A Ginger Icon: Elizabeth Siddal

When we think of the Pre-Raphaelite era in art, we don't necessarily think of the term "super-model". However, there is one woman who qualifies, a muse to artists, a model for famous paintings, and the world's first true "super-model". You have surely seen her face, and her signature red hair, many times over without even realizing it was the same, small, remarkable woman. The muse I am talking about is Elizabeth Siddal, a beauty icon of the age, and a stunning natural redhead.

Elizabeth sat for many of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and married Dante Rossetti, a painter, and poet of the time. She first sat for Walter Deverell, and from there was introduced to many other painters, including John Everett Millais, who painted her in one of her most well-known appearances - Ophelia. Here she can be seen playing the part of a floating Ophelia, surrounded by the natural landscape of moss and flowers. It is a stunning and arresting work and one in which she suffered to create. While floating in the heated tub to pose as Ophelia, the fire which was keeping the water warm went out, and Millais was unaware. She didn't wish to disrupt his creative process, being an artist herself, she knew the value of concentration. And so she remained, floating silently as the water grew colder. Due to this experience she, unfortunately, caught pneumonia. Millais, feeling guilty and pressure from her angry father, paid all of her medical bills relating to the illness. But what resulted was a timeless work of art, where she is forever immortalized.

Once Elizabeth was introduced to Dante Rosetti in 1849, her fate was sealed. She sat for him continually, and eventually Rossetti kept her to himself, wishing her to sit for him alone as he painted her to the exclusion of all others. She eventually moved in with him in 1852, three years after they first met. The two were madly in love, and once she moved in they became increasingly more insular, not going out nearly as much, preferring each others company to anyone else's. Due to her background (she came from a poorer family) Rossetti worried about marrying Elizabeth because he knew his family would be very unhappy. Finally, even they could not stop them, as they got married quietly, with only a few witnesses from town on Wednesday, 23 May 1860 at St. Clement's Church. Rossetti loved to sketch, draw, paint, and write about Elizabeth, and it is believed that the number of sketches of her by his hand is in the thousands. Though Elizabeth was plagued by ill health, Rossetti loved her and comforted her as much as an artist could. It is said that even on their wedding day she was so weak she had to be carried to the church, despite it being just a short walk.      

Elizabeth was a painter and artist in her own right. Not only was she an inspiration for others, but she held within herself the creative spirit as well. She came up against some difficulty seeing that she was a woman, however, she was not truly stymied or put down. Her beautiful and raw paintings and sketches can be seen in various collections across Europe and are incredibly prized pieces. What held Elizabeth back the most in her life was her health. She suffered from an unknown illness for most of her life and was often seen as beautifully ill, as the period offered a fascination with "invalidism", and saw a delicate and fragile constitution as an ideal beauty. Some historians believe she may have had consumption, now known as tuberculosis, while others believe it to be an intestinal issue. No matter what it was, it rendered her extremely weak at times, and unable to carry a child to full term. Her health and circumstances led her to suffer from bouts of extreme depression, which is reflected in her poetry, and the poetry of her husband, Rossetti. 

Due to her undiagnosed ailment, she was given laudanum for her pain and unfortunately became addicted. Laudanum is a tincture of opium containing approximately 10% powdered opium by weight (the equivalent of 1% morphine), and is highly addictive. Rossetti and Siddal were married just two years (together for 10) when he found her unconscious on her bed. It is speculated that she was driven to suicide by her constant pain, ill health, depression, and loss of two unborn children in 1861, and that there was a note left for Rossetti, which he then burned to save her from the illegality of suicide. No matter the reason for the laudanum overdose (her cause of death), her end at just 32 is a tragic ending to an impactful life. 

Her legacy of beauty, art, poetry, and red hair still lives on to this day. She was immortalized for the final time by her husband in the mournful painting Beata Beatrix, which he painted after her death. She is more than an icon, she personifies an entire artistic movement. And some of the main reasons why she appealed to so many painters in her time was her red hair and pale pallor, attributes I think many of us can relate to. 

In reading more about Elizabeth I couldn't help but be struck in the gut by her story. I, too, suffer from chronic illnesses, and for a long time my pain and sicknesses were unexplained and untreated. I know what it is like to feel crazy for being ill, and to be in pain. To rage against one's body because the spirit within is not the spirit of "a sick person", but vibrant and alive. I can imagine her struggle. My husband and I have also been together, insular and happy, preferring our own world the to world outside, for many years. I am now 32 years old, the age in which the pain was just too much for her, and I do not fault her. Instead, I want to honor her, and the beauty she helped bring into the world through both her image and her own hand. Hers is a name which we, as Authentic Ginger's should all know, and all speak. Elizabeth Siddal. 

And so, I will leave you with a line of poetry, written by her Rossetti after her death, which speaks of a love lost, a space emptied, and the confusion of a person without their other half. I know one day I will leave my husband alone, alone to wrestle with the same emptiness, but if any of us can leave a fraction of the impact that Elizabeth left on this world, and Dante Rossetti, we will be fortunate. 

Her dress without her? The tossed empty space

Of cloud-rack whence the moon has passed away.

Her paths without her? Day's appointed sway

Usurped by desolate night. Her pillowed place

Without her? Tears, ah me! For love's good grace,

And cold forgetfulness of night or day

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