Elizabeth Siddal

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Elizabeth Siddal, self-portrait (1854)

Elizabeth Siddal (1829 - 1862) was a British poet and artist whose fame was overshadowed by her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti and by the dramatic events of her life.

Siddal was perhaps the most important model to sit for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and their ideas about feminine beauty were profoundly influenced by her. She was Rossetti's model par excellence; almost all of his early paintings of women are in some sense her portraits. She was also painted by Walter Deverell, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, and was the model for Millais' well known Ophelia.

Siddal, whose name was originally spelt 'Siddall' (it was Rossetti who dropped the second 'l') was first noticed by Deverell, working as a milliner. Niether she nor her family had any artistic aspirations or interests. She was employed as a model by Deverall and was later taken up by the other Pre-Raphaelites. After becoming involved in a relationship with Rossetti, Siddal began to study with him, producing small-scale paintings in a style similar to his own, but with emphasis on female experience. She also began to write verse. In 1855 John Ruskin, convinced that she had unique talents, began to subsidize her career. Never in the best of health, and possibly suffering from tuberculosis, Siddal travelled to Paris and Nice for several years, returning to England in 1860 to marry Rossetti.

In 1861, Siddal became pregnant; her pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Suffering from depression, Siddal committed suicide by an overdose of laudanum in 1862.

Death, however, was not her last adventure. Overcome with grief, Rossetti enclosed in her coffin a manuscript containing the only copies he had of his many poems. In 1869, Rossetti, his own career declining because of his own excesses in drugs and alcohol, was advised by friends to repent of his action and retrieve his poems. Rossetti procured an order to have her coffin exhumed to retrieve his manuscript. This was done in the dead of night so as to avoid public curiosity and attention. Her corpse was reportedly remarkably preserved and her delicate beauty intact when the manuscript was retrieved. Rossetti published the poems; they were not well received by some critics because of their eroticism, and he remained haunted by the incident through the rest of his own brief life.

Rossetti's relationship with Siddal is also explored by Christina Rossetti in her poem "In an Artist's Studio".

Quotation:

Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.
Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.
But true love, seek me in the throng
Of spirits floating past,
And I will take thee by the hands
And know thee mine at last.
-- From Early Death