Tag Archives: Artist’s muse

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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Marc Chagall – The Colour of Love

18 Dec

“In our life there is a single colour, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the colour of love.” (Marc Chagall)

1915-marc-chagall-birthdayMarc Chagall, Birthday, 1915

Earlier this year, in February, I was mesmerised by Chagall’s paintings and wrote two posts about him, The Paris Years (1910-1914) and Mystical Seven, this post – The Colour of Love – was an idea I had but never got round to. Well, these days I found myself daydreaming about Chagall’s portraits of lovers, and the mystic blueness of his paintings again, so consider this the third part of my Chagall trilogy.

Marc Chagall is one of those people who are full of love; love for life, colours, people, nature, memories, dreams, art, love towards sky, and night, and his village, and houses and his parents, composition and form, and colours, oh, he adored colours! Chagall’s paintings are landscapes of love, dreams and poetry. With Chagall, everything starts and ends with love – it’s pervading in his choice of subject, as he was fond of paintings his wife Bella and dreamy lovers flying above Paris, and always in his approach.

There’s a hint of Romanticism in his way of thinking, he said himself: ‘If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.‘ His paintings are so whimsical, dreamy and psychedelic really, that it’s hard to place them in a specific art movement; he was neither a Cubist nor a Surrealist and even though he always painted surrealistic scenes; lovers, cows and houses flying in air, fiddler on the roof, bodies and objects painted without respect for form, he steered clear from all formal classifications and manifestos. He stood as a loner and a dreamer.

1928-les-maries-de-la-tour-eiffel-the-wedding-party-on-the-eiffel-tower-by-marc-chagallLes mariés de la Tour Eiffel (The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower) by Marc Chagall, 1928

Love at first sight that started in 1909 when a beautiful daughter of a rich jeweller met a poor aspiring painter who worked as an apprentice for Leon Bakst, lasted thirty five years. What ended their love affair was not the change of feelings, but Bella’s death. In his autobiography ‘My Life’, which I highly recommend you to read, he poetically writes about her: ‘Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul.’

Bella, although seemingly a quiet, pale and withdrawn girl, was enthusiastic about Chagall as well, and later wrote about being mesmerised by his ethereal pale blue eyes: ‘When you did catch a glimpse of his eyes, they were as blue as if they’d fallen straight out of the sky. They were strange eyes … long, almond-shaped … and each seemed to sail along by itself, like a little boat.‘ She also wrote of their first meeting: ‘I was surprised at his eyes, they were so blue as the sky … I’m lowering my eyes. Nobody is saying anything. We both feel our hearts beating.

1917-bella-with-white-collar-by-marc-chagall-1917Marc Chagall, Bella with White Collar, 1917

After years spent in Paris, between 1910 and 1914, Chagall and Bella finally married on 25 July 1915, despite having a hard time convincing her parents that he would make a good match. They didn’t care about their love, but were more worried about his career and social status. Still, less than a year later, on 18th May 1916, their first and only child, Ida, was born and the arrival of this little bundle of joy softened the bourgeois hearts of Bella’s parents.

Chagall was absolutely besotted with Bella, he thought about her all the time while in Paris, and when they finally married, he expressed this endless amount of love and joy that suddenly overwhelmed him through his art. In painting ‘Birthday’, we see figures of Bella and Chagall in a kiss, the strength of their love allows them to defy gravity; he is already flying of happiness, while she seems ready to join him, carrying a bouquet of flowers in her hand. Chagall painted their room with religious devotion to details, and the space seems oddly real; notice the intricately woven fabric on the right, then the knife and a little purse on the table, and the view from the room. Chagall describes his new-found happiness in a way a poet would, just using colours instead of words, and he tells us: it’s real and it’s here, for the first time.

1949-marc-chagall-blue-landscapeMarc Chagall, Blue Landscape, 1949

Reading ‘My Life’ and observing his paintings from that period, you can sense his utter rapture and adoration for Bella. He even seems surprised that she could love him, this poor and clumsy boy who dreams of being a painter. He writes:

“In the mornings and evenings she would bring to my studio cakes she had baked with loving care, fried fish, boiled milk, colourful fabrics, and even boards of wood to use as an easel. All I had to do was open my window and in streamed the blueness of the sky, love and flowers with her. Dressed all in white or all in black, she has long been haunting my paintings, the great central image of my art.” (My Life)

1917-18-marc-chagall-the-promenadeMarc Chagall, The Promenade, 1917-18

You can really imagine him painting cows, fiddlers, lovers and poets in serenity all day, immersed in colour, meditating in every brushstroke, and the sparkle in his sky blue eyes when she’d enter the room. If only this beautiful dream, painted indeed in the colour of love, lasted forever. In both paintings, ‘Birthday’ and ‘Bella in White Collar’ we see Bella’s dress as he’d described it in the book. In painting ‘The Promenade’, he’s holding her hand like a balloon, with a wide smile on his face, while the town shaped in a Cubist style and painted in emerald green sleeps in the background.

It must have been wonderful to be loved by this gentle and humble dreamer with a vivid imagination. Lucky Bella.

