Happy Monday! Lets #demystifythemuse!
Elizabeth Siddal was an English poet, artist, and model in the second half of the 18th century made famous through paintings such as John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” and her marriage to Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Elizabeth (b. 1829) was “discovered” by painter Walter Deverell while she was 20 and working as a milliner (selling hats) in London. Elizabeth was originally asked to model because of her plainness, but her cascading red hair, pale complexion, and delicate features soon became points of strength when seen through the Pre-Raphaelite artist’s eye.
For Millais’ “Ophelia” (picture 1), Siddal floated in a tub of water to simulate the drowning Goddess. While Millais usually kept the water warm with lamps underneath the tub during these sessions, they went out one day while he was particularly absorbed in his painting, and Siddal stoically remained in the icy water for hours. This session caused Siddal to become severely ill- a trouble that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Historians have also attributed anorexia, intestinal disorders, an addiction to laudanum (tincture of opium) and frequent use of “Fowler’s Solution” (a complexion enhancer) as causes of her fragile health.
Despite her illnesses, as well as severe bouts of depression, Siddal wrote poetry that was well-reviewed by critics such as William Gaunt, and was under contract with the art critic John Ruskin to receive 150 pounds a year in exchange for whatever drawings and watercolors she created (picture 3 + 4)
Siddal also studied art with her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and it is interesting to note how her style differed from his. Where he was soft and generous with her image (picture 2), her own self-portrait (picture 3) is quite ruddy and unforgiving.
Siddal overdosed on laudanum in 1862 after the still-born birth of a daughter in 1861 and the ensuing post-partum depression that came with it. It’s been said Elizabeth left a suicide note, but that it was destroyed by Rossetti since suicide was illegal and barred its victims from a proper Christian burial.