Monday, July 25, 2011

Elizabeth Siddal 25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862

On this day in 1829 was born a girl who would change the lives of four men known as The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. One in particular, would fall madly in love with her bringing him to the point of delirious grief and madness. Who was Elizabeth Siddal 'Lizzie' to most who knew her?
Her husband the great Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet knew best. So, for all intent purposes, my tribute to Lizzie will focus on her marriage to husband D.G. Rossetti.

So, how did Lizzie and Rossetti meet...

Twelfth Night by William Deverell


There she was 'discovered' by Walter Deverell, a young, good-looking associate of the recently founded Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and asked to model for the figure of Viola in the picture he was currently painting, Twelfth Night. Rossetti was also sitting for the picture, taking the part of the jester Feste, and it was in Deverell's studio that he and Lizzie met.

Deverell was in raptures over Lizzie's appearance, describing her to Holman Hunt as 'a stupendously beautiful creature...By Jove! She's like a queen, magnificently tall, with a lovely figure, a stately neck, and a face of the most delicate and finished modelling...; she has grey eyes, and her hair is like dazzling copper.'
It was not long before she was sitting to other artists too, appearing in Hunt's Christian Missionary (1850; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and Valentine rescuing Silvia (1851; Manchester), and most famously of all in Millais' Ophelia (1852; Tate Britain).


Shortly after this, however, she ceased to model for anyone but Rossetti. From the moment he saw her, he later told Madox Brown, he felt that 'his destiny was defined'.
Intensely romantic, he recognised his ideal woman in her statuesque beauty and regal carriage, her natural distinction overlaying a profound shyness, and her subtle, unusual colouring - her straight, loosely fastened auburn hair, her pale skin and grey-green eyes, slightly protruberent and veiled by heavy lids. Her preference for simple, unconventional dresses of dove-grey or black material only enhanced her air of ethereal, almost spiritual, elegance. But if Rossetti had met his 'destiny', Lizzie too was enslaved by this ardent and brilliant young artist of almost wholly Italian blood, so different from anyone she had hitherto encountered in her restricted life. No wonder they fell in love. Lizzie, or 'Guggum' as Rossetti called her, was constantly at his bohemian 'crib' in Chatham Place, Blackfriars. They were soon engaged, and throughout the 1850s she was his unrivalled muse, inspiring endless drawings and appearing in all his work of the period, whether the religious and Dantesque subjects to which he was so drawn during the early part of the decade, or the 'Froissartian' themes that tended to take over following his meeting with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in 1856.
Lizzie herself had ambitions to become an artist, and Rossetti encouraged her efforts both in painting and poetry. He even declared that she was a better artist than he was, and while this is patently untrue, her work does have a touching sincerity, reflecting his in style but speaking with a faltering voice of its own. Ruskin was another admirer of her drawings, and paid her a regular income in an attempt to help them both.

According to the inscription, the subject and composition for this picture were conceived by Elizabeth Siddal, and the work was executed by both Elizabeth and DGR. The subject is taken from Tennyson's poem Sir Galahad.

Mentioned in Marillier's DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 'Oil. In a water-filled sepulcher, a young knight kneels in a small boat, flanked by two young female angels. He has just washed his hands in a basin held by one of the angels, and he gazes at the grail held by the other.'
'Miss Siddal's failing health, however, shortly afterwards put an end to her productiveness, and with the exception of one or two small water-colours, very much in Rossetti's own style as regards colouring, she painted no pictures. Her designs are, however, of great interest, both on their own account, for the imaginative insight they display, and because Rossetti often worked on them, and occasionally even borrowed her ideas.'

AFTER the tragic death of his wife, on February 11th, 1862, Rossetti could no longer bear to occupy the rooms they had inhabited at Chatham Place, and began to look for others. He finally decided on No. 16, Cheyne Walk.
It is in this residence where widowed Rossetti sketched and painted his memorial work to his 'Guggum' entitled, 'Beata Beatrix'.


Oil. At center Beatrice sits, her head leaned back and eyes closed as if in a trance, her hands resting on her knees. In the background the figures of Love and Dante gaze at each other; Dante stands beside a well, Love in vermillion holds a burning heart; the Ponte Vecchio stretches across the river Arno and the Duomo stands silhouetted against the sky.

Into the Beata Beatrix he has put the very best of himself: imagination, feeling, colour, beauty, and perfect harmony. Not a flaw, not an ugly touch mars the repose of that upturned face in trance, the purest of all the images that have made his wife immortal.

In a letter describing the Beata Beatrix , which has often been wrongly named The Dead or the Dying Beatrice—a title more fitly to be applied to Dante's Dream Rossetti explains:

“The picture illustrates the Vita Nuova , embodying symbolically the death of Beatrice as treated in that work. The picture is not intended at all to represent death, but to render it under the semblance of a trance, in which Beatrice, seated at a balcony overlooking the city, is suddenly rapt from earth to heaven.

“You will remember how Dante dwells on the desolation of the city in connection with the incident of her death, and for this reason I have introduced it as my background, and made the figures of Dante and Love passing through the street and gazing ominously on one another, conscious of the event; while the bird, a messenger of death, drops the poppy between the hands of Beatrice. She, through her shut lids, is conscious of a new world, as expressed in the last words of the Vita Nuova—That blessed Beatrice who now gazeth continually on His countenance qui est per omnia sæcula benedictus.”

The picture is so familiar that it is probably unnecessary to say much about the colouring, which is soft and mysterious as befits the subject. The figure of Beatrice, with a misty aureole playing about her golden auburn hair, is robed above in the purest green, with faint purple sleeves and a fainter purple below. A crimson dove bears the grey death poppy in its bill, and in the distance watching her are dimly seen Dante and the crimson figure of Love. A dial marks the fateful hour which was to bear her, on that 9th of June, 1290, “to be glorious under the banner of the blessed Queen Mary.” On the frame, designed by Rossetti himself, as was usually the case with his later and more important pictures, are the first words of that quotation from Jeremiah which Dante uttered when Beatrice's death had “despoiled the city,” as he said, “of all dignity”: Quomodo sedet sola civitas.“How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people; how is she become as a widow, that was great among the nations!”


The Final Painting Beata Beatrix 1864



Rossetti's relationship with Elizabeth Siddal is also explored by his sister Christina Rossetti in her poem "In an Artist's Studio":

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel -- every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.



Happy Birthday Elizabeth Siddal, may you rest in peace!

SOURCES
The Rossetti Archive
Christie's, British and Irish Art Department, London, King Street

Please feel free to leave any comments,

4 comments:

Robert Parry said...

Lovely post, Kimberly.

Kimberly Eve said...

Thank You Robert.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for introducing me to Lizzie. And for the interesting recounting of her life and love story with Rosetti. It certainly makes the art come alive in a different way knowing the cast of characters.

Kimberly Eve said...

Thank you for commenting Anonymous.
I agree, knowing more about the artist's and their work does help the art come alive!

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