The Pre-Raphaelites’ Muse, Leading Light, and Sacrificial Lamb

Jackson Arn
Dec 26, 2018 9:00PM

Oscar Wilde was, as always, correct when he wrote that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. If you doubt him, look no further than the short, unhappy career of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, the woman who was at different times a muse, a leading light, and a sacrificial lamb of the Pre-Raphaelites.

In 1848, while the workers of the world were busy uniting, three young English artists—Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais—declared a different revolution. In calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, they made clear what they were aiming for in their work. Their idols were Botticelli and Belliniquattrocento masters who had filled canvases with bright color and hot passion in the decades before Italian art congealed into Mannerism. By echoing these forebears, the Pre-Raphaelites sought to convey an unusual kind of beauty, somehow sublime and fragile at the same time. They specialized in painting the doomed damsels of myth and poetry: Beatrice, Proserpina, the Lady of Shalott.

Small wonder, then, that Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52) has come to be recognized as the definitive Pre-Raphaelite painting. In Act IV, Scene VII of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we learn that Ophelia, Hamlet’s rejected lover, has drowned in a river:

“There with fantastic garlands did she come / Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples […] / Her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death.”

The scene offered the perfect tableau for Millais: pastoral, horrifying, surreal, with just a whiff of eroticism. To capture the instant before Ophelia sinks to her death, he endured five months on the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey. During that time, he fended off wind, rain, flies, and more than one trespassing notice—“Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances,” he wrote at the time, “would be a greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.”

Portrait of Elizabeth Siddall. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


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 John Ruskin, 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.

Siddall met Rossetti in 1850 and became his lover almost immediately. As the affair ripened, she became increasingly insecure about Rossetti’s notorious womanizing, agonizing over what he’d do with her when her beauty faded. In short, pitiless verses, she described herself through the lens of her husband’s glib aestheticism: “Low sit I down at my Lady’s feet / Gazing through her wild eyes, / Smiling to think how my love will fleet / When their starlike beauty dies.” After years of being treated like a muse by friends, mentors, and lovers, she began to think of herself in the same tired terms: beautiful, fragile, disposable.

Siddall lost her confidence. She lost weight. She lost a child. She even lost, at her husband’s bizarre request, one of the L’s in her surname. In 1862, a few months after suffering a miscarriage, she drank too much laudanum and lost, at the age of 32, her life. Siddall may have intended to kill herself—legend has it Rossetti burned her suicide note to avoid a scandal—or she may have made a fatal mistake while trying to numb the ache of depression.

Almost three decades later, Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray, a satire of the pure, uncut aestheticism that had inspired the Pre-Raphaelites (and, for a time, impressed Wilde himself). The title character is a callous young man so in love with beauty for beauty’s sake that he hopes never to get old. He seduces a working-class woman with fair skin and lovely copper hair, who his friend likens to Ophelia; when he grows bored of her, she kills herself. The woman’s name is Sibyl.

This wasn’t really a case of art imitating life. This was art imitating life imitating art. Siddall modeled for dozens of paintings by Millais and his friends, but her existence was already a melancholy fever-dream beyond anything the Pre-Raphaelites were capable of imagining. After 150 years of bullying, condescension, and neglect, it’s only fair to give her the last word: “Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears / The life that passes fast; / The gates of heaven will open wide / And take me in at last.”

Jackson Arn