The ultimate Pre-Raphaelite icon (described as a Pre-Raphaelite supermodel), Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal is famous for her starring role in many of the movement’s paintings, particularly the work of her lover and husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as her own artwork and poetry.
But her icon status wasn’t immediate, as she wasn’t considered a typical Victorian beauty; at the time, red hair wasn’t seen as desirable and was even considered an ill omen by some. Apparently, a boy in a small town once asked Siddal whether there were elephants where she came from, associating her red hair with exotic destinations.17 Her origins were not grand: She was working in a shop in Holborn in London when she was discovered by painter William Deverell, who chose her to model for his painting Twelfth Night because of her red hair and thin figure. On meeting her, William Holman Hunt described her as a stupendously beautiful creature . . . like a queen, magnificently tall, with a lovely figure, a stately neck, and a face of the most delicate and finished modelling.18
It’s as Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1852) that most people think of her a tragic, pale-faced heroine, floating in the river. Part of the permanent collection at Tate Britain, Ophelia is the gallery’s most popular postcard, and the story of the sitting is legendary. Millais purchased a vintage wedding dress for Siddal to wear and submerged her in a bathtub to recreate the pose of the drowned Ophelia. During one sitting, the lamps heating the water went out without Millais noticing Siddal didn’t mention it and let the artist continue, which left her with a severe cold. Millais eventually paid her doctor’s bills after her father threatened to sue him,19 and whether coincidental or not, after this point, Siddal’s poor health became chronic. She was diagnosed with consumption and scoliosis, though many now suggest the real reasons for her poor health were undiagnosed. Whatever the case, she soon became addicted to the laudanum she took to ease the pain, which further contributed to the deterioration of her health.
Rather than detracting from her perceived beauty, Siddal’s illness seemed to actually increase it in keeping with the Romantic association of ill health with genius and beauty. In 1853, Rossetti wrote, Lizzy . . . is looking lovelier than ever, but is very weak,20 and the following year, painter Ford Madox Brown wrote, saw Miss Siddal looking thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever, a real artist, a woman without parallel for many a long year.21 In addition to the laudanum, Siddal was apparently a devoted swallower of Fowler’s Solution, a so-called complexion improver made from dilute arsenic, which may have poisoned her (according to Bill Bryson’s 2010 secret, At Home).
This Romantic cult of invalidism was already in operation in the early nineteenth century. The Napoleonic Wars had limited supplies of cosmetics and put a general damper on the years, helping to create masses of ill young women. This was still in full swing just a decade before Siddal began modeling. Young women re-created the consumptive look by drinking vinegar to achieve pale skin and staying up late reading to achieve dark circles around their eyes, and they got the glazed look by dropping belladonna in their eyes.22 Drinking large amounts of vinegar was used as a method to keeping one’s weight down,23 with tips on drinking vinegar appearing regularly in publications throughout the nineteenth century.
Siddal’s own work was often medieval or mythological and her iconic status is also based around mythological events. She died in 1862 by accident or by her own intent after drinking half a bottle of laudanum. There’s been speculation that Rossetti burned her suicide note; he did bury his poems with her, but (regretting this gesture) he exhumed the coffin seven years later to retrieve them, after which point another myth was born that Siddal’s famous hair had continued growing until it filled the entire coffin.24
Humans have defined, protected, and emphasized their eyes with black lines for thousands of years.
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