Tag Archives: Elizabeth Siddal

Elizabeth Siddal – All changes pass me like a dream

23 May

Famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his beautiful melancholic muse, Elizabeth Siddal, who was the walking epitome of Pre-Raphaelite beauty with her lavish masses of coppery golden hair, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes and heavy-lidded gaze, married on the 23th May 1860 in the seaside town of Hastings. Last year on their wedding anniversary, I posted one Rossetti’s poems, and this year here’s one called “Love and Hate” by Lizzie herself.

I remember when I fell in love with Pre-Raphaelites, in August 2014, in one of those afternoons of late summer, rain had lingered for days, sky was coloured in greys, chill air in twilight seemed to whisper that autumn is coming, and every time I picked red rosebuds I treasured them as if they were the season’s last jewels, my soul already soaked in that special combination of melancholy and sweetness which occurs only in autumn when rustling leaves bring me delight and yet I feel overwhelmed by the transience of everything in nature and our lives of humans – it was in those days that I gazed for long hours at Millais’s beautiful Ophelia and idealised the image of a drowned girl, and the red-haired maiden who posed for the painting, reading about her destiny and slowly discovering her poetry, laced with sadness, its verses spoke of love and death. A particular verse has been my favourite since those days, I have it written on my wall, and I almost feel it etched into my soul:

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

Lizzie Siddal posed for Ophelia and died an equally tragic death (is there a non-tragic death?); she overdosed on laudanum. Onyx black poppy seeds from that fragile yet passionate red flower, lulled her to eternal sleep. Rossetti dramatically buried his book of poems with her coffin, only to have it exhumed years later. Their tumulus relationship was the main source of inspiration for her poetry. I can understand her sadness, but Rossetti’s infidelities I cannot. With that beautiful gem at home, why on earth would he ever want to spend time with other women? Wasn’t his idol Dante content with just daydreaming about Beatrice?

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52

Love and Hate

Ope not thy lips, thou foolish one,
Nor turn to me thy face;
The blasts of heaven shall strike thee down
Ere I will give thee grace.

Take thou thy shadow from my path,
Nor turn to me and pray;
The wild wild winds thy dirge may sing
Ere I will bid thee stay.

Turn thou away thy false dark eyes,
Nor gaze upon my face;
Great love I bore thee: now great hate
Sits grimly in its place.

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

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti – I was a child beneath her touch….

12 May

Today would have been Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s birthday and I will take that as an excuse to share with you my favourite poem of his, “The Kiss”, along with some drawings he did of his darling Lizzie Siddal. I especially love the second stanza of the poem and also here you can watch a short video of Aidan Turner who played Rossetti in the BBC show “Desperate Romantics” reciting the poem.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, ca 1860

“What smouldering senses in death’s sick delay

Or seizure of malign vicissitude 

Can rob this body of honour, or denude

This soul of wedding-raiment worn to-day?

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay. 

 

I was a child beneath her touch,–a man

When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,– 

A spirit when her spirit looked through me,– 

A god when all our life-breath met to fan 

Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran, 

Fire within fire, desire in deity.”

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

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Kiss

23 May

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet The Kiss describes his feeling on his wedding day that actually took place on 23 May 1860 at St Clement’s Church in the seaside town of Hastings – the place of Syd Barrett’s last gig with Pink Floyd by the way. It’s truly a beautiful poem, especially the second stanza.

desperate romantics 13

The Kiss – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“What smouldering senses in death’s sick delay

Or seizure of malign vicissitude 

Can rob this body of honour, or denude

This soul of wedding-raiment worn to-day?

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay. 

 

I was a child beneath her touch,–a man

When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,– 

A spirit when her spirit looked through me,– 

A god when all our life-breath met to fan 

Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran, 

Fire within fire, desire in deity.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix – Love Will Tear Us Apart

14 May

Rossetti’s painting Beata Beatrix, laden with symbolism and imbued with spirituality, can be viewed in two ways: as the ultimate expression of Rossetti’s passionate love for Lizzie, a love that transcends even death, and, as a synthesis of Rossetti’s life-long fascination with Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages – Dante Alighieri.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix, ca 1864-70.Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, Oil on canvas, painted about 1863-70, 86.4 x 66cm, Tate

Rossetti, who loved Lizzie ardently but not always most faithfully, often made connections between her and Beatrice; Dante’s muse and unrequited love, so much so that is seems Lizzie’s death came as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her death and this painting erased the border between Rossetti’s own life, love and loss, and that of his idol Dante. Having lost their muses, the two artists, although separated by centuries, were finally spiritually united. Both Rossetti and Dante sought refuge in art because it transcends the short life of us mortals. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis (Art is long, life is short.) – Lizzie’s life was short, her love for Gabriel lasted even shorter, and yet this painting, along with many other, enables us, century and a half later, to feel the same grief that Rossetti felt upon Lizzie’s death.

