Elizabeth Siddal was an artists’ model, poet, great Pre-Raphaelite beauty and most importantly artist’s muse. Her beautiful features were captured in the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais.
Elizabeth was at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite artistic community, being married to Dante Gabriel Rossetti; a poet, illustrator, painter and most importantly – the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Though she had artistic aspirations and loved poetry, it was her astonishing beauty that attracted the attention of Walter Deverell who not only employed her as a model but also introduced her to the Pre-Raphaelites. William Michael Rossetti, eventually Elizabeth’s brother in law, described her as ‘a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair.’
Unusual for the time, Elizabeth not only worked as a model but also at Mrs Tozer’s millinery part-time which secured her with regular wages, in case her modelling job became uncertain. In 1852. Elizabeth, aged nineteen, modeled for what was to be a very famous Pre-Raphaelites painting – Ophelia. Posing for Ophelia required Elizabeth to float in a bathtub full of water to represent the drowning Ophelia. Millais painted daily and since it was winter, he warmed the water by putting lamps under it. Still, on one occasion the lamps went out and the water became icy cold. Millais, so absorbed in his painting didn’t even notice and Elizabeth didn’t complain either but after this she became severely ill with a cold. Her father blamed Millais for this incident and forced him to pay for her doctor’s bill. Her poor health is attributed to laudanum she was addicted to and which eventually proved to be her undoing.
Besides the beautiful model, the painting is also known for its detailed depiction of nature and flowers. However, Millais ignored the initial Danish setting and the nature around Ophelia turned out to be quintessentially English with predominant English flowers and plants. Even more Victorian is Millais’ usage of the language of flowers; he incorporated red poppy flowers as poppy is a symbol of sleep and death. Ophelia’s garland is based on the one described in the play ‘There with fantastic garlands did she come/Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples’. Ophelia was painted in two stages; Millais first painted the landscape and then incorporated Ophelia’s graceful figure floating on the water. On Ophelia’s face Millais captured both beauty and sorrow, eternal suffering and defiance. Ophelia’s pose in this painting has been described as erotic, with its open arms and upwards gaze, but it is also resembles the pose of martyrs or saints.
Millais painted Ophelia along the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey, near Tolworth, Greater London. In vivid shades of green he depicted the wild and untamed nature, both its decay and growth. The atmosphere is static, yet the tree branches, the grass and sparkling white flowers appear as if they are alive, as if they’re dancing on the wind, stretching themselves to have a better view at poor Ophelia, tortured beauty slowly vanishing into the water; there Ophelia sings, unaware of her danger, incapable of her own distress and dies as her white gown, soaked in water, can not float anymore, just like Ophelia’s spirit, too weak for life, vanishes from her frail body. The process of painting nature wasn’t an easy job, Millais complained ‘The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh. I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay … and am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water. Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.’
The scene of Ophelia’s death is praised as on of the most poetically written death scenes in literature and this painting, I would dare to say, is one of the most beautifully depicted scenes of Ophelia’s death in art. It is surely the first painting that comes to my mind when I think of Ophelia, the other is surely Alexandre Cabanel’s depiction of Ophelia painted a little more than thirty years after. Farewell, Ophelia…
”Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”