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Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal: from muse to wicked witch

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal: from muse to wicked witch. Beauty and savoir-faire are not always a virtue for women, it sometimes provoke bad results in the approach with men. Often, the woman-object, treated like a toy,

represents a presence that is useful only for men’s pleasure. The characteristic who transform a beautiful woman in an object of insane pleasure, is the vision that her got in men’s eyes. The approach strongly resembles the angelic woman that in the Renaissance, was the ideal of feminine perfection: a woman who was to be praised, loved, adored, but left in her aura of unhappiness. The most famous example it can be Dante Alighieri’s first love, Beatrice, the main feminine character of the amor cortese[1], in Italy dolce stil novo[2], who died praised to the extreme.

The reason of the amor cortese and the stil novo was to raise the female figure into a new feminine stereotype: the angelic woman. The function of the angelic woman is to became the intermediary of God, and permitted a man, therefore, to purify his soul. Even Virginia Woolf spoke of the angelic woman and how it was better to eliminate her, in order to achieve social feminine independence. The angelic woman was adored, with kind and noble manners, from the man that consequently benefited her as a means of redemption. This happened, even many years after the Renaissance, precisely in the second half of the Nineteenth century, to Elizabeth Siddal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), albumen print, 7 October 1863

She was the muse of one of the greatest painter of the Nineteenth century: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Subject of great historical importance, Lizzie Siddal was a real artist’s muse. The biggest problem that differentiates her from other reactive and revolutionary women, was her reaction to submission and to obedience. Incredibly beautiful, icy, but extremely sensitive and submissive, she was the subject of a revered love, but never pushed from something better. The thing that flashes immediately obvious, is that Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal was a creature of his Pygmalion, she was feeling completely subdued and annihilated. The inability of her to not be able to subvert the rules, was object of her lost and death.

The radical difference with Virginia Woolf, was that Siddal was totally abandoned to her man, in spite of her brilliant and successful mind. Elizabeth Siddal, however, unwittingly, turned the face of fashion, anticipating the female figure that would eventually went famous from the 60’s to today. Her height, her thinness, her androgyny, were the characteristics that made her perfect for the artist Rossetti’s expectations. That icy image, with flowing red hair, can be united even today, in the pre-Raphaelite-inspired models, as the actress Tilda Swinton and super model Lily Cole[3]. She was still a woman’s evolution representative, in reverse, of a process that led then to emancipation.

Elizabeth Eleonor Siddal, also called “Lizzie” (London, 1829 – London, 1862) comes from a poor but educated family. She worked for a meager salary in an hats shop, when, a young painter, Walter Howell Deverell, saw her in the shop and wanted to hire her as the model of the confraternity that he belonged: the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelites confraternity, was an artistic current of Victorian painting, that during the middle of the Nineteenth century, worked on pictorial transposition of decadence, developed and died out in Britain. At first embarrassed, she began to work as a model, first for John Everett Millais, and then uncontrollably attracted by the visionary and insane Dante Gabriel Rossetti[4] she became the symbol of his paintings. Rossetti, who was an artist and a poet, fell in love with the beautiful Elizabeth “Lizzie”, painting her lines and revere her above everything. Their relationship went against the social conventions because they did not get married for several years, but it was only the pure artistic love.

She was for him the beauty without trimmings, pure, and it was surely enriched by the different approach that she had through fashion and society. During the years she spent as a model for the confraternity, she got sick and begun to use the laudanum, a solution obtained through opium and alcohol, as a painkiller. The excessive use of this poison, led her to premature death, with the incredible pain of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. During her life, she wrote poems and drew paintings which were beautiful and famous.

Analyzing the life of Elizabeth Siddal, is incredible to notice that she was full of authority. Despite her shyness and her completely surrender as an object of pleasure for her man, she became really respected in her role. She can be considered the first top model of all the times. Differently from other women, she represented a rebel soul, because she decided to be a lover and not a wife. She went against the Victorian morality, avoiding to remain locked up in her poor and humble life, becoming an object of desire. Noting that women in the Victorian age were actually discriminated, see a woman like Lizzie, hailed by a group of very famous artists, makes it clear that she was out of the ordinary. Of course, her role was closely linked to the artistic reverence, remembering that her performances were simply poses for pictures.