Dante’s Vita Nuova, the subject of Beata Beatrix, was one of numerous early Italian works that Rossetti translated. Dante portrays himself in La Vita Nuova as a poet captivated by an unattainable love personified by Beatrice. After Beatrice’s death Dante, who cannot overcome his lingering love for her, resolves to express his love through his art.*

1850s Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Elizabeth Siddal, study for 'Delia' in the 'Return

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

In this painting Lizzie Siddal embodied Dante’s Beatrice. Her head, crowned by exuberant masses of coppery red hair, is tilted back. Her face expression reveals a meditative, contemplative state, perhaps indicating that Beatrice is praying and calmly anticipating her death. She’s wearing a similar, medieval-style dress that can be seen in Rossetti’s painting ‘Beatrice, Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Denies him her Salutation’ from 1855. Also, her face expression bears resemblance to one of Rossetti’s early studies for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’.**

Lizzie’s heavy-lidded eyes now closed could be interpreted as a symbol of her transition into the underworld, like Eurydice in Greek mythology. And just like poor, grief-stricken Orpheus, Rossetti was unable to rescue his sweet Lizzie from the eternal sleep. Knowing Lizzie’s addiction to laudanum, one could get the impression that her state is nothing more than an opium dream. Her lips, the same crimson-coloured lips that Rossetti had kissed many times, are slightly parted which brings to mind Rossetti’s poem The Kiss and these verses:

“For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay.”

Other-worldly mood of the scene is absolutely beautiful, and I think that’s the very thing that makes this painting so special. Rossetti spent seven years of his life painting it (1863-1870) and it stands as a barrier between his early years characterised by medieval subjects and infatuation with Lizzie, and the following period when he focused on female sensuality and produced the ‘femme fatale’ paintings that everyone knows and loves.

Two figures emerge from the golden haze in the background: on the left – a figure of angel representing Love, and holding a flame in his hand, symbolising the soul of Beatrice; on the right – a figure of Dante, hopelessly trying to bring Beatrice back to life. Sundial casts its shadow on the number nine; the time of Beatrice’s death on 9th June 1290. For Dante, number nine had a mystical quality because of its connection to Beatrice. Rossetti noted in a letter to Ellen Heaton in 1863:

You probably remember the singular way in which Dante dwells on the number nine in connection with Beatrice in the Vita Nuova. He meets her at nine years of age, she dies at nine o’clock on the 9th of June, 1290. All of this is said, and he declares her to have been herself ‘a nine’, that is the perfect number, or symbol of perfection.’*

Behind Dante and the figure of Love we see a vague contours of Florence; the place where Dante’s story was set. We see a red dove carrying a poppy flower into Beatrice’s open hands. All this symbolism, along with the lavishing usage of gold could be interpreted as the beginning of Symbolism. As we know, many artists after Rossetti loved using gold in abundance, whether as a colour or in the form of real leaves of gold; Gustave Moreau and Gustav Klimt to name a few. Such profusion of gold evokes the glory days of Byzantine Empire and its architectural splendours. The spiritual yet luxurious mood of this painting reminds me of the atmosphere in Eastern Orthodox Churches.

1855. Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Beatrice, Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Denies him her Salutation (1855)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Beatrice, Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Denies him her Salutation’ (1855)

In the final episode of ‘Desperate Romantics’ we see the creation of this painting; Rossetti tries to memorise her face and then starts painting furiously. Everyone is saddened by her death. Effie and John, the happy couple in their cosy home, gaze at his study of Lizzie’s face for Ophelia. Hunt is in solemn solitude, praying to god by the candlelight, Fred – alone, drinking and kissing the lock of her coppery-golden hair. Death is so idealised and glamorised as an idea, but very sad when it actually occurs. It’s ironic that some of Rossetti’s best-known and some of the greatest Pre-Raphaelite artworks were painted after Lizzie’s death.

Sadly, death marks both the beginning and the end of Lizzie Siddal’s career as a model. Ten years before her death, in 1852, she posed as Ophelia for Millais, and almost died during the process, and after she died, Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix. (Note: Ophelia is not the first painting she sat for, but it is certainly the best known.) I see this painting as Rossetti’s way of saying ‘Farewell, My Lizzie’. Also, with this painting Rossetti seems to be exploring the connection between death and eroticism, something that would go on to be very popular a subject in decadent society of fin de siecle. Rossetti – always ahead of his time.

