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Dante Gabriel Rossetti Beata Beatrix 1864 1870 Dante Gabriel Rossetti Beata Beatrix 1864 1870

Elizabeth Siddal in Her Eyes



In life, Elizabeth Siddal was an artist made famous for embodying the Pre-Raphaelite standard of beauty, but now, over 160 years after she’s passed, it’s her death that’s remembered most.

Siddal died of an opiate overdose at the age of 32. It’s unclear whether it was an accident or a suicide, but there are plenty of stories around both possibilities that anyone can find with a quick Google search. Eight years after this tragedy, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Siddal’s husband, painted six versions of her as Dante Alighieri’s Beatrice, a symbol of divine love, who, in the Inferno guides Alighieri’s character to Heaven. The creative act may or may not have something to do with the fact that Rossetti had, earlier that year, allowed his agent to exhume her grave and retrieve a collection of poetry he’d buried with her.

According to the agent, Siddal remained perfectly preserved, eternal in her beauty, in the grave. The poetry collection became a bestseller.

Cue iconic painting. Eyes closed, lips parted, in Beata Beatrix, Siddal looks as though she’s already left the world. She doesn’t notice the haloed dove about to drop a poppy flower in her open palms. This is the Siddal who lives on today: the original tragic heroine of art history, surrounded by symbols that cast her as a poetic icon, the ultimate object of yearning.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement Rossetti co-founded in the 19th century, loved symbolism, but I’m more interested in Siddal the person, who was herself an artist. What does it mean that we remember her life stories far better than we do the craft to which she dedicated her life?

Her life stories are, to be fair, exciting: art historical myths in their own right. One of the most famous is that she was discovered behind the counter at a milliner’s shop by Sir Walter Deverell, who cast her as Viola in a painting of scenes from Twelfth Night. One of my favorites is that her first exposure to poetry was a poem by Tennyson that had been used to wrap butter.

But beyond the stories are the facts: Elizabeth Siddal was born Elizabeth Siddall to a lower-middle class family and changed her name when Rossetti suggested that dropping an L would improve her aesthetic; she was a painter and poet who had to work for her money; and her red hair and long, lanky frame were not considered attractive until she became the foremost muse to the Pre-Raphaelites. She was, in many ways, the first supermodel, shaping the cultural landscape with her image.

In the paintings for which she modeled, Siddal is often a prone beauty with striking features. I can’t help comparing that Siddal of Beata Beatrix or Ophelia with a Siddal seen through her own eyes. Consider a self-portrait, in which we see the poet and artist looking directly at the audience, her brow furrowed, her eyes stone-cold.

New Project

Self Portrait, 1853–54

Elizabeth Siddal. Private collection.

Yes, there’s her signature red hair, red lips—her famed statuesque neck—but there’s also a ferocity to the portrait, a seriousness we hardly see in the paintings she inspired. 

Siddal had her own artistic style. She was less refined than her contemporaries, less inclined to pure painterly realism. She was not academically trained, though she did learn from Rossetti and other artists. In 1855, art critic John Ruskin began subsidizing her career, paying her ₤150 a year in exchange for the drawings and paintings she produced. She was the only woman who ever exhibited work with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and yet her work embodies the break from highly finished Salon paintings that the Pre-Raphaelites aspired towards. Her lack of formal training was enviable to the other Pre-Raphaelites, who aimed to unlearn all their polishing to create work that sang with truth.

[Siddal’s] fecundity of invention and facility are quite wonderful, much greater than mine.

—Dante Gabriel Rossetti to his friend Ford Madox Brown 

In Clerk Saunders (1857), a painting inspired by the Scottish ballad, a woman who bears striking resemblance to the painter holds a wand to her lips, signifying her fidelity to her murdered lover, whose ghost visits her in the scene.

Clerk Saunders 1857 5348297183

Clerk Saunders, 1857

Elizabeth Siddal. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, gift of Charles Fairfax Murray.

The painting is hungry—desirous, even. There’s nothing idealized about the woman’s longing. There is, plainly, an interest in the suffering that comes from desire.

In my favorite of Siddal’s works, a small watercolor over pencil called Madonna and Child, the Virgin Mother sits behind a toddler Christ, whose outstretched arms of course, recall his fate at the crucifix—a common Pre-Raphaelite trope Art Institute visitors might know from William Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death. The Madonna rests her chin inside her son’s shoulder and holds him beneath his armpits. Though Christ’s eyes look out onto the pastoral landscape, her gaze is on him.

Elizabeth Siddal Madonna And Child

Madonna and Child, date unknown

Elizabeth Siddal. Private Collection.

In this intimate moment, the two share a halo, their connection whole and uninterrupted. The tenderness of the scene is palpable in each line of Siddal’s pencil. In contrast to the stiff Madonna and child scenes we see throughout art history, this is a scene of obvious intimacy between mother and child. Though the child’s fate remains inevitable, the love his mother has for him is evident to anyone who notices the care with which she holds him. Though I hesitate to do so, as her craft speaks for itself, it’s worth noting that Siddal herself lost two children to miscarriage.

That patriarchy stole the vast potential of Siddal’s artistry is one tired story. She is far from the only artist who was capable of greatness and held back by the social and economic realities of her world. Right now, the museum is abuzz with an exhibition of the French sculptor Camille Claudel, whose undeniably poignant sculptures were largely forgotten until the 1980s, despite the fact that she rivaled Rodin for talent during her life. Claudel was also remembered as a model and muse for many years, despite the body of work she left behind.

We know Siddal’s name. We have the opportunity to acknowledge how she shaped the Pre-Raphaelites as much as the men we remember, not only as an embodiment of beauty, but as an artist in her own right who could embody and evoke the truth of feeling behind age-old stories. Her artistic experimentation and devotion to the spirit made her an outlier in a time when every system was against her and are equally, if not far more, worthy of our attention than her tumultuous life story. 

Siddal Photo

Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1860

Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

—Amina Khan, communications editor, Marketing and Communications



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