Tag Archives: 1829

Lizzie Siddal – A Mysterious Muse

25 Jul

“All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

(Elizabeth Siddal, “Love and Hate”)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Portrait Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1850s

Elizabeth Siddal, a famous and doomed Pre-Raphaelite muse and a lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was born on 25th July 1829 in London. She died in February 1862 at the age of 32, but had she been a vampire, which I suspect she might as well be, she would have been 190 years old today, a fairly young age for a vampire. I am thinking about her these days; about her beauty, her poems and paintings, and also about the exhumation of her body led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti who wanted to get back the poems he had buried with her. An image of her coffin being opened, and her long red hair revealed by the moonlight, silence of the graveyard, the eeriness…. It is easy to imagine why this event inspired young Bram Stoker for his character Lucy in “Dracula”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’, 1853

Nonetheless, the main thing on my mind these days is how mysterious the person of Elizabeth Siddal actually is. Who was she really? How little we know of her and how the rest is painted in our imaginations. When I first read about her years ago, I was met with a very idealised image of a beautiful, quiet and melancholy young woman who modeled for the Pre-Raphaelites, used laudanum and was plagued with sadness and Rossetti’s infidelities; she seemed almost like a martyr, the one who suffered, the one who was tormented. I think part of it was true, she was a struggling working class girl who wanted more from life, materially and spiritually; she wanted to rise above the circumstance that she was born into, she wanted to learn and grow intellectually, but also she wanted a finer, more comfortable life; “a servant to lay the fire in the morning, theater tickets, a paisley shawl.” (Gay Daly, Pre-Raphaelites in Love)

The promises that Rossetti gave, he did not fulfill; he was impulsive, careless with money, had a wandering eye and was strangely very hesitant to marry her, and it is easy to understand why it brought her so much anguish, especially in the Victorian era when her status of artist’s model and a lover closed many doors for her and gave her an unenviable place in society. Artistically, she was always in Rossetti’s shadow and she could never have dreamed that her paintings of her poems would be as appreciated as his were. All these things indeed make her a sufferer, but I feel like there is another side of her that no one tends to talk about, for it would ruin her untainted image of a martyr and an angel. She may be a mysterious muse, but she is not a perfect one for sure.

Regina Cordium – Rossetti’s Marriage portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, 1860

Blinded by her beauty; her long coppery red hair, pale complexion, fragile frame, and eyes that changed colour from green to grey, Rossetti was bewitched at first sight by this strange girl who worked in a hat shop. She was equally charmed, but as ideal the start of their relationship was, its course was a turbulent one with lots of drama, anger, tears and manipulation. Lizzie was known for her frail health, but it is very interesting how her health changed according to the occasion. She could feel perfectly well in the morning, but as soon as Rossetti was getting ready to head into town, hang out with other people, she would suddenly feel unwell and if she would get him to stay at home that day, her health was fine.

She was emotionally manipulative without a doubt and, to me, she seems like a very moody and miserable woman and I am not surprised that Rossetti would want to go out and spend time with merrier, more carefree women. In her book “Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel” Lucinda Hawksley writes that “both shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any relationship.” And also: “When one – or both – of them was unhappy, ill, depressed or jealous, they made one another’s lives hellish. (…) Self-destructive and self-loathing at times, as well as being arrogant about their abilities, both must have been extremely difficult to live with.” She was happy at the beginning of their relationship, in times when Ophelia was painted but as their life went on, she started using her frail health as a way of getting things she wanted, mostly from Rossetti but also from other people. Again, here is an interesting passage from Lucinda Hawksley’s book: “It is interesting to see how often Lizzie’s health coincided with Rossetti’s affections being taken up by other woman. By his refusal to marry her, Rossetti had forced her to blackmail him emotionally and she used every opportunity to do so. At the start of their relationship it seems the balance of power was very much in his favour as she struggled to prevent him from tiring of her, but by the end of her life she had become overtly manipulative and controlling, to the point that his friends claimed he shrank when she spoke to him, always expecting a rebuke or for her to sink dangerously into illness, blaming him wordlessly for its onslaught.