1860. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) - Portraitof Elizabeth Siddal, ca 1860

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) – Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, ca 1860

I think that despite his selfishness and interest in other women, Rossetti deeply loved Lizzie; she was not just a muse and a lover to him, but a true soulmate. He was obsessed with drawing her when she was alive, he buried his book of poems with her when she died, and I believe that the vision of her coppery hair and heavy-lidded greenish eyes stayed etched in his mind till the end of his life. Lizzie left emptiness when she died, and Rossetti described such feelings in his poem from ‘The House of Life’:

What of her glass without her? The blank gray
   There where the pool is blind of the moon’s face.
   Her dress without her? The tossed empty space
Of cloud-rack whence the moon has passed away.
Her paths without her? Day’s appointed sway
   Usurped by desolate night. Her pillowed place
   Without her? Tears, ah me! for love’s good grace,
And cold forgetfulness of night or day...”***
Elizabeth Siddall Plaiting her Hair null by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

Elizabeth Siddal Plaiting her Hair null by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882, c. 1850s

The title is obviously a reference to Joy Division, and I chose it because I think it’s relevant to the love affair of Lizzie and Rossetti. No doubt that she was annoyed by his celebration of female sensuality and friendships with prostitutes, and that he often thought living with her brought nothing but restrictions and dullness. And yet, aside from these everyday troubles, Rossetti expressed nothing but pure beauty and adoration in his portrait of Lizzie, and what woman could possibly want more?

 ***

“When routine bites hard,

And ambitions are low,

And resentment rides high,

But emotions won’t grow,

And we’re changing our ways,

taking different roads.

Then love, love will tear us apart again.
Love, love will tear us apart again.

Why is the bedroom so cold?
You’ve turned away on your side.
Is my timing that flawed?”****

Desperate Romantics (2009) – A Review

6 May

I’ll start off this post by saying I absolutely loved ‘Desperate Romantics‘ – a period drama set in Victorian London which revolves around the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; their art, lives, loves and scandals.

WARNING This image may only be used for publicity purposes in connection with the broadcast of the programme as licensed by BBC Worldwide Ltd & must carry the shown copyright legend. It may not be used for any commercial purpose without a licence from the BBC. © BBC 2009***

First glimpse of Desperate Romantics, from left to right; Rafe Spall as a somewhat austere perfectionist William Holman Hunt, also known as ‘Maniac’, Aidan Turner as the dashing Byronic Hero, ‘half-Italian, half-mad’ Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Samuel Barnett as a child-prodigy, sweet and bewildered John Everett Millais, and lastly Sam Crane as the gentle, caring and ‘always-in-the-shadow-of-others’ Fred Walters; a composite character mainly based on Fred Stevens and several other historical figures who serves as a journalist and a diarist of the brotherhood.

I found the actors and actresses wonderful and perfectly suitable for their roles. Every character has an individualised personality and that is one of the main reasons this period drama is so brilliant. This emphasis on individual personality traits, be it good or bad ones, helps a great deal to understand the artworks they produced. Their choice of subjects seems so natural after understanding their characters. For example, the strong-willed and religious Hunt would never go on painting sensual women or characters from Roman mythology, and likewise it’s inconceivable that Rossetti would ever paint anything similar to The Light of the World.

***

desperate romantics 2

Brooding Rossetti and his sorrowful muse

***

I very much enjoyed how relatable everyone seemed. Their conversations and jokes in the pub sounded beautifully modern. Pre-Raphaelites smoked hashish, consumed opium, flirted with waitresses and visited brothels. In several scenes you can even see Charles Dickens himself entertaining the ‘ladies’. After watching this, I feel like the Victorian world wasn’t as grim and proper as presented, perhaps in the higher classes but not amongst artists and intellectuals.

In Desperate Romantics Featurette (you can watch it on YouTube) actors and actresses talk about their roles and opinions of the PRB. I found it especially thrilling how Rafe Spall connected the members of the Brotherhood to modern artists and writers. He made a parallel with the Beat Generation and compared Fred Walters to Jack Kerouac, Millais to Neal Cassady, Rossetti to Allen Ginsberg and Hunt to William Burroughs. Also, he compared the radical avant-garde quality of the brotherhood to Punk Rock, and he described the make-up and hairstyle of Annie Miller (Hunt’s girfriend and model) as being Vivienne Westwood-esque.

