Artists Who Died Before 35: Elizabeth Siddal
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.
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.
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
Have you ever heard of the Pre-Raphaelites?
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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/