Friday, December 5th, 2008
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.