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Artists Who Died Before 35: Elizabeth Siddal

Updated on June 7, 2016
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Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

photo
photo | Source

Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862)

It’s so sad when anyone dies young, but doubly so for artists because there is so much more they could have done to make the world a more beautiful, colorful place. The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. Sometimes I envy people like my mother, who have a very “even keel.” People like that seldom get mad or upset (although when they do, look out). However they also don’t get overly jovial or jocular. Every day is a straight line from sunrise to sunset.

Gratefully, I don’t live like that. I am one of the artists. When I am happy, I am a very ecstatic, giggling fool. And when I’m sad, I am in the dismal dumps. No halfway for me. I feel it all and it often shows up in my work.

That’s what happened to most of these artists who died young. They felt too deeply the pain of life. And some just succumbed to sickness, sadness and drug addiction before their work was done. This is the story of Elizabeth Siddal, who died tragically of an overdose at the age of 32.

All changes pass me like a dream,

I neither sing nor pray;

And thou art like the poisonous tree

That stole my life away.

— Elizabeth Siddal

Known as Lizzie

Known to her friends as Lizzie, she was a popular model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Walter Deverell, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and her husband, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, but was an artist in her own right. She was the model for Millais’ Ophelia (1852) featuring the drowning Ophelia. She was said to suffer from ailments suspected to be either tuberculosis or possibly an intestinal disorder. Her art, created in the shadow of men and artists around her, was morbid and eerie giving her the reputation as an early feminist. She died of a laudanum overdose at the age of 32 years old.

Lovers Listening to Music, 1854
Lovers Listening to Music, 1854 | Source
The Quest of the Holy Grail, 1851
The Quest of the Holy Grail, 1851 | Source

Homeschooled

Named for her mother, she was born in England to a family of English and Welsh descent. Her friends and family called her “Lizzie”. Although she never went to school, she could read and write so it is assumed she was homeschooled. Whether she had any artistic aspirations in the beginning is unknown, although she did write poetry before meeting the Pre-Raphaelites.

A markerCranbourne Alley, London -
Cranbourne Gardens, London NW11 0HP, UK
get directions

Location of the milliners where Elizabeth Siddal worked.

The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.

— Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Portrait of Lizzie
Portrait of Lizzie | Source

Have you ever heard of the Pre-Raphaelites?

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Pre-Raphaelites during the time of the Impressionists

Shortly before and somewhat during the age of the Impressionists, there was a group of artist who aspired to the tradition painting methods of the Renaissance and before. They loved the symbolism of paintings that told a story beyond the image of a person. Roses meant this and a dove meant that; having symbols littered throughout the painting was to give the viewer a deeper sense of the greater story. These artists called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There were only about 12 artists all told in the group of artists and the fame of the movement only lasted about 10 or 15 years, although the artists themselves remained true to the movement all their lives. Into this group of artists entered Elizabeth Siddal. She was a young pretty woman with flaming hair, although she was originally chosen as model because of her “plainness,” I think most people agree she wasn’t plain. She was perfect for portraits of Ophelia from Hamlet and other iconic people. Among these artists, she met and married Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

Places that are empty of you are empty of life.

— Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Ophelia modeled by Elizabeth Siddal
Ophelia modeled by Elizabeth Siddal | Source
Portrait of Elizabeth
Portrait of Elizabeth | Source

Portrait of Ophelia

It was Sir John Everett Millais who used her to model for the dead Ophelia. He had her float in a tub of water warmed using lamps under it. This process took months so it was during the dead of winter one day, as Millais was nearly finished with the painting, when the lamps unexpectedly went out and the tub of water got to be icy cold. The model was what we would call a trooper, and made no complaint. Millais was so entranced in the painting process that he didn’t notice. Time seems to stand still when we artists are working and we can look up amazed when we realized 8 hours or more have gone by. Lizzie had been chilled to the bone and came down with a bad cold, probably pneumonia. Her father was very angry with Millais and swore he would sue him for 50 pounds. Millais paid her medical bills, as so avoided being sued. The problem was that Lizzie had always been a rather sickly young woman. Some believe she had tuberculosis, other historians believe it was some sort of intestinal disorder that caused her such trouble. Still others have suggested that she may have been anorexic and the taking Fowler’s Solution, which was a complexion improver made from dilute arsenic added to it. It was a common practice in the 1800s for women to take arsenic to make their skin appear white. Whatever the cause of her ailments, pneumonia didn’t help the matter.