1926-marc-chagall-lovers-with-half-moonMarc Chagall, Lovers with Half Moon, 1926

Chagall often paints lovers surrounded by a mystical blue colour, with a moon in the background, perhaps referring to his own love story with Bella again. In ‘My Life’, which is not a typical autobiography but a vibrant kaleidoscope of memories, he writes of kissing Bella at night, and also, one time, her parents locked the house and she couldn’t get outside to meet him so she got out through the window. Naturally, neighbourhood was gossiping, that’s not unusual for a small town like Vitebsk, and nobody would believe Chagall that his fiancee remained even more pure than Raphael’s Madonna, to quote Chagall himself. A reminder: this all takes place in 1909, and people tend to think that modern world is completely different, well I guess it isn’t. Love was love, and dreams were dreams – two main forces behind Chagall’s work.

1914-blue-lovers-marc-chagallMarc Chagall, Blue Lovers, 1914

Chagall’s anti-rational approach to art, typical for Surrealists, is perhaps best noticeable in his portrayals of dreamy lovers bathed in mystic blues. After his Parisian period (1910-1914) during which he flirted with Cubism, and enjoyed adding hints of geometry here and there, he suddenly freed his art even more, because it wasn’t stern to begin with. He felt an attraction for free forms, and purposefully employed the language of fantasy and games to develop a distinctively dreamy mood that still makes his paintings stand out.  It’s that playful quality of Chagall’s art that drew me to it in the first place, but it’s not a shallow playfulness because it’s always tinged with a transcending appeal of the mystical blue colour he loved using in abundance. If you take a look at the paintings ‘Blue Lovers’ or ‘Lovers in Green’, it’s hard not to feel that dreamy, ethereal quality that lingers through his paintings.

1914-15-marc-chagall-lovers-in-green-1914-1915Marc Chagall, Lovers in green, 1914-1915

After living in Vitebsk and St Petersburg, he left Russia for good in 1922 and settled in Paris, soon followed by Bella and Ida. Because of the political situation in Europe, he moved to New York in 1941. Unfortunately, a love dream that started in 1909, ended all too soon – Chagall and Bella didn’t grow old together.

A muse that filled his life and canvases with love for more than three decades vanished from this material world on 2 September 1944. When she died, Chagall turned all his canvases back to the wall and stopped painting for six months; it was the only period of his life, since he started painting, that he didn’t pick up a brush. He did remarry, in 1952 to Valentina ‘Vava’ Brodsky, but in every painting there’s a spirit of Bella’s light and warmth. She died, but she continued to pervade his thoughts and his canvases, and memories of her love guided his art like a star guiding the sailors.

1960-marc-chagall-le-bouquet-damour-c-1960Marc Chagall “Le bouquet d’amour”, c. 1960

What is the colour of love, then? It depends on the painter. For Chagall it seems to have been – blue.

Cleo de Merode: A Portrait of a Moon Child by Giovanni Boldini

27 Sep

September is nearing its end, it’s the 27th already, and it is also the birth date of Cleo de Merode, the famous French Belle Epoque dancer and beauty.

1901. Cleo de Merode by BoldiniGiovanni Boldini, Cleo de Merode, 1901

La Belle Epoque dancer and a famous beauty Cleo de Merode was born in Paris on 27 September 1875, in times just after the Franco-Prussian war, when the Impressionists were chatting, quarrelling and sketching in Parisian cafes. Her full name, Cléopatra Diane de Mérode, seems to have been made for a star.

It is my opinion that Cleo was equal in beauty and fame to Brigitte Bardot, a fellow French femme fatale. Both studied ballet from an early age, both possessed beauty and charm appealing to the age they lived in, both had numerous affairs interesting to the public eye, and they share a zodiac sign – Libra, Cleo being born on the 27th and Bardot on the 28th September. Although Brigitte Bardot acted in many films, her popularity throughout Europe in the Swinging Sixties was more due to her beauty, lifestyle and sex appeal. Likewise, beautiful Cleo – with oval face framed with masses of thick endlessly long and shiny raven black hair, almond shaped dark exotic eyes – often appeared on postcards, posters and playing cards. Men lusted after her, and women were envious of her bold fashion and lifestyle choices. One of it being the choice of hairstyle, which you’ll see in the photos below. Instead of wearing her hair up like every decent woman would do at the time, Cleo wore her hair down, decorated with a jewelled hairpiece. I found a similar look in a September 1968 drawing ‘Moon Shiny’ for the Baby Doll cosmetics. Whenever I see a photo of Cleo (and I do see it a lot since it’s on my bedroom wall) I instantly think of that sixties cosmetics add and that’s why I decided to put the ‘Moon Child’ in the title. For me, Cleo is the Moon Child of La Belle Epoque.

Her face, if not beautiful by today’s standards, is striking to say the least, more so in the photos than in the painting by Giovanni Boldini. Boldini was the painter of La Belle Epoque. He painted duchesses, courtesans-turned-actresses, beauties and really everyone who could afford his portrait services. Still, out of all his portraits, this one was stuck in my mind for a year now. I like Cleo’s dynamic pose, her sensual nude shoulder, her blue ring and the face expression, so confident, so aware of its own charms. Notice the typical Boldini brushstrokes: swift, dynamic – passionate expression of the moment of creation.

