It is one thing for an art model to inspire an individual artist. It is quite another for a model to, almost single-handedly, give inspiration to an entire art movement. Well it happened, in Victorian-era England. The model was Elizabeth Siddal. The movement was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
While preparing this post, I started to see a complex 19th century soap opera unfolding; a tumultuous saga of art, imagery, affairs, betrayal, tragedy, beauty, addiction, and intense human drama. At first, I had ambitious hopes for a long, comprehensive post that offered plenty in the way of visual images, biography, commentary, and narrative. But the task was becoming overwhelming; scattered and sloppy, with too much info in one dose, too many players to identify. So I’ve decided to pace myself, and together we can explore this passionate era in “installments”, as there is more than enough art and material to provide little old Museworthy with posts for weeks, even months, to come.
Let me start by saying I already have enormous respect for Elizabeth Siddal for carrying out maybe the most impressive art modeling assigment to date. As the subject of John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia”, she literally floated in a bath of cold water for hours on end, to replicate the death of Shakespeare’s tragic character from Hamlet. Needless to say, Elizabeth became seriously sick afterwards and her furious father held Millais personally responsible. And I thought I had a good work ethic! The next time I squirm from posing for a mere three hours on a hard stool without a pillow, I will think of Lizzie in that tub of cold water. I think she could teach me, and the rest of us “diva” New York artist models, a thing or two about real, hardcore art modeling hardships and hazards! Really, let’s compare: a sore oblique muscle, or life-threatening pneumonia? I’d say Lizzie wins, hands down. (I officially pronounce myself a spoiled brat).
The Pre-Raphaelites used idealized themes for their art: Shakespeare, Greek mythology, Arthurian legend, and medieval lore. These were NOT realists. The major artists were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Walter Deverell, and John Everett Millais. One of them discovered Lizzie when she was just 19 years old, working as a milliner’s assistant. Her tall, thin frame, dark eyes, and, most of all, her long flowing red hair (described in firsthand accounts as “copper”) captivated this group of men to the point of obssession. She was invited to pose, and soon a great muse was born. A muse who was to become the “face” of the Pre-Raphaelites, the iconic representation of idealized feminine beauty.
Now there is, of course, a real flesh and blood woman behind her immortalized image. She was a woman who took on every fictional and mythological role demanded of her, a woman who loved Rossetti deeply, who waited on his love while he had affairs and put off their marriage several times, much to her heartbreak, who suffered the agony of a stillborn baby girl, who fell into addiction to a form of liquid opium used to dull any number of pains (emotional or otherwise), and who was further subjected to the post-mortem indignity of having her corpse exhumed so Rossetti could retrieve the book of poems he had placed in her coffin.
Let’s see the face of this woman, this muse. Here is Lizzie Siddal, by Rossetti:
And here is “Ophelia” by Millais, year 1852:
We will revisit Lizzie here on Museworthy. We will also meet Jane Burden, Rossetti of course, Fanny Cornforth, Maria Spartali, even art critic John Ruskin. I, for one, want to examine and learn more about the deeper aspects of the muse/artist relationship, the nature of artistic inspiration, and pay respects to these passionate, flawed, often troubled figures of the past. I feel you, Lizzie, I do. We all do . . .