The Life and Work of Elizabeth Siddal
In an Artist's Studio
One face looks
out from all his canvases,
Christina Rossetti wrote this poem about her brother, the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and his muse, Elizabeth Siddal. For years Siddal was known primarily as the woman who modeled for Rossetti and his fellow painters and was perhaps better known for her morbid postmorten experience than for anything she accomplished in life. Today, Siddal has become a sort of feminist icon, the subject of biographies, her work resurrected by galleries and websites.
Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall was born in 1829; she later shortened her last name to "Siddal." A young woman of working-class background, she found employment as an assistant to a milliner. In 1849, a young artist named Walter Deverell happened to walk into the shop and asked her employer if her assistant would model for him.
was a student of Rossetti's. Rossetti, along with fellow artists
John Everett Millais and William
Holman Hunt, had formed what they termed the "Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood" in 1848 as a reaction to the Royal Academys
formulaic approach to painting and its emphasis on perfection typified
by Raphael and the Renaissance masters. The PRBs goal was to bring
art back to a more medieval sensibility, one that sought creativity and
spirituality. They tended to stay away from landscapes and portraits and
paint what they considered more worthy subjects, such as scenes from Shakes-
Siddal soon became a popular model for the PRB. She can be seen as Viola in Deverell's Twelfth Night, Sylvia in Hunt's Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, and most most famously, Ophelia by Millais, where she posed for hours in bath water that had turned icy. She developed a serious cold afterward and apparently never completely recovered.
Curiously, Siddal was not considered beautiful by the standards of her day. The male artsts of the PRB painted an idealized version of her visage; she painted herself far more realistically.
Life seemed to take a propitious turn for Siddal. She and Rossetti became lovers, living together in Chatham Place. He drew her incessantly; she appears in his works Ecce Ancilla Domini, The Wedding of Prince George and Princess Sabra, How They Met Themselves, The Tune of the Seven Towers and Dantis Amor. Both he and John Ruskin, the influential poet, author, artist and art and social critic, encouraged her to paint and exhibit her works and write her own poetry.
As the years passed, however, Siddal and Rossetti became less congenial toward each other. Rossetti was reluctant to propose marriage, supposedly in part because of Siddal's working class background. Siddal was also suffering from increasingingly poor health. She could apparently be needy, demanding, and somewhat irritating. "In an Artist's Studio" notwithstanding, Christina Rossetti disliked Siddal for the most part.
Siddal's situation became more bleak with the passing years. As she approached 30, she was facing life as an unmarried, not quite respectable woman, and was now addicted to laudanum, a liquid form of opium used to dull physical pain and emotional distress. Meanwhile, Rossetti was having affairs with other models and had fallen in love with the PRB's latest "stunner," Jane Burden. However, in 1860 Rossetti did marry Siddal, in all likelihood out of sympathy for her plight rather than for love. Jane, who most likely returned Rossetti's affections, married his friend, the artist, writer and craftsman William Morris.
Siddal reached her emotional abyss after giving birth to a stillborn daughter in 1861. Several months later Rossetti returned home one night to find her dead, either by an accidental overdose of laudanum or suicide. She was 32 years old.
Rossetti blamed himself for Siddal's death. In his grief, he plunged a manuscript of poetry he was working on into her coffin. He then painted the Beata Beatrix as a memorial to her.
By 1869, Rossetti had gone from a Romantic idealist to a balding, middle-aged man having an illicit affair with Jane Morris, the wife of his friend and colleague, his career a shadow of what it had been. His thoughts turned to the buried manuscript of poetry, and at the encouragement of various colleagues, he finally ordered the exhumation of Siddals coffin in order to retrieve it.
Rossetti was not present when her coffin was exhumed in the dead of night. Rumor has it that she was perfectly preserved, her hair as red as ever; waist-long when she had died, it had continued growing till it nearly filled the coffin. Rossetti, however, writes about finding worm holes in the manuscript.
The poems were published but did not do well commercially or critically, and Rossetti never got over the fact that hed had Siddal exhumed. Now addicted to laudanum himself, he attempted suicide by taking an overdose in 1872 but survived. He died twenty years later, a wasted version of his former self.
Siddals Art and Poetry
Siddal's poetry is that of one suffering from melancholia, if not out and out clinical depression. Yet it more than effectively captures her angst, despair and alienation, as well as her anger and pride. Her art, while a bit short on technique, has an eerie, other-worldly quality.
While she is not considered to be in the same league as the men of the PRB, one has to wonder what she could have achieved had she lived in a time when women could forge an identity beyond the traditional female role accorded to them by society and had the opportunity to study and be considered as artists in their own right, not just enchanting faces staring out of canvases.
To feminists she represents a woman twice wronged, in life and in death, a woman forced to live in the shadow of her male peers, a girl who gives her love but sees that love returned only to her idealized self: "Not as she is, but as she fills his dream." Once she becomes a real person and her beauty fades, she is emotionally abandoned by her lover who chooses to seek out newer, younger, and possibly less demanding cohorts. Or perhaps Siddal is not so much the victim but a woman who could not save herself from her own inner demons. At any rate, one cannot help but sympathize with someone whose life, once so full of promise, went so wrong.
Poems by Elizabeth
A Silent Wood
O silent wood, I
A Year and a Day
Slow days have passed
that make a year,
Tears to shut out the summer leaves
When this new face I greet.
Still it is but the memory
Of something I have seen
In the dreamy summer weather
When the green leaves come between:
The shadow of my dear loves face
So far and strange it seems.
The river ever running down
Between its grassy bed,
The voices of a thousand birds
That clang above my head,
Shall bring to me a sadder dream
When this sad dream is dead.
A silence falls upon my heart
And hushes all its pain.
I stretch my hands in the long grass
And fall to sleep again,
There to lie empty of all love
Like beaten corn of grain.
He and She and Angels Three
Ruthless hands have
Oh never weep for
love thats dead
Oh grieve not with
thy bitter tears
Fragment of a Ballad
Many a mile over
land and sea
To touch the glove
upon her tender hand,
Lord May I Come?
Life and night are
falling from me,
Love and Hate
Ope not thy lips,
thou foolish one,
Shepherd Turned Sailor
Now Christ ye save
yon bonny shepherd
The Lust of the Eyes
I care not for my
Low sit I down at my Ladys 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 hearts quick pulses play
For to me her love is given.
Then who shall close my Ladys eyes
And who shall fold her hands?
Will any hearken if she cries
Up to the unknown lands?
The Passing of Love
My live into a dream of love!
Will tears of anguish never wash
The passion from my blood?
Love kept my heart in a song of joy,
My pulses quivered to the tune;
The coldest blasts of winter blew
Upon me like sweet airs in June.
Love floated on the mists of morn
And rested on the sunsets rays;
He calmed the thunder of the storm
And lighted all my ways.
Love held me joyful through the day
And dreaming ever through the night;
No evil thing could come to me,
My spirit was so light.
O Heaven help my foolish heart
Which heeded not the passing time
That dragged my idol from its place
And shattered all its shrine
Farewell, Earl Richard,
To claim his pale bride.
Soon Ill return to thee
Hopeful and brave,
When the dead leaves
Blow over thy grave.
Then shall they find me
Close at thy head
Watching or fainting,
Sleeping or dead
Autumn leaves are
Thy strong arms
are around me, love
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