But Millais wasn’t the only one who suffered. He still needed an Ophelia, and he found one in Elizabeth Siddall. Born in 1829 to working-class parents, Siddall grew up reading Shakespeare and Walter Scott, and writing melancholy, image-laden poetry in the style of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was something of an honorary Pre-Raphaelite. In 1849, Siddall was working in a hat shop when she met Walter Deverell, a friend of Millais who had just begun a painting based on Twelfth Night and desperately needed a young, beautiful woman to model for Viola.
Through Deverell, Siddall met most of the other notable Pre-Raphaelites, though they seemed more interested in her looks than her artistic talents. Rossetti, who became her husband in 1860, rhapsodized about her “copper hair” and fair flesh, which looked “as if a rose tine lay beneath the white skin.” She modeled for various paintings by Rossetti and his peers, often standing in for the characters she’d fallen in love with as a child.
For Ophelia, Siddall spent five months in a bathtub. In order to paint his half-submerged subject for hours without interruption, Millais arranged for special heating lamps to warm the water. One day, the lamps went out, and shortly afterwards, Siddall came down with pneumonia—no laughing matter in Victorian England. The sickness proved so serious that her father demanded Millais pay £50 (no laughing matter, either) for her medical fees. Millais settled for a smaller sum, establishing the pattern that would hold for the rest of Siddall’s life: Over and over again, she’d sacrifice her health and happiness for the painter’s success, never receiving much in return.
Like plenty of enduring masterpieces, Ophelia
initially met with polite confusion. Even the critic
, the Pre-Raphaelites’ loudest trumpeter
, had doubts: “Why the mischief,” he wrote to Millais, “should you not paint pure nature, and not that rascally wirefenced garden-rolled-nursery-maid’s paradise?” (Was he a critic or the original troll
?) But within a few decades, the painting had come to be seen as the jewel of Millais’s career, and today, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine the Pre-Raphaelite movement without it.
The same deserves to be said about Siddall. In the decade leading up to her death, she didn’t just model for other artists; she drew, painted, and above all, wrote. Rather than simply reiterating Pre-Raphaelite tropes in her work, she lived and breathed these tropes, feeling their wrenching contradictions firsthand. One of the most striking things about Siddall, in fact, is how closely her tragedy resembles that of Ophelia. Grieving her murdered father and rejected by the taciturn Hamlet, Ophelia is condemned to die offstage, a footnote in someone else’s story.