***

desperate romantics 12

DESPERATE ROMANTICS

Amy Manson as Lizzie Siddal

***

I’m afraid that costumes are a great factor for me, and in Desperate Romantics it was yet another source of enjoyment. As you can see from the pictures I’ve assembled here, dresses worn by Lizzie Siddal are very simple and romantic, made of printed cotton in earthy colours, no corsets or crinolines. Along with her long flowing coppery hair, she looks more like a Medieval maiden than a Victorian lady. Apart from a few bonnets, everything seemed historically accurate. Men’s attire was interesting as well, which is unusual because it tends to be boring and grey. Millais is a true peacock, usually wearing scarlet-coloured velvet jackets and lots of purples and greens. Rossetti is very flamboyant but more sophisticated, he wears loose, half-unbuttoned shirts and vibrant coloured scarves. Fred is all simple and proper, true mama’s boy and Hunt is dressed according to his reserved nature, but after his trip to the East, he starts growing a beard, smoking hashish straight from Syria and dressing with a touch of East just like The Rolling Stones when then discovered Marocco.

***

desperate romantics 9

First love couple: Rafe Spall as William Holman Hunt and Jennie Jacques as Annie Miller

***

I’ve read some complaints about the lack of art in the series and I highly disagree. Exhibition of Millais’ Ophelia, an important moment for the PRB, was well presented and so was the moment when Rossetti found his new direction in portraying pure womanly sensuality after an encounter with Fanny Cornforth. Millais, Rossetti, Hunt and Fred are often seen visiting the Royal Gallery, even objecting the mainstream Victorian art, Rossetti said: The Academy’s utter disgust is what gets us all out of bed in the morning‘, continuing Where is the naturalism, where is the life, the flesh, the blood, the nature?’ When Hunt comes back from his trip, he also showcases his paintings, and after Lizzie dies we see grief stricken Rossetti painting Beata Beatrix. We see Rossetti painting Jane Morris and the murals in a nearby church, and Lizzie painting as well. Is this not enough art?

In Desperate Romantics we are presented by something even more important than ‘art’, we see the background of their artworks and everything that went on in their personal lives and the way it reflected on their works. The series captured the mood of the Brotherhood and I think that’s not only more interesting, but more important. Anyone can simply google their paintings, but it takes a lot more to understand them.

***

desperate romantics 13

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal as Victorian era Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull

INTERESTING QUOTES:

“We are artists, we thrive on strong emotions.” (Elizabeth Siddal, ep 5)

“We cannot confuse our feeling about the artist with the art, that would leave us only able to admire works of those we like.” (John Ruskin, ep 3)

“I insists it’s the most noble profession there is. An artist only records beauty, but a model radiates it. If I were Millais, oh, I would paint you in a pure white silk dress.” (Rossetti’s opinion on modelling and words directed to Jane Burden)

“I find the modern world the most random and confusing place.” (Millais, ep 3)

***

desperate romantics 7

Love couple number 3: Millais and Effie as Victorian version of Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg

A only have a few objections. Firstly, I’d love to have seen Rossetti’s family because his sister Christina was a poet and his brother William Michael also belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Secondly, no mention of Lizzie’s stillborn child and that was something that deeply saddened her and ultimately led to her death. Thirdly, too many sex scenes which was tasteless and unnecessary in my opinion. It’s obvious that Rossetti wasn’t celibate. Perhaps a hint of intimacy would be more interesting than seeing Rossetti jump on every redhead in London.

All in all, I loved Desperate Romantics – escapism into the bohemian circles of Victorian era London. It’s beyond inspiring, the story itself is enigmatic and interesting, actors were brilliant, thoroughly recommend it! There are six episodes, each is one hour long. If you can spare six hours of your life, I sincerely recommend you to do that.

Elizabeth Siddal – ‘Without Her’

22 Aug

Elizabeth Siddal, beautiful and poetic working class girl, is perhaps best known for being the model for the famous Millais’ painting Ophelia painted in 1852, but it was Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose muse she was until her early death from a laudanum overdose.

‘ (…) 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)

1860. Regina Cordium—Rossetti's Marriage portrait of Siddal1860. Regina Cordium—Rossetti’s Marriage portrait of Siddal

Elizabeth Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti first met in 1849. when she was modelling for Deverell. By 1851. Elizabeth was modelling for Dante as well. In fact, he liked her so much as a model that he started painting her to the exclusion of all other models. They soon became engaged and Elizabeth started painting as well, thought her work was rather rough, harsh, compared to Rossetti’s. In 1855. John Ruskin, famous Victorian art critic, began to support her career and paid her £150 per year in exchange for all the drawings, sketches and paintings she produced. The themes of her paintings matched Pre-Raphaelite compositions; she painted idealized medieval scenes and illustrated Arthurian legends. It was during this period that she began to write poetry, her poems featuring dark themes about lost love, impossibility of finding true love and death. Art critic William Gaunt later commented ”Her verses were as simple and moving as ancient ballads; her drawings were as genuine in their medieval spirit as much more highly finished and competent works of Pre-Raphaelite art.”

