Elizabeth Siddal, Pre-Raphaelite model and wife to Gabriel Rossetti, is the source of intrigue for many Victorian researchers. Her mystery began from her vague background as a milliner's assistant. From the start, many stories were told of her discovery and yet few stories were told of her past before that point. A frail young woman, she was addicted to narcotics and suffered from a variety of ailments, from the physical to the mental. Her turbulent relationship with Rossetti was plagued with ups and downs, and yet after her death, he mourned her with great sorrow and guilt.
Elizabeth Siddal was a young girl from the working class, who was thrust into the world of the Pre-Raphaelites when discovered as a model in 1849. She was not terribly smart or educated, however, considering her class, she was thought to be as refined and modest as possible. She is generally referred as having been a reserved girl, but she was also explained as being both very beautiful and horribly plain by different sets of people.
It is known for a fact that Elizabeth was working as a milliner's assistant upon her discovery, but there are many stories told about how that discovery was made. Walter Deverell, who was at the Royal Academy with Hunt and Rossetti, was looking for a red-haired girl who could pass as a boy to play a Shakespearian role in a painting. Rossetti explains the story as Walter and his mother stopped by a millinery shop and saw the assistant in a back room. He then asked his mother to request permission to use her in a painting. Other accounts were given of the discovery. William Holman Hunt claimed that Deverell had arrived at the studio proclaiming what he found to Rossetti, who accompanied him to the millinery shop to have a look. Irish poet, William Allingham, took credit for introducing Deverell to Ms. Siddal because during his escapades with working class women, he had spotted the young girl and thought her perfect for the role.
Because modeling paid more than millinery work and perhaps because she preferred it to sewing, Elizabeth ended her assistantship at the shop. This is interesting to note because at the time very few women on the census reported their full time job to be modeling for artists. This is not because there were few models, but very few earned enough money to support themselves legitimately, and few wished to declare their employment given the stigma it represented. For Elizabeth though, both millinery work and modeling had negative connotations attached to them anyhow. Though her background was not terribly shameful, she was from a shop keeping family and the Pre-Raphaelites were very obscure about it. Rossetti and Ms. Siddal herself never really discussed her past. But perhaps that was part of the intrigue of the Pre-Raphaelite woman.
The one thing these men continually did was use the same model for many paintings, refining their appearance and many times enhancing the look to fit the theme of the painting. Rather than looking to ancient Greek and Roman statue ideals for the human form, the Pre-Raphaelites preferred what was true to nature, therefore working with a live model for the majority of painted characters. "The painters did not want the models to remain at a lower rank than theirs, but dreamed of elevating the women." (Art & Antiques 56)
Elizabeth Siddal spent more than a year modeling for Hunt before moving on to work with other artists. While with Hunt, he painted "Valentine Rescuing Sylvia", but was unsuccessful with Lizzie's face. Under pressure from his associates, he painted over it, leaving the image of the girl to not resemble Lizzie much at all.
Elizabeth began modeling for Rossetti soon after, and his drawings for Delia may be the catalyst to Elizabeth's modeling career. Beginning about 1852, she began studying with Rossetti and soon after, Ruskin offered her a deal. The original offer was for him to either pay her as she painted or pay her a lump...
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