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The Somber Life of Pre-Raphaelite Art Model Elizabeth Siddal


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Elizabeth Siddal was born in 1829 into a working-class family. Her father had owned and operated a cutlery-making business which provided the family with a little standing in life. There is no documentation that she had ever attended school however hand-written letters attest to the fact that she could read and write, and most likely received her knowledge through homeschooling.

When Elizabeth became of age, she had taken on work through a local milliner, a sought-after employment position for a young woman. Fate had intervened yet again with the chance meeting of Will Deverell, an artist who spotted her at the millinery shop and requested that she do a sitting for him. There is a bit of irony in this chance meeting.

Deverell had chosen Siddal because he needed a subject to portray Viola as Cesario dressed as a boy in his depiction of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Deverell found Siddal to be ‘plain in appearance’ whereas history had otherwise deemed her as one of the greatest beauties to have ever emerged from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s circle. With art, discernment is the rule to one’s perception, and Deverell despite his much later claim to her beauty–this was his truth.

Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal 1854 by Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal 1854 by Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal's Art Modeling Career

Elizabeth Siddal had started her art modeling career sitting for William Deverell, though it wasn’t long before she held other artist interests, those of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. One artist, in particular, was fascinated with her appearance–Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whom she had met through Deverell.

Two Lovers by Elizabeth Siddal 1854

Two Lovers by Elizabeth Siddal 1854

Artistic Endeavors for Siddal

By 1851, Siddal had sat for Rossetti. Right away, the young artist and model became involved in a romance. Rossetti took “Lizzie” under his wing and tutored her, teaching her how to sketch (as pictured above) and paint, and she produced many drawings, watercolors, and poetical prose which even caught the eye of a famous art critic, John Ruskin who encouraged and patronized her talent. Despite her claim to fame as an art model, her true talent was in her artistic expression, which remains underrated and shadowed by her illustrious modeling career.

Beata Beatrix  1877

Beata Beatrix 1877

Rossetti's Amorous Attachment to Siddal

For the next decade, Siddal became a focal point in Rossetti’s life. Consumed and possessive with his muse, Rossetti had made it a rule that she could no longer sit for any other artist as long as she was with him. The demand was almost hypocritical in so much as Rosetti himself had often used other models and even entertained dalliances here and there. Even so, after a long expected wait for Siddall, they had married at the behest of her ill health.

Some of Rossetti’s most significant achievements in art featured Siddal, the much studied Beata Beatrice, a memorial, which not only seized the epitome of Pre-Raphaelite beauty but held an uncanny spiritual significance as well.

 Dante Gabriel Rossetti Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal

Elizabeth Siddal's Final Years

It wasn’t until after their nuptials when Siddal fell out of favor with her artist husband. Even though she remained a faithful wife, he turned his attention, creativity, and inspiration toward other models, younger and much healthier than she–art models such as her rival, the rumored coquette Annie Miller.

Rossetti’s unfaithfulness might have been one reasoning for Siddal’s depression, her addiction to opioids, and various conditions that led to a weak system, causing frail health and her eventual demise.

Elizabeth Siddal died of a laudanum overdose in February 1862. Though reported as an accidental death, historians suggest that Rossetti might have found a suicide note yet withheld the information so he could keep his family free of scandal and give his wife a proper Christian burial. Rossetti never recovered from the guilt that he suffered over her death and carried the tragedy with him for the rest of his life.

Cited Sources & Works

  • Stephanie Pina. Exploring Elizabeth Siddal: Letters Written By Elizabeth Siddal (http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/25/)
  • Daly, Gay (1989). Pre-Raphaelites in Love, New York: Ticknor & Fields.
  • Surtees, Virginia (1991). Rossetti’s Portraits of Elizabeth Siddall, Aldershot: Scolar Press

© 2019 ziyena


Liz Westwood from UK on May 27, 2019:

I appreciate the way that your articles can be linked together. It is interesting to read this shortly after I have read your hub on Rossetti.