To understand which importance had her female figure in anthropological female evolution, we must look to the special relationship that she had with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This relationship highlights how Elizabeth Siddal was determined to be considered as an individual and to have an important role in the artistic life of the confraternity. A personal identity well-established and very strong that of Siddal, who showed her stubbornness and personality. Her relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was an outrage to the morality of the Victorian society. The perfect lady in the Victorian age, was a woman who had to follow a precise line during her life: marriage, procreation, and life in the house.

The women, were usually educated to work alongside their husbands, then, with the born of the offspring, they had to take care of them. Both the sexes’ spheres were always separated, and often wife and husband were really strangers. This did not happened in the relationship between Lizzie Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They were partners in crime, also in competition. Nothing to do with the Victorian marriage, in which the rules of the subjugation of women were completely restrictive. The subjugation of which Elizabeth Siddal was part, was a total neglect of confidence in her man, so aware of the risks and physical and moral damage.

This can be demonstrated with the anecdote about the famous painting of Ophelia, where Siddal, almost lost her life[5]. Elbert Hubbard spoke about this, in his “Little Journey” book, in which he explained the great love between Dante Gabriel and Elizabeth Siddal. He wrote that Elizabeth Siddal was the perfect ideal of muse for dante Gabriel, who spent years to find a woman like her. Christina Rossetti, Dante’s sister, write a poem about this ideal:

“One face looks out from all his canvasses,

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 canvass 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.[6]

When he found Siddal, he loved her until every ounce of his strength, to be able to use also the smallest spark of beauty. “Dante loved Lizzie as a work of art,” Hawksley says, “but not as a real woman.”(Hawksley 2004) In contrary, Siddal accepted profoundly her role, expressing her abandon, as Elbert Hubbard had reported: “Love is never mutual – one loves and the other consents to be loved.”(Hubbard s.d.) Her devotion to his artist, was like a job for her. This shows how the role of women thus become an active part, even under a veil of hidden liabilities. Lizzie was a woman who loved her man, constantly helped him in his work, but in return she was redeemed by the life of misery that first led. She used her stubbornness to take advantage of the teachings of her man and she learned to draw, and practiced writing poetry.

Another important element for which Siddal is considered as an influent personality for the growth of feminism is also in fashion and aesthetics. She was really different from other women, and with a personal style: she usually wore fluctuating dresses without corset, which decreed the unmistakable style of the Pre-Raphaelites. Compared the style at the times of the early Nineteenth century, it can be seen controversies between Victorian fashion and Siddal clothes. In the Victorian period, as George Vigarello explained in his book, “Histoire de la beauté. Le corps et l’art d’embellir de la Renaissance à nos jours”, there were established bourgeois forms of dress: feminine figure was transformed by the use of tight waists and baskets under their skirts, extremely curly hair and extravagant hats. Many of the Victorian rich women, were the emblem of the luxury, sumptuousness and became the first consumers of makeup and beauty experiments.

Charles Baudelaire, was the first who use the term maquillage, in 1859, to highlight the trend to the artificiality given by the application of pastes and colors on the face of a woman. Make-up became the attraction of all the women of the Victorian bourgeoisie, and were born rejuvenation techniques exclusively for the leisure class. Elizabeth Siddal, can not belong to a high social class, did not use makeup, and thus became an undisputed maverick.