And now a bit of psychedelic music I’ve been listening to a lot this month, The Zodiac by Cosmic Sounds – Libra:The Flower Child for beautiful Cleo:

Libra listens and quietly sings,

gently peeling each yellow note.

 

Beauty lives within an eye of jade.

Venus contemplates a serene flower,

the color of an hour

of love.

1905. Cleo de Merode by NadarCleo de Merode by Nadar, 1905

1968-baby-doll-moon-shiny-222

Baby Doll ‘Moon Shiny’, 1968

1895-cleo-de-merode-danseuse-et-icone-de-beaute-francaise-1875-1966-photographie-de-reutlinger-paris-1 1895-cleo-de-merode-danseuse-et-icone-de-beaute-francaise-1875-1966-photographie-de-reutlinger-paris

1895-cleo-de-merode-danseuse-et-icone-de-beaute-francaise-1875-1966-photographie-de-reutlinger-paris-2

1890s-cleo-de-merode-18 1890s-cleo-de-merode-11 1895-cleo-de-merode-photographiee-par-charles-ogerau 1903-cleo-de-merode

 

Sophy Gray – Millais’ Muse

8 Oct

Sophy Gray, October’s child of woe and a beautiful girl, served as Millais’ muse in her teenage years.

1857. Pre-Raphaelite muse Sophy Gray by John Everett Millais

Sophy was a younger sister of Millais’ wife Effie Gray that caused a scandal and controversy by divorcing her first husband, art critic John Ruskin and marrying John Everett Millais. Ever since her sister married the painter in 1855, Sophy, then only a girl, proved to inspiration for his as his focus in painting shifted from his darling wife Effie to younger, fresh like a rose bud sister, Sophy.

The first painting in which Sophy appeared was Autumn Leaves, and although only twelve at the time, her rosy cheeks and long auburn haired showed promise of a great beauty. Perhaps the most striking is the portrait of Sophy at the age of 13, painted by Millais, which radiates almost erotic kind of feel, provoking the questions about Millais’ relationship with his young muse. This peculiar portrait can be seen above; just look at those deep blue eyes that seem cold and unapproachable, yet thoughtful and sentimental at the same time, those fresh, rose like cheeks and sensual, raspberry coloured lips. Sophy’s beautiful face, verging into womanhood, at the same time possessing the innocence of a child, is framed with long, wild auburn coloured hair that seems as if it whispers Autumn on the first October’s breeze through the bare branches. Also, her head is placed so close to the viewer, giving the intimate feel to the painting.

Later, Sophy appeared in one more very interesting painting called Spring (Apple Blossoms), painted between 1856-59. Sophy is shown on the far left, touching her long, auburn locks, and gazing, yet again, with the overt sentimentality and sadness. She’s wearing a colourful, striped dress with wide sleeves. Her sister Alice, a few years younger, is painted in a rather provocative pose, lying in a yellow dress with a blade of grass in her mouth. However, Sophy’s lovely face, which first graced the painting Autumn Leaves is now maturing into a beautiful young woman. Eventually, Effie sent her away for she suspected that Millais might have been a little bit too intimate with her. These suspicions still remain without a proof, but Sophy did left the Millais household, although the sisters remained close.

1859. ‘Spring (Apple Blossoms)’ by Millais

In 1868. Sophy became unwell. Her letters suggest that she suffered from anorexia nervosa. In addition, she also became extremely restless and obsessed with music, in particular, her piano playing. Her speech also became incoherent. In March 1869. Millais wrote to the fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter, William Holman Hunt, that Sophy had ‘been ill a whole year, and away from home, with hysteria.‘ Although she recovered, her health fluctuated and it remained a problem for her, and others around her, for the rest of her life.

On 16th July 1873. Sophy married James Key Caird, a jute manufacturer, who later proved to be ignorant towards her health and neglectful toward her in general. They had one daughter together, Beatrix Ada, born in 1874. Sophy’s family didn’t like Caird either, considering his to be two faced, and still aware of Effie’s disastrous first marriage. Sophy, affected by Caird’s inconsiderate and uncaring behavior toward her, spent much of her time living with Beatrix, mostly living between Dundee and Paris.

In 1880. Millais painted the final portrait of her and some suggest that Millais had ”perhaps more than anyone, knew the secrets of Sophie’s [sic] short life, and in her hauntingly sad expression portrayed an old sadness of his own.” Indeed, sadness never seemed to have left Sophy, whose melancholic gaze was, even at the age of thirteen, merely a prelude to the later sadness in life. By that time she had become extremely thin, thought much of it was hidden under the vast amount of layers in Victorian clothing. Sophy died on 15th March 1882, aged only 38. The cause of death was determined as exhaustion and “atrophy of nervous system, 17 years.” There were suggestion that she might have killed herself, but none were confirmed.

Sophy, beautiful and melancholic Millais’ muse, remained only a shadow of her former beauty that can be seen on the paintings she posed for in her teenage days, only a shadow of a beautiful, rosy cheeked girl with deep blue eyes and auburn hair.