Home Art History Elizabeth Siddal, the Real-Life “Ophelia”

Elizabeth Siddal, the Real-Life “Ophelia”

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The fate of Ophelia, Shakespeare’s unfortunate love interest hamlet One of the most tragic characters in Shakespeare’s legend. She was rejected by Hamlet and, saddened by the death of her father Polonius, she drowned in the river, as reported by Queen Gertrude in Act IV, Scene 7. Aside from stage performance, The image of her watery death is seared into the collective consciousness. This is thanks to the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais.In 1851, during the cultural resurgence of appreciation for Elizabethan drama in Victorian England, Millais created a behind-the-scenes production of Ophelia’s Suicide. I decided to paint the scene on canvas. A little-known fact is that Millais almost (unintentionally) kills her model, Elizabeth Siddal, in an attempt to bring back the long-dead Ophelia.

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Elizabeth Eleanor Sidda Written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
elizabeth eleanor siddal painted with gouache on top of the photo Written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti Wikimedia Commons

She is tall, with striking red hair, and has an elegant demeanor and a melancholy aura. Siddal was “discovered” by milliner and painter Walter Deverell.writes art historian Laurel Bradley. She was quickly adopted by several Pre-Raphaelites as an ideal model for their Romantic works. She eventually married the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but not before the artists in his circle sketched her and painted her as an eternal presence in the Pre-Lafaire .

Siddal had her own aspirations as an artist. Art critic John Ruskin was “impressed by her talent and offered her a scholarship of £150 a year,” Bradley writes. Siddal briefly attended Sheffield School of Art, and by the time of her death in 1862, she had completed a small but “seriously conceived and moderately successful body of work.” However, her work has often been ignored by art historians.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais, c. 1851
Ophelia Via John Everett Millais, c. 1851 Wikimedia Commons

Her own achievements are slight, and her work is appropriately derivative, a pale imitation of her husband’s work.” writes historian Jan Marsh, summarizing the popular interpretation of Siddal’s art and personality. “Thus, she is a delicate Cinderella, discovered by a prince and raised from obscurity to be a Pre-Raphaelite princess.”

But Bradley thinks it might be better to understand Siddal not as a helpless model or a “delicate Cinderella,” but as a “delicate Cinderella.”

A young woman who tried to become an artist despite great obstacles? As a 19th century woman who was not born an artist and had no money for training, Siddal faced considerable hardship.

Aspiring to become an artist in his own right, Siddal may have seen modeling as the best entry point into the increasingly successful world of the Pre-Raphaelites. So when Millet posed in a bathtub full of water in a heavy antique wedding dress at her studio at 7 Gower Street in London, she didn’t complain.

Float on my back. Raise your hands, palms facing up. I part my lips as if singing a sad farewell song. These were his instructions, and she went accordingly to T. Millet. Millet placed an oil lamp and candle under her bathtub to warm the water for her. But he had more artistic sense than common sense. It was London. It was winter. The water was always cold. In one catastrophic event, the lamp and candle go out completely, nearly ending Siddal’s life and the candle’s life.

Siddal did not complain even when the water became extremely cold. She had too much to lose, both personally and financially. Millet was so absorbed in his work that she did not realize that she was suffering because of his art. By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late. That day, Siddal became seriously ill and she contracted pneumonia. Her impoverished family was furious and, under her threat of legal action, forced him to pay for her expensive medical bills and prescriptions for opium tincture. This bout of illness marked the beginning of Siddal’s complete dependence on opioids, and she eventually overdosed in 1862.

Millet’s painting of Siddal as Ophelia hangs in London’s Tate Gallery today. There, viewers can see for themselves the immortal martyrdom of a working-class English woman who was transformed into a version of the world’s most famous Ophelia. Visitors are free to decide whether this masterpiece is worth sacrificing the model’s health.

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