Her naturalness, highlighted also its free from corset clothing, as well as her soul, determinates to power of tenacity and freedman of thought that were unusual. Also the Victorian’s physical standards, were really different from those of Siddal. She was a very tall girl, with a long and straight neck, and curly, long and bright red hair. According to Hawksley, “She changed the face of fashion. Her tall, boyish figure, with no breasts and no hips, was not at all the Victorian standard of beauty.”[7] As anticipated, the red color in the hair of a girl, was considered a symbol of evil and misfortune. The famous philosopher Aristotle, even spoke of the humoral theory, which incorporated the hair color and complexion to sense various behaviors. The red-haired women were considered women “of fire” and then destined to hell. The ideal standards were the women with blond hair, while the red hair were always associated with sexual and evil characteristics. Otherwise the redhead, were always strange but really smart personalities: from Elizabeth I, to Christopher Columbus, or Joan of Arc. The Lizzie, educated woman, noble of mind and quiet, in spite of these theories, and in contrary of the society, became the symbol of an artistic current and the sign of an era. She has contributed to women’s empowerment contrary, in the sense that despite her submission and devotion to the artist, made the androgynous image of the woman, an image still relevant. Here we see a protagonist who, differently from the other, has not reacted strongly to his individuality, even if indirectly has made it a character very acclaimed. Siddal, in her air so sad and quiet, hiding a mysterious force which, however, did not allow her to realize her dreams. She was so dedicated to her work, and serious to realize it, that risked even to die. The precise characteristics which the artist sought, were inherent in Elizabeth Siddal. Her personality, which we will see in her poems, was as if it was extremely inherent in the art of symbolism. Like most women in history, Siddal, was also an element of discord and punishment. In fact, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, after the death of her, stood so bad to realize portraits and paintings so beautiful to stay in the history of art. It is said that after several years, the painter exhumed the body of Elizabeth Siddal, to recover a book of poems that he put on her body. The legend said that Lizzie’s hair, had grown so much, despite the death, to fill the entire grave. Lizzie’s figure, is steeped of mystery and even magic, and it can be reconnected to the redhead, who made so much mystery in popular beliefs.

Elizabeth Siddal, is one of the figures that indirectly made the evolutionary history of women. From a first anthropological point of view, it can be said that changed the image of women, making it the precursor of the current image androgynous. At a later time, it can be said that his being so rebellious to the Victorian system, ie living with a man who was also his “employer”, without getting married for a long period of time, which makes a figure feminist, promulgated art and life. Contrary to all this, however, seen a submission to the bottom, which apparently may seem negative, but which deeply highlights its powerful individuality. The character of Elizabeth Siddal, is an imposing and slim figure of the Nineteenth-century English landscape, which has made the image of dreamy woman in a self-confident woman.

[1] Amor cortese, is a term coined by the French critic Gaston Paris in 1883 to indicate the philosophical conception, literary and sentimental concept of love, at the time of poets in Provençal courts, and it is based on the idea that only those who love could have a noble heart.

[2] The dolce stil novo, is an important Italian poetic movement that developed between 1280 and 1310 in Florence. The most famous exponents were Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarca.

[3] The new standards of beauty foresaw women from the few forms, whereas until the ’50s, the buxom woman was considered the ideal of beauty default.

It can be said that Elizabeth Siddal, was a forerunner of the androgynous beauty that then we’ll see in the 20s and 60s. The forms are reduced, the figure is extended and the colours become clearer. The actress Tilda Swinton and model Lily Cole are a result of the pre-Raphaelite beauty.

[4] Dante Gabriel Rossetti, son of the Italian poet Gabriele Rossetti, second of four brothers (Maria Francesca, Christina and William Michael) was a Britain poet and painter. He founded the Pre-Raphaelite confraternity, with William Hunt, Ford Madox Brown e John Everett Millais.

[5] During the different phases of the painting elaborated by the painter John Everett Millais, Elizabeth Siddal, had to be elongated in a tank full of water, heated only by candles. Siddal, remained in the water for so long, that the candles blew out, the water became cold and she had a respiratory crisis.

Since that moment, her health became very weak and the model started hers dependence on laudanum, which led to her death.

[6] Christina Rossetti, In An Artist’s Studio, composed on 24 December 1856, published in 1896, The title was added by William Michael.

[7] Lucinda Hawksley, “Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Preraphaelites”, 2004, London: Carlton Publishing Group