Beauty like hers is genius.

— Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal
Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal | Source

First noticed in 1849

Lizzie was first noticed at the age of 20 by the artist, Walter Deverell in 1849 while she was working in London as a milliner. She must have been quite a picture making and selling hats with her crown of red hair. Deverell employed her as a model and introduced her to the Pre-Raphaelites. She was described as having a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair. This and her long neck may have been what the artists first hired her for, but she won them over with her air of dignity and modest self-respect. She still worked at Mrs. Tozer’s millinery part-time to ensure her a regular wage if the modeling thing didn’t work out. This made her self-sufficient, which was unusual for young women of her time.

Eve of St. Agnes, 1850
Eve of St. Agnes, 1850 | Source

Women artists not usually accepted

It seems incredible to me that so many women were shunned from the artistic world as amateur and insignificant. Very few have been recognized for the talent they had and fewer still were encouraged to hone their craft. It seems Elizabeth fell into a sympathetic group who were nurturing and encouraging. Her husband, Rosetti, tutored her and helped her to find her voice. By 1851, she was sitting for Rosetti exclusively. The number of paintings he did of her is said to be in the thousands, including one he painted a year after her death. It is heartening that he gave her lessons and encouraged her to expand her own artistic skills after they became engaged.

Lady Claire, 1857
Lady Claire, 1857 | Source

It's a man's world

I know what it feels like to be a woman in a man’s artistic world. My father tried to dissuade me from pursuing something he was sure would disappoint me; my first husband swore he wanted to help me pursue my gifting but once we were married he didn’t want to hear another word about it. Needless to say, that marriage didn’t last long. He was one of those that pulled a belt out and whipped me regularly. My children kept me busy and when they left home I felt a little like it was over, and life had passed me by. To find outlets now for my craft has been a godsend.

Interestingly enough, the English art critic John Ruskin began subsidizing her income in 1855 by paying her 150 pounds a year in exchange for all the drawings and paintings she produced. I find that significant in a time when women’s art was not commonly honored or prized.

Before the Battle, 1856
Before the Battle, 1856 | Source
Macbeth
Macbeth | Source

Finally married to Rosetti

There is a lot of speculation as to why they put off their marriage for so long (7 years I believe). Some believe that her family did not approve, accusing the painter of wanting a younger muse before long. Some say they broke it off because he had affairs with other women. Some believe it was her ill health that kept postponing the wedding. In the end they married in 1860 and she was so weak that she had to be carried the 5-minute walk to the church, where no friends or family met them to celebrate. When she was finally well enough, they left to honeymoon in France. She was overjoyed when she became pregnant, but gave birth to a stillborn daughter. The story is that she would sit for hours afterward rocking, and make everyone be quiet because the non-existent baby was sleeping. They gave her laudanum to cope with the severe depression and she became addicted.

Tragic death at 32.

She became pregnant again in late 1861 but in the early months of 1862, she overdosed on laudanum. Rossetti discovered her unconscious and dying but didn’t realize the severity of the situation and went to his regular teaching job. By the time he got home and decided something was wrong, he called for a doctor but it was too late. She died early the next morning.

Pippa Passes
Pippa Passes | Source
Self-portrait on white paper
Self-portrait on white paper | Source

Death ruled accidental

Her death was ruled accidental, but you must remember that in those days suicide was not only a immoral but also illegal. If they had found a note indicating she purposely ended it all, she would not have been allowed to have a Christian burial; not to mention the family scandal it would have caused. So if her husband found such a note, he most definitely would have destroyed it.

The Lady of Shallot
The Lady of Shallot | Source

Rossetti overcome with grief

Overcome with grief, Rossetti buried the only copy of a journal of poems dedicated to her with her in her coffin. He himself, became chronically addicted to drugs and alcohol. Later he wanted to publish a book of his poetry and decided he wanted to include the poems he buried with his wife… so he had her body exhumed. It was done at night to avoid public curiosity and attention without Rossetti present. His agent Howell reported that her corpse was remarkably well preserved and that her hair had continued to grow filling the coffin with her coppery tresses, probably due to the laudanum. They retrieved the manuscript with just a little worm damage.

