A centrepiece of Pre-Raphaelite art - Elizabeth Siddal

11 February 1862,  Elizabeth Siddal, the English artists' model, poet, artist and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, died at the age of 32 in London.

“If the merest dream of love were true
Then, sweet, we should be in heaven,
And this is only earth, my dear,
Where true love is not given.“ (Elizabeth Siddal “Dead Love”)

 A centrepiece of Pre-Raphaelite art, Sir John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” from 1852 with Elizabeth Siddal as model. Elizabeth lay fully clothed in a bath tube in winter while Millais painted her. The artist tried to warm the rapidly cooling water with oil lamps, they went out, Millais carried on with painting and Elizabeth caught a severe cold, probably pneumonia as well, one possible reason for the chronic lung disease she suffered from afterwards.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was inconsolable. Beatrice was dead. And he believed he could never poetize again. In a dramatic gesture, quite public, of course, he buried the manuscripts of his poems in the hip long copper hair of the deceased lying in the open coffin and she was buried along with them. And her spirit left her unquiet grave and came visiting him. Every night. Or so he claimed. And neither chloral hydrate nor whisky or séances could put her to rest. He painted her one last time, posthumously, as the iconic “Beata Beatrix” in 1864 and then decided that the world would not manage without his poetry and applied to the Home Secretary to exhume her and retrieve his poems. Originally enough, the application was granted in 1869. Rossetti in his poetically tender and uneven temper was naturally not expected to be present during the rather ghoulish ceremony, conducted during nigh time, however, the coffin was opened and the manuscripts were retrieved, only slightly worm-eaten, and Rossetti’s agent, Charles Augustus Howell, who was there at Highgate Cemetery, claimed her body was undecayed and her delicate beauty intact. But before he quoted Edgar Allan Poe on top of it, Howell attributed the corpse’s state to the considerable amounts of laudanum, wine mixed with opium, she had consumed during her life and times. Rossetti’s poems retrieved from the realm of the dead were published in 1870 along with a few new ones the agonized artist’s soul could wrest from chaos contrary to the statement he made beside the grave of his wife eight years earlier. The spectral visits seem to have ceased as well.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice” (1853)

Like Jane Burden, her successor in being  top model of the Pre-Raphaelites as well as in regards to Rossetti’s affections, Elizabeth Siddal came from a humble background but discovered her love for poetry already at an early age, allegedly when she picked up lines from Tennyson printed on a newspaper page butter had been wrapped into. She was already a model for Millais when Rossetti’s brother Michael described her as "a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair." No wonder, the Pre-Raphaelites almost fell over themselves to paint her in quasi-medieval and mythical surroundings. And then she met Dante Gabriel Rossetti himself, she became his Beatrice, they moved in together, he depicted her in domestic scenes as well as in paintings, chiefly featuring scenes from Dante’s life, she studied with him and produced illustrations as well as paintings, even though her main interest remained poetry. Rossetti finally married her after six years of having a relationship with her, she suffered probably from tuberculosis, took laudanum as a remedy, her health, physical and mental, deteriorated rapidly after she had lost a child during pregnancy and she very probably committed suicide with an overdose of laudanum, since she had a left a suicide note. Rossetti destroyed the writ to assure a Christian burial. Few of her own paintings and poems have survived and she is best remembered as Millais’ Ophelia and Rossetti’s Beatrice.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “Watercolour portrait of Elizabeth Siddal” (1854)

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