Elizabeth Siddal

I’ve been feeling rather out of my element lately (what a surprise, after having moved across the country!), and I realized today that it is partially because I haven’t been able to read any art history articles. So, today I read up on Elizabeth Siddal, the infamous model for several Pre-Raphaelite painters. Elizabeth Siddal has fascinated art historians and writers for a long time, particularly due to her relationship with the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Probably the most famous story regarding Siddal is when she modeled for Millais’ painting of Ophelia; she lay for hours in a bathtub, fully clothed, and later became sick due to the prolonged exposure to cold water.

Siddal modeled for this painting, A Pet, by Deverell (exhibited 1853). The painting depicts pet birds surrounding Siddal in a garden setting. In an interesting article that uses this painting as a starting ground, Elaine Shefer explores the idea of birds and pets in comparison with the relationship between Siddal and Rossetti.1 Shefer analyzes different Pre-Raphaelite paintings, as well as poetry by Siddal and Rossetti, to show how the model was like a “bird in a cage” in her relationship with the painter. Undoubtedly, Siddal had a very sad life (which ended in a purported suicide). Some really fascinating aspects of Shefer’s argument comes at the end of the article. For example, she includes discussion of how Rossetti was haunted by the voices of birds after Siddal’s death; on at least two occasions the birds “spoke to him accusingly, once with the voice of Lizzie.”2

This is a really interesting psychological analysis of the relationship between two well-known figures from 19th century art. I haven’t found a plethora of scholarly analysis on the Pre-Raphaelites (with the exception of a few writings, like those done by Griselda Pollock). However, this article by Shefer is a nice psychological study that is well-supported with social-historical evidence.

1 Elaine Shefer, “Deverell, Rossetti, Siddal, and ‘The Bird in the Cage’,” The Art Bulletin 67, no. 3 (September, 1985): 437-48.

2 Ibid., 446.

  • Brandon and Katie says:

    Friend! I’ve just been reading all of your recent posts. That’s crazy that you didn’t have your suitcase!! But hey, at least you got some new clothes 🙂 I also had to smile about the S grammatical system. It’s something I’ve noticed, and I think that it is a dominant way of speaking because Brandon has accused me of slipping into a “Monica voice” when I’m with you. Hmmm…apparently my own vocal inflections are too weak to compete with other, superior inflection styles. At any rate, I think that the S system is both witty and original and “I love it it”…(right??) How’s Seattle?

  • Emilee . . . says:

    I found this post very interesting Monica. If I may make a suggestion . . . I’d love to read more posts from you on other art models. I’ve been googling Elizabeth Siddal after this post. Her death sounds somewhat suspicious to me, albeit romantic (in a morbid sort of a way) and fitting of that time in history. How did art models from that era generally get involved in modeling? Was it simply because they were beautiful? Perhaps they were rich? Lovers of the artists? Combinations of all of the above?

  • M says:

    Hey Emilee,

    That’s a really good question about models. Really, the type of model that is used in a work of art depends on the type of art that is produced. For example, the sitters (models) for portraits were rich people, since those rich people were the ones which could afford to commission the portrait.

    Aside from portraits, artists were able to use different means to get models. I know that in the 17th century it became popular to hire male models; this led to more depictions of the male nude in art. Some artists found models from more, uh, shady walks of life. For example, Caravaggio used the corpse of a drowned prostitute as the model for his painting The Death of the Virgin. (That painting was rejected by its commissioners because it was found to be blasphemous with a well-known prostitute depicting the holy Virgin).

    Often, artists would use friends, acquaintances, and spouses/lovers for their models. I think Siddal was such a popular model because she was not only friends with many of the Pre-Raphaelites (and Rossetti’s lover), but she was also a beautiful woman.

    So, to answer your question, models for art have come from all walks of life. In 19th century art (since you asked specifically about that era), one can find examples of rich, poor, beautiful, and ugly people as models. Really, I think it depends mostly on the artist and their preference/connections/commission.

  • Emilee . . . says:

    Wow, that is fascinating. I went and looked up “The Death of the Virgin” after reading your reply. I suppose it makes sense that models come from all walks of life … Makes me curious if, particularly for the poor/prostitutes/etc., if it was considered an honor to be a model or were they just doing it because they were desperate for money? I imagine many of them could have been taken advantage of.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.