The Woman Who Was A Muse, Painter and Ghost
Beyond her tragic story, the work of Elizabeth Siddal deserves a place in the pre-Raphaelite pantheon.
After a lengthy illness and an addiction to laudanum that lasted nearly as long, Elizabeth Siddal died in 1862, one year after she gave birth to a stillborn girl. Legend has it she was often seen with her arms cradling her daughter’s ghost. Her husband, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti buried her along with the only manuscript of his poems and, to pay homage, painted a portrait of her as Beata Beatrix.
Siddal was the pre-Raphaelite muse par excellence. From the time the artist Walter Deverell discovered her while she was working in a hat store with her long, red hair and her huge eyes, she became a model for this group of English painters. She posed for Hunt and Millais, among others, and soon became Rossetti’s lover.
But Elizabeth was more than just a muse; she was also an author. Like Rossetti, she painted and wrote. Art critic John Ruskin sponsored her so she could study drawing. Several of Rossetti’s drawings portray her in front of an easel. Like other Pre-Raphaelite she often painted medieval topics and also wrote poems that were published posthumously. They are sad poems, which deal with the inconsistency and failure of love: “If the merest dream of love were true/ Then, sweet, we should be in heaven, / And this is only earth, my dear, / Where true love is not given.” In several of them she begs heaven for her death and anticipates it: “Then sit down meekly at my side / And watch my young life flee.”
Years after her death, Rossetti regretted his outburst and decided to dig up the poems he placed in Siddal’s coffin. Legend has it that when he disinterred her, Elizabeth was more beautiful than ever, and that her hair had grown so long it was filling the entire coffin. Rossetti said he then saw Elizabeth’s ghost several times, who haunted him, outraged perhaps that he desecrated her resting place after his romantic treason.
The most famous painting for which Siddal posed is Ophelia by Millais. The Shakespearian personality is confused with Siddal in her madness, her beauty and her tragic death. For the painting, Siddal had to pose in winter, in a bathtub, for several hours. Lamps were placed below to heat the water, but at one point they burned out and Siddal, without complaining, got colder and colder and fell ill. Part of the painting’s impact is this disturbing combination of beauty and death. Perhaps part of the realism is because the model nearly died of hypothermia.
Elizabeth is the legend of a ghost in more than one sense. She represents all the women from her period, all the artists who were nearly invisible in history, almost forgotten, but still present, as ghosts. Elizabeth’s work and her stunning paintings deserve more attention than her personality. Perhaps this acknowledgment would allow her ghost to rest in peace.
1. Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1851 - 1952
2. Sancta Lilias, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874
3. Proserpine, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874
4. Destiny, John William Waterhouse, 1900
5. Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866 – 8
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