Elizabeth Siddal worked part time in a milliner’s shop and her simple beauty was there spotted by the artist Walter Deverall. She later became the lover and wife of another Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It is thought he did over a thousand paintings which included her portrait. Other Pre-Raphaelites, notably Millais in his painting Ophelia, used her as a model. Though supposedly in love with her, like Rodin and Prud’hon, Rossetti declined to marry her at first (he made several proposals which he later broke). It was the puritanical John Ruskin who finally urged him to tie the knot. It was Ruskin also who appreciated her work – for she was a keen artist as well as a fine poet. Most of her paintings, which are in watercolour, (an example shown above), are based on ballads and are done in the typical Pre-Raphaelite, romantic-medieval style). Ruskin offered her a yearly payment in exchange for all the work she produced. Unfortunately Siddal (originally ‘Sidall’ but Rossetti decided to dispense with an ‘l’), suffered from a chronic respiratory disease – probably T.B. She became quite frail, very depressed and also addicted to laudanum. Her knowledge of her husband’s many affairs didn’t help. Neither did the birth of a still-born daughter. She died of an overdose in 1862, only two years after her marriage. In his grief Rossetti buried a volume of his poetry in her grave, which he had slipped into her red hair. About 7 years later he got a licence to dig up the coffin and had the book retrieved in the dead of night. Rossetti desperately needed Elizabeth as a muse – as his sister, the poet Christina described:
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.
When she became infirm, his love waned (surprise, surprise!). He needed to idealize her, as is clear from his romanticized portraits of her. And as Christina says, he would override reality in order to do so. She needed his love, as much as he needed to fantasize about her. She couldn’t fully occupy her work which is hesitant and tentative, in spite of Rossetti’s encouragement and tutelage. She had nothing behind her to substantiate her career, except this and the vague approval of Ruskin – no artistic training nor parental encouragement. It was difficult enough for an ambitious woman (which she was not), to succeed in the Victorian era WITH these assets. AND she was unwell for most of her life.