’s self-portrait and think ‘Not as she is, but as she fills his dream’? Nope. Not this time.
Elizabeth Siddal’s poem, Lust of the Eyes, captures what a woman feels when loved for her beauty and nothing else. It seems fitting to end with her own words.
The 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 their starlike beauty dies.
I care not if my Lady pray
To our Father which is 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?
1 thought on “The Faces of Elizabeth Siddal”
I am also deeply actracted by Elizabeth Siddal, since I was 14 and saw Beata Beatrix in a book. Probably that painting changed my perception of beauty and my taste for ever.
Now in Milano I have seen BB for the first time, and I am 56. 42 ys have passed but still thinking about her. Not just a matter of beauty. But something different. It seems she was elsewhere. She seems to be watching beyond.
Thank you for this website.