In 1852. Dante and Elizabeth moved into Chatham Place and became extremely anti-social, spending their days enjoying each other’s love and expressing their affection for one another. The lovers coined affectionate nicknames, Dante calling Elizabeth his Dove. Rossetti was the one who taught her to paint and write, and he greatly admired her paintings, although they were mediocre, and even dubbed her a ‘creative genious’, blinded by his complete adoration for her. In turn, Elizabeth inspired him to write poetry. His period of great poetry production began when he met her and diminished when she died. His poem ‘A last confession’ shows his love for Elizabeth, even after her death, and in it he describes Elizabeth as having eyes “as of the sea and sky on a grey day.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix, ca 1864-70.1864-70. Beata Beatrix

Previously mentioned art critic John Ruskin admonished Rossetti for not marrying the girl and giving her security. They did eventually get married, on 23rd May 1860. in a small seaside town of Hastings, after Elizabeth returned from her traveling to Nice and Paris due to her health problems. The only witnesses on the wedding were a few strangers whom they had asked in Hastings, no family or friends were invited. Elizabeth was so frail and ill at her wedding that she had to be carried to the church. Rossetti was reluctant to marry her and it wasn’t a secret that he had other women; Elizabeth was affected by the stress from the incidents and she used her frequent and serious illness to blackmail him. Due to her severe depression she had access to laudanum to which she became addicted to. In 1861. she became pregnant and the experience overjoyed her, but not long had passed and the tears replaced the laughter as she suffered a miscarriage. This left her with a post-partum depression from which she had never recovered. In the early months of 1862. she overdosed on laudanum and died in the evening of the 11th February 1862, aged only thirty two. Although her death was ruled as an accident, it is possible that she had committed a suicide.

Two years after her death Rossetti began painting his famous Beata Beatrix. The painting depicts Dante Alighieri’s Beatrice at the moment of her death, and Rossetti modeled Beatrice on his lost love Elizabeth whom he had not forgotten. The symbolism of the painting is peculiar; a red dove, a messenger of love, relates back to Rossetti’s love for Lizzie and the white poppy in her lap represents laudanum which was the cause of her death. In his letter to a friend Rossetti said he intended the painting “not as a representation of the incident of the death of Beatrice, but as an ideal of the subject, symbolized by a trance or sudden spiritual transfiguration.”

1860. Elizabeth Siddal1860. Photograph of Elizabeth Siddal only two year prior to her death

Overcome with grief, Rossetti had a journal with his unpublished poems buried with Elizabeth. He allegedly slit the book into Siddal’s red hair. By 1869, he was addicted to alcohol and drugs, and, after convincing himself he was going blind and he couldn’t paint, he started writing poetry again but he getting more and more obsessed over the poems he had buried with his wife. At Rossetti’s wish, the coffin was exhumed at night to avoid attention and curiosity from the public, and the Rossetti was not present. His agent Charles Augustus Howell who witnessed the exhumation reported that the corpse was remarkably well preserved (probably a result of laudanum) and that the coffin was full of Lizzie’s flowing coppery hair, which was said to have continued growing even after her death. Rossetti published the old poems but the exhumation tormented him for the rest of his life.

Rossetti wrote a poem ‘Without her’ and it’s his reflection on life once love has departed.

”What of her glass without her? The blank grey
There where the pool is blind of the moon’s face.
Her dress without her? The tossed empty space
Of cloud-rack whence the moon has passed away.
Her paths without her? Day’s appointed sway
Usurped by desolate night. Her pillowed place
Without her? Tears, ah me! For love’s good grace,
And cold forgetfulness of night or day.

What of the heart without her? Nay, poor heart,
Of thee what word remains ere speech be still?
A wayfarer by barren ways and chill,
Steep ways and weary, without her thou art,
Where the long cloud, the long wood’s counterpart,
Sheds doubled up darkness up the labouring hill.”

Elizabeth Siddal – Victorian Ophelia

19 Aug

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.

1852. 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.”

1883. Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel1883. Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel

1894. John William Waterhouse's Ophelia1894. John William Waterhouse’s Ophelia

1889. Ophelia - John William Waterhouse1889. Ophelia – John William Waterhouse

1890s Ophelia - Constantin Meunier (date not sure)1890s Ophelia – Constantin Meunier (date not sure)

1900-05. Ophelia by Odilon Redon1900-05. Ophelia by Odilon Redon