Sister Helen, 1854
Sister Helen, 1854 | Source

Without her

Poem published seven years after her death in a book of poems entitled The House of Life.

What of her glass without her? The blank grey
There where the pool is blind of the moon's face.
Her dress without her? The tossed empty space
Of cloud-rack whence the moon has passed away.
Her paths without her? Day's appointed sway
Usurped by desolate night. Her pillowed place
Without her? Tears, ah me! For love's good grace,
And cold forgetfulness of night or day.

What of the heart without her? Nay, poor heart,
Of thee what word remains ere speech be still?
A wayfarer by barren ways and chill,
Steep ways and weary, without her thou art,
Where the long cloud, the long wood's counterpart,
Sheds doubled up darkness up the labouring hill.
— From Without Her

Source
The Ladies Lament
The Ladies Lament | Source
The Woeful Victory
The Woeful Victory | Source

All so Shakespearian

After all this, Lizzie Siddal’s life is actually compared to the Ophelia she modeled for. Ophelia looses her father, Lizzie looses her child stillborn. Hamlet breaks his vow to marry Ophelia; for whatever reasons, the same thing happened to Lizzie several times. Although, they finally made it to the altar, it was a long time coming. Overcome with grief and madness, Ophelia sings strange songs while those around her are unsure of what to do. Lizzie overcome with depression, sings while she rocks and empty cradle and orders quiet for a baby that is not there. Ophelia commits suicide by drowning; Lizzie may or may not have committed suicide by overdosing. In the end, Hamlet leaps into Ophelia’s grave, Rossetti exhumes Lizzie’s body. Hamlet feels responsible for Ophelia's death and I think Rossetti did as well. It is… well, all so tragically Shakespearian, isn’t it?

Beata Beatrix, 1880
Beata Beatrix, 1880 | Source

The last portrait

The last painting of her by Rossetti is filled with symbolism. The red dove is a messenger of death dropping a poppy into her hands. The sundial behind her giving her the final hours and a sort of glow around her head and hair shows the reverence he had for her, I think. This painting was completed years after her death and really shows what a muse she was to him and how much he missed her.

“He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

— St. Francis of Assisi

More on Lizzy

For more great information of the Pre Raphaelites and Elizabeth Siddal in particular, you should check out this web site: http://lizziesiddal.com/

Source

Shakespearian Comments Welcomed

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 23 months ago from Fresno CA

      billybuc,

      She was pretty fabulous, wasn't she? Sad when people die young. I really appreciate you looking in, especially when I see how very busy you are working your craft. You are incredibly prolific. I always appreciate your comments and kind words.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 23 months ago from Fresno CA

      DDE,

      Thank you so much. I'm happy you found it interesting. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 23 months ago from Olympia, WA

      So much talent to lose at such an early age. Very interesting article...thank you for the education.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 23 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I Tweeted and a very interesting hub indeed!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 23 months ago from Fresno CA

      Nadine May,

      How awesome, Nadine. Which magazine was that? I'd love to have seen it. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 23 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Thank you so much for that very interesting article about the life of Elizabeth Siddal . Yes a rather sad story, but her drawings are very sensitive. I do have a art magazine in my collection that is full of the paintings she posed for.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Lawrence,

      I'm so glad you found this informative. As always, I appreciate your comments.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Denise

      I'd heard of the 'pre Raphaelites' and knew they were 19th century but couldn't figure the connection with Raphael himself, thank you for explaining that.

      This is a wonderful but tragic story, thank you for sharing it.

      Lawrence

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Nell Rose,

      Thanks for the info. I will have to look that up. Thank you so much for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

      Reading this and suddenly getting to a description of her I suddenly remembered seeing a film years ago about her! Dante was played by Aiden Turner, he of Poldark fame! Fantastic film, can't remember what it was called!

