She was a “supermodel” of the Pre-Raphaelite period. Now art historians are correcting Elizabeth Siddall’s short life

Written by Jackie Palumbo, CNN

Even if you’re not familiar with Elizabeth Siddall, you probably know the 19th-century paintings she modeled for, works of art in which she slips into the tragedies of others.

There’s Sydal as Ophelia, drowning in a raging riverbank amid oblivions, or as the poet Dante Alighieri’s dying lover, glowing with the ecstasy of a dream. You may also have heard the melancholy retellings of Sydal’s own arc: a muse with a tumultuous love life; fragile health; life cut short at age 32 by the opiate laudanum poisoning her blood.

Sydal is best known for her appearance in John Everett Millais’s acclaimed Ophelia, which further casts her in a tragic light. credit: Google art project

But you may not be familiar with Sydal’s groundbreaking work as an artist and poet: her vibrant, emotionally expressive paintings or her longing ballads. A new exhibition at London’s Tate Britain, ‘The Rossettis’, aims in part to change that. The show, which focuses on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who became her husband, his poet sister Cristina and Sydal, brings together more than 30 of Sydal’s works, the most seen together in 30 years.

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Siddall was the only woman to exhibit work with the short-lived but highly mythologised Pre-Raphaelite movement, which formed in 1848 and valued the 15th-century period of Italian art that saw the medieval era give way to the Renaissance. And although Siddall later became famous for her modeling—for Rossetti, John Everett Millais and other artists—scholars and curators are focusing on her rarely shown surviving art, which numbers about 60 works on paper and a handful of paintings. (Some of her lost works are being shown for the first time at the Tate through photographs taken after her death).

Tate curator Carol Jacoby says both the “physical fragility” and the sparse number of works have resulted in few exhibitions dedicated to Sydal. “But it’s also a fact that she’s very much overshadowed by the much more famous artists that were around her,” Jacobi explained in a video call. “And we can’t deny that, especially for historical women artists, it’s still a bit of a battle.”

Elizabeth Siddall is often called the “supermodel” of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. But she was an artist who also exhibited with the group. credit: Tate Elizabeth

Sydal’s works eschew realism and revel in beauty and fantasy. Her art often depicts emotionally charged scenes from poetry, such as the jewel-toned painting “Lady Clare,” based on an Alfred Tennyson ballad in which the titular character discovers that her life has been a lie. In another work, Macbeth, Sydal painted himself and Rossetti as the unfortunate couple driven mad by the prophecy.

Most of the artist’s works are watercolors and drawings. Her only known oil painting – a delicately rendered self-portrait on a circular canvas – is among those lost to time.

To her credit

Rethinking the focus on Siddal as a pioneering artist in her own right, rather than her proximity to male luminaries, is an overdue course correction. It is also one of many institutions that take with famous “muses” of the history of art; Photographer Dora Maar, who became famous as Picasso’s Weeping Woman, and artist Suzanne Valadon, who danced on Renoir’s scenes, are two such artists who have received important retrospectives in the past few years.

Sydal’s dynamic compositions and keen eye for color can be seen in ‘Lady Clare’ (left) and ‘Clerk Saunders’ (right). credit: Courtesy of Tate Britain, Fitzwilliam Museum

In Sydal’s case, this path to recognition is not linear. Curator and scholar Jan Marsh has championed Siddall as a key member of the Pre-Raphaelites of the 1980s, when feminist theory reexamined the framework surrounding women artists. (Marsh contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue). Yet myths and misconceptions about Sydal persist, as the ingredients of a tragic heroine’s life fill the gaps in the knowledge surrounding her.

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“Many of the stories that are told about Elizabeth are not really stories about Elizabeth – they are stories about Dante Gabriel: his love affair and the inspiration of his art and Elizabeth, whom he created in his poems and paintings. And so she remains overshadowed in many different ways,” Jacobi said, pointing to the fact that much of what is known about Sydal comes from Rossetti’s biographies. “I think it’s still really hard to get to that real person.”

Sydal collaborated on the watercolor Sir Galahad and the Holy Grail with Rossetti. credit: Courtesy of Tate Britain

Television and film interpretations run the gamut from the 2009 BBC miniseries about Rossetti, Desperate Romantics, to the 1967 drama centered on Dante Gabriel, Dante’s Inferno. The Ken Russell-directed film, which opens with Sydall’s exhumation, “distills the core idea of ​​Elizabeth and how powerful the ‘hunted woman’ is as a myth,” Jacobi said.

Before her time

Sydal deserves more than the oversimplified stories about his life. Although she had several months of art school and deliberately pursued her creative development, the myth that she was simply discovered by the Pre-Raphaelites while working in a hat shop remained, robbing her of agency, as Jacobi and Marsh point out. Her physical ailments and opiate addiction were also likely exaggerated. (In Victorian times, being in frail health was a gendered cultural sign, and laudanum, then a hypnotic and pain reliever, was a cure-all.)

Rossetti’s Marriage Portrait of Siddall. credit: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Even her death, speculated as a suicide, is poorly understood. Marsh wrote that Sydall more than likely died of an opiate overdose while in postpartum psychosis after her daughter was stillborn, but that there was little concrete evidence that she was addicted.

And while many art historians dismiss Siddall’s work as heavily influenced by her husband, Jacobi says they often worked together and that he took just as many ideas from her.

Her foresight might have been more apparent if Sydal had lived to see the next era of art unfold—one she influenced without her knowledge.

In one of her drawings, Lovers Listening to Music, from 1854, she abandons all narrative in a scene of a tender couple—probably based on her and Rossetti—performed by two figures with instruments.

“It is very unusual because there is no history; it’s just a mood, a dream of love,” Jacobi said.

Siddall’s 1854 drawing of a young couple listening to music – the depicted lovers are probably based on her and Rossetti – appears to have inspired one of her husband’s famous works. credit: Wightwick Manor National Trust

Three years later, Dante Gabriel repeated the musical motif in The Blue Closet, which was featured in the Tate exhibition alongside Sydal’s drawing. His painting, in turn, greatly influenced the painter William Morris, a key figure in the Aesthetic movement, which enjoyed beauty and art for its own sake rather than realistic life scenes or moralizing allegories.

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In retrospect, there is a “direct genealogy” from Siddall’s approach to Aestheticism, a movement that includes artists such as James Whistler and Aubrey Beardsley and writers such as Oscar Wilde, Jacoby said. “But of course she wasn’t part of that story because she died.

Through The Rossetti Family, Jacobi would like to lay out the true narrative of Siddall: a working-class woman who emerged as an artist and poet during a highly restrictive era for a person of her gender and social standing. Her work, like that of many women artists, was not exhibited by mainstream institutions – the Royal Academy of Arts at the time – and in fact she rebelled against their tastes.

“She painted in her own way … largely self-taught — that’s the story of a modern artist,” Jacobi said. “And I think she was just 30 years ahead of her time.”

Top image: Rossetti’s portrait of Sydal as Beata Beatrix. The painting of Beatrix’s death is based on Dante Alighieri’s 13th-century poem La Vita Nuova.

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