As if her “illnesses” weren’t enough, Lizzie would stop eating to get her point across, or sink into periods of depression and self-loathing. Mrs Siddal was also known for being aloof and quiet when in company with other people, and I can well understand that because I am somewhat similar, but I think it was just a means for her to show her disdain and disinterest, and to emphasise the mysteriousness about her that she loved nurturing. She was known for petty jealousies and acted as if she were better than other working class models who might have been prostitutes also, for example Hunt’s model Annie Miller.

John Everett Millias, Ophelia, 1852

With all that said, I will also add that I love Lizzie and I am not being hateful here, I am in fact endlessly captivated by her short tragical life, her mysteriousness, and her connection to the Pre-Raphaelites. I love her poetry and empathise with her verses. But I have to say that she is no angel and I hate people idealising her while at the same time bashing on Rossetti for being this or that. She was manipulative, jealous, strategically ill when necessary, miserable, depressed, perhaps impossible to satisfy at times, and I don’t see why that is not mentioned so often. She was an artist’s muse and a model, that position alone ought to have made her feel like she were the luckiest girl in the world. Just think of Poe’s submissive little wife Virginia and her perfect adoration for the doomed poet. I think Lizzie didn’t need an ancient curse like the Lady of Shalott to bring her death because Lizzie seems capable enough of bringing her own doom.

Now, I don’t want to judge her harshly because I have not met her, but no matter how much I read about her, I am still left with a feeling of mysteriousness. All the words said are not her own, comments from observers are still not her own. We can never know what was truly in her heart, though maybe her poems are a good clue, being so direct and so melancholy. I wonder, were her manipulative ways a character trait or just a way of getting even with Rossetti. Why was she so miserable and what could have stopped that? I honestly can’t imagine her ever being perfectly happy. I think of her often, and yet she is still mysterious to me. Maybe one night, in a dream, I will meet her and find out all that I was curious about.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1860

And for the end, here is one of her poems which I love:

Worn Out

Thy strong arms are around me, love

My head is on thy breast;

Low words of comfort come from thee

Yet my soul has no rest.

 

For I am but a startled thing

Nor can I ever be

Aught save a bird whose broken wing

Must fly away from thee.

 

I cannot give to thee the love

I gave so long ago,

The love that turned and struck me down

Amid the blinding snow.

 

I can but give a failing heart

And weary eyes of pain,

A faded mouth that cannot smile

And may not laugh again.

 

Yet keep thine arms around me, love,

Until I fall to sleep;

Then leave me, saying no goodbye

Lest I might wake, and weep.

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John Constable – Romantic Ruins of Hadleigh Castle

6 May

Sublime landscapes with romantic ruins are what fills my heart with delight, for nature by itself is plain and mundane. Ruin of a Medieval castle or an abbey overgrown with ivy, lovers sitting in forest glades bathed in silvery moonlight, rivers whose calm flow brings forgetfulness, sight of a lonely figure amidst wild nature; a landscape unadorned with any of these things seizes to excite me. And is there a better age in art for all these qualities than Romanticism?

John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9, London, Tate Gallery

John Constable’s aim in painting landscapes was to capture the nature with honesty, to capture its beauty and simplicity without showing off in an arrogant Turner way. He is not the representative in portraying nature with passion, lyricism or melancholy; you should seek those qualities in paintings of Turner, John Martin or Caspar David Friedrich, but at one point, in 1828, he felt that his life and art were in a state of ruins and he sought in nature a vision of his own soul and he found it in a desolate scene of a Hadleigh Castle in Essex.

The brooding tower is a sinister sight indeed, seen after a stormy night; wrapped in dark thoughts, breathing in the air of decay, its glory days forgotten and only a corpse of stone walls remains, the crows flying by its only friends in centuries of solitude… The sky is a commingled mass of whites and blues, and the marshlands are drowning in darkness. A vague figure of a shepherd with his dog in the left corner, and cows and cliffs painted carelessly. The most peculiar thing about this oil sketch is the way it is painted; almost expressionistic with those thick, careless brushstrokes, heavy, thickly impasto way of applying colour with no constraint. And it’s sublime and sombre mood has since drawn comparisons to Rembrandt’s “The Mill” (1645-48). The scene seems so out of place in Constable’s usual peaceful countryside scenes painted in a very detailed way with fine brushwork, that one can’t help but wonder about this strange change of style and theme.