      This was fascinating and sad too, great read!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      annart,

      It is amazing how many fabulous artists sort of slipped by us without much notice or fame, yet they were really talented and passionate about their art. I'm so glad you feel you learned something new. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      CorneliaMladenova,

      Thank you, Cornelia. That's exactly what I was hoping would happen. They are an amazing bunch of artists who use some very cool devices to send messages to the audience. I hope you enjoy them. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      Love the final quote!

      This is so interesting, as she was both model and artist. So sad how she died. She was indeed beautiful and though I knew the name, I had no idea she was the model for Ophelia.

      Thanks for enlightening us!

      Ann

    • CorneliaMladenova profile image

      Korneliya Yonkova 2 years ago from Cork, Ireland

      Magical story and so sad. What a pity she died so young, she might have created so many wonderful paintings. It is bad that the lives of the most amazing people are short and full of tragedy.

      Never have heard about Pre-Raphaelites by the way. Now you, Denise, inspired me to search the web for them and see more of their masterpieces. :)

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Congratulations. It is a beautiful site with lots of excellent and valuable information. I wish you tons of success and joy from it.

      Blessings,

      Denise

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      preraphsisterhood 2 years ago

      Thank you very much. I write at http://preraphaelitesisterhood.com and have spent twelve years compiling information about Elizabeth Siddal's life at http://lizziesiddal.com.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      preraphsisterhood,

      You seem very knowledgable about art and artists. You should consider contributing by writing some biographies also. I know I would love to read them.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      preraphsisterhood,

      Thank you again. I will look into these. I appreciate your comments.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • profile image

      preraphsisterhood 2 years ago

      If you need more images to replace the ones of Alexa, there are many wonderful drawings Rossetti drew of Lizzie. You are welcome to use any of these if you like, http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/a-drawer-full-of-gu... The mixing up of Alexa for Lizzie is a common mistake.

    • profile image

      preraphsisterhood 2 years ago

      You can easily verify by searching the paintings at rossettiarchive.org. Also, the book Rossetti, Painter and Poet by JB Bullen cites Alexa Wilding as the model. 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti' by Jan Marsh discusses his use of her in this time period, as does 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti' by Julian Treuherz, Elizabeth Prettejohn, and Edwin Becker. You can also find these details in Rossetti's correspondence.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      preraphsisterhood,

      Thank you for helping me with the corrections of my errors her. I always appreciate accuracy and will endeavor to fix these mistakes. I am of course, taking your word for it because I didn't see any reference to Alexa Wilding in my research. However I know I can't trust everything I read. I only wanted to continue to bring art and artists to the consciousness of the public.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Good to know, thanks.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Thank you, AliciaC. I really am enjoying writing this series too. Who knows how far she would have gone with her own art if she had lived. But now her face is immortalized young forever. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      What a sad story. I think that Elizabeth Siddal's face was both beautiful and interesting. I'm enjoying this series about artists who died young very much.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      lollyj lm,

      I'm so happy you liked this artist's story. I appreciate your comments and support.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • lollyj lm profile image

      Laurel Johnson 2 years ago from Washington KS

      WOW!! Excellent hub, well written with fascinating info and beautiful photos. I learned a lot and enjoyed every minute.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Thank you, Jodah. I agree. It is a tragedy. It's so sad that she lost her child too. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

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      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Thank you for this wonderful story of the life of Elizabeth Siddal. I had seen a number of the paintings for which she had been the model before. I particularly liked many of the Pre-Raphael works. Another tragic story and life ending to young however.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Missy Smith,

      I'm so glad you are getting something out of my art history pages. I agree she had a lovely long neck. It is a shame she didn't live longer. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Missy Smith profile image

      Missy Smith 2 years ago from Florida

      I'm just learning all kind of things about artists visiting your page, Denise.

      What a lovely lady she was. However, such a tragedy of life for her to deal with. beautiful video celebrating her. She had beautiful distinct features. I can see why she was a muse for paintings such as Ophelia. I am familiar with the painting. I have seen it many times now, and now I know who the girl in the water is. Lovely.

      Her long neck was beautiful and if she were alive today, she would have been a great muse for one of today's popular artist; Lori Earley. Lori paints specifically long necks. Very beautiful. Here's a link to Lori's paintings if you would like to check her out. http://www.loriearley.com/gallery/

      Very nice hub once again Denise. :)

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