The tragic fate of the model-poet who almost died while posing for “Ophelia”

With a pale face and red hair blowing through the reeds, Ophelia keeps her eyes open and her lips beautifully parted, her hands raised aloft as if the inevitability of death has brought her a state of extreme pleasure. Thus the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais (1829-1896) immortalized Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, the tormented young woman who goes mad when she learns that her beloved Hamlet has mistakenly killed her father Polonius and drowns in a stream. The young woman has fallen while trying to attach a garland of flowers to a willow branch and now sinks into the murky waters, still singing. The model for the most popular painting in Tate Britain is Elizabeth Siddall, who was also a poet and artist and whose unhappy life bears many similarities to that of Ophelia herself. Including his tragic and untimely death from a laudanum overdose

Detail from “Ophelia”

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“You cannot tell what an incredibly beautiful creature I have found… She is like a queen, magnificently tall…” Elizabeth Siddall (1829-1862) was 19 years old and working as a seamstress in a hat shop when she met the artist Walter Deverell, who introduced her to Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, two of the most prominent artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a secret society founded in 1848 that rejected academic oppression and advocated a return to nature and the aesthetic innocence of pre-Raphaelite Italian artists. They are guided by a single principle: “The most absolute truth that is derived from nature and nature alone, down to the smallest detail,” in the words of artist and art critic John Ruskin.

Millet took this effort to meet reality to its last consequences. painted his Ophelia in two phases and in two different places. The landscape piece was done outdoors on the Hogsmill River, near Ewen, over five months (the wild flowers that appear in the picture, violets, poppies, violets… bloom at different times of the year), while the Figure of the Drowned Young a woman is painted in his studio, with the red-haired model submerged for hours in the water of a tin tub.

To keep the water warm, Millet placed several oil lamps under the claw-foot tub, but on a particularly cold winter’s day the candles went out…

To keep the water warm, Millais places several oil lamps under the clawfoot tub, but on a particularly cold winter’s day, when the artist realizes that the candles are out, it is too late. Sydal, caught a cold, contracted pneumonia, which would cause a series of health problems from which she would never recover.


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E. Siddall

According to Lucinda Hawksley, author of Lizzie Siddall, The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, the young woman embodied the opposite of the Victorian ideal of beauty: she was tall, painfully thin, with red, inflamed hair and melancholy eyes. But thanks to the success of the pictures in which she appeared, she helped change the “public opinion about beauty”. She is the favorite model of the Pre-Raphaelites, jumping from studio to studio and from painting to painting, until Dante Gabriel Rossetti, obsessed with her, finally manages to get her to pose only for him and become his lover.

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Elizabeth Siddall, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850.

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Self-portrait, 1853-1854.

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Encouraged by Ruskin, who gave her an annual salary of £150, she taught herself to paint – she was the only woman to exhibit in London in 1857 with her Pre-Raphaelite colleagues – and when she felt very weak, the pain barely allowed her to get out of bed, bed, he began to write poetry (his complete work, translated by Eva Gallud, was first published in Spain in 2019 by the publishing house Ya lo dice Casimiro Parker). But like Ophelia’s own relationship with Hamlet, her relationship with Rossetti was tortuous and sad. They were engaged for ten years, the artist hesitated to set a wedding date. He was jealous, more than a serial infidel, and she, addicted to laudanum (a very powerful preparation high in opium) after the episode in the bath, was increasingly depressed and unhappy.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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Sydal tried to escape the control Ruskin and Rossetti had over her and moved to Sheffield, her father’s birthplace. News reaching her of the artist’s adventures with other women ended the relationship, but when Rossetti became seriously ill in 1860, he obtained a marriage license and they were married. They honeymoon in Paris, return with two adopted stray dogs, but soon after give birth to a stillborn daughter. He never recovered from the depression. Returning home one day, he found her fast asleep in bed with the empty bottle of laudanum beside her. There was also a note that Hawksley says she burned to avoid being branded a suicide bomber. I was 32 years old.

Rossetti added an ominous postscript to his life. He buried the manuscript with her unpublished poems, something he regretted seven years later when he decided to exhume the tomb to save the notebook and publish a book.


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