John Constable, Maria Bicknell, 1816

This peculiarly dark mood of the painting is caused by the events in Constable’s private life. His dear wife Maria, who was of fragile health, fell ill after giving birth to their seventh child in January 1828, and in November the same year she died from consumption. Constable was devastated; he started dressing in black and  succumbed to melancholy. The death of his angel, as he called her, changed everything. They married in autumn of 1816, when he was forty years old, after their friendship grew into deep love. But now, after only twelve years of happiness, Constable was a lonely, depressed figure, wrapped in gloomy thoughts, tormented by anxiety and brutal self-questioning of his life and career. Nothing made sense any more, and he wrote in a letter to his brother Golding “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me“.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, sketch, 1814

As you can see from the rather small pencil sketch, about 8 x 11 cm, Constable had visited the sight way before he decided to fully devote to it and paint it on a large, six foot canvas in oils. It seems to me that the distance between two towers is bigger in the drawing than it is in the paintings. Perhaps the reason why he returned to the subject of the Hadleigh Castle after fourteen years lies in the fact that while he visited it for the first time, in 1814, he rapturously wrote to Maria of its beauty. This is what he wrote, on 3 July 1814: “At Hadleigh there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is a really fine place – it commands a view of the Kent hills, the Nore and North Foreland & looking many miles to sea.” After she died, he may have revisited their correspondence, and with tears glistening in his eyes remembered the happier times, and he may have seen the castle as a symbol of those times.

I love the sketch, specially the birds flying around the tower and the clouds, and something about it appeals me more than the finished painting. I know what it is; in the drawing there is no figure of a shepherd and the cows; a motif so utterly Constable and so unfitting for the Gothic mood of the sublime. As much as I like the painting, I would have preferred to see it painted as a nocturnal scene, in dark magical blues with large moon shining on the horizon and a distant figure of a horseman, and the moonshine peeking through the old ruin of a tower, but that wouldn’t be Constable any more.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames–Morning after a Stormy Night, 1828-29

Now you can see what an impact personal life and tragedies can have on an artist, and that even a simple landscape is filled with secrets that leads us to the artist’s soul. Constable’s saddest state resulted in what is perhaps the most poetic, the most ‘sublime’ out of all his paintings, but the wild and gloomy sketch version from the Tate Gallery isn’t the only one. He painted another version of the same scene, pretty much the same, which is more in tune with Constable’s typical refined, sleek style; gloom is subtler, brushstrokes are more controlled, and you can see the details more clearly, such as the shepherd and his dog, and the cows, even the sky looks softer and less threatening. So there is a ‘passionate’ version and a ‘tamed’ one. Needless to say which one I prefer.

John Constable – Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows

22 Apr

1829-30. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows - John Constable1829-30. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows – John Constable

The beauty and value of this painting were overlooked because it was thought that a fan had painted it in homage to the celebrated landscape painter John Constable. However, it was revealed only a few months earlier that this painting was indeed painted by Constable. This is certainly not the reason why this painting allured me, I’d love it even if it was painted by a fan and not Constable himself.

Despite the fact that Constable was a Romantic painter, he did not strive to paint from his imagination which was a habit of all Romanticists, he always painted what he saw but his visions of sweet little cottages, trees, skies and the Salisbury Cathedral which he had painted so many times obviously posses a certain charisma because they haven’t been forgotten even after two centuries. Constable said ‘The world is wide, no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.

First glance at this painting filled me with excitement. I have a great deal of affection for powerful and tranquil landscapes; storms, wild trees, mystical buildings in the background, old ruins… Sky plays an important role in all of Constable’s paintings. Here, it is painted in wild and energetic brushstrokes. Dark and massive clouds seem threatening. Trees look so crooked and strange and the mysterious cathedral in the background, painted in sharp lines and grey tones, only adds to the overall gloomy atmosphere. I started writing my story again and this painting is my main inspiration for describing landscapes.