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Siddal, Elizabeth (1829–1862)

Siddal, Elizabeth (1829–1862)

English painter, writer, and artist's model who was the face of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Name variations: Elizabeth Rossetti; Mrs. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Born Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal on July 25, 1829, in Holborn, England; died on February 11, 1862, in London; daughter of Charles Siddal and Elizabeth (Evans) Siddal; married Dante Gabriel Rossetti (the painter and poet), on May 23, 1860; children: one daughter (stillborn).

For nearly 150 years, Elizabeth Siddal has been a familiar figure to many who may not know her name. A model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of mid-19th century painters, Siddal was also a painter in her own right. She grew up in a working-class family in London, and with her sisters was apprenticed to a dressmaker around 1840. She was modestly educated, but her parents discouraged her interest in literature, and she received no academic artistic training. By age 20, she was supporting herself as a dressmaker.

In 1849, she met Walter Deverall, an artist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite artists' fraternity. Deverall was struck by Siddal's beauty, especially her dark red hair, and asked her to model for one of his paintings. Elizabeth's serious approach to art and outgoing personality made her an accepted member of the Brotherhood, who referred to her affectionately as "Miss Sid." She can be identified in many paintings and drawings by Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, for whom she posed for his famous Ophelia, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who painted her numerous times, most often as Dante's beloved Beatrice (Portinari) . By 1852, she was working regularly with Rossetti, who was the first to encourage her own artistic interests.

Soon Siddal became his pupil as well as his model; as her studies progressed, she stopped modeling professionally for other artists. Rossetti's support was crucial to her development as a painter, since she could not afford formal schooling, a studio, or the art materials he provided. At this time she was still working as a dressmaker and designer, and living with her parents. Her relationship with Rossetti deepened; his sister, the poet Christina Rossetti , wrote, "He feeds upon her face by day and night." Rossetti painted Siddal so often that her face came to signify the Pre-Raphaelite movement. She was credited by his contemporaries with having inspired the young artist to a higher level of accomplishment, and Rossetti himself portrays her centrality to his own success in a poem when he triumphs: "They that would look on her must come to me." By 1854, they were regularly traveling together, leading their friends to assume, wrongly, that they were engaged. In fact, although they were in love, there was no official engagement until 1860.

In 1855, Siddal met the wealthy and respected art critic John Ruskin, Rossetti's friend and supporter. Ruskin became a faithful, generous patron and friend to Elizabeth. He purchased many of her drawings, provided her with an annual allowance, and introduced her to other potential patrons. Ruskin's financial support improved Siddal's life dramatically, leaving her free to travel on the Continent and pursue her intellectual and artistic talents. Most of her subjects were drawn from Romantic poetry and literature. Her first public showing came in 1857, when some of her watercolors were included in an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work. The success of this first show encouraged Siddal to continue painting. She adopted the Pre-Raphaelite focus on chivalry and other medieval themes, and developed a personal style which, though it reflects her lack of formal training, is deeply romantic and intensely colorful.

After an extended trip to France in 1855–56, she returned to London. Rossetti continued to waver on the issue of marriage, promising to marry her and then finding reasons to wait. Frustrated, Siddal broke off the relationship in 1857. She spent some of the next several years with her family, but most of the time she was living in Sheffield, attending classes at the School of Art. Around 1859, her health began to fail; apparently she had become addicted to laudanum, an opiate then widely prescribed as a sedative in England. Early in 1860, she reconciled with Rossetti, and in May they finally married, settling in London. Siddal continued painting throughout her marriage, and also secretly composed poetry that was discovered by Rossetti after her death.

In 1861, she gave birth to a stillborn girl, an experience which further damaged her health and led to a deep depression. This depression only worsened her addiction to laudanum, and on February 10, 1862, she suffered an overdose of the drug. Elizabeth Siddal died the next day at age 32. Her death was ruled an accident, although there were rumors that it had been a suicide. Rossetti made the grand gesture of burying with her the only copy of all the poems he had written for her, including the beginnings of his sonnet cycle The House of Life. Seven years later, with the support of his friends, he changed his mind. Siddal was exhumed and the poems retrieved and published, securing his fame and her reputation not as a painter and poet in her own right, but as Rossetti's "muse." More recently, Siddal and the small number of works she completed have been rediscovered by art historians, who are restoring her to her rightful place in the history of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

sources:

Marsh, Jan. Elizabeth Siddal 1829–1862: Pre-Raphaelite Artist. Sheffield: The Ruskin Gallery, 1991.

Nochlin, Linda. "By a Woman Painted: Artists in the 19th Century," in Ms. July 1974, pp. 73–74.

Yeldham, Charlotte. Women Artists in Nineteenth Century England and France. NY: Garland, 1984.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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