John Everett Millais painting of Ophelia showing Siddal as model, laying in water surrounded by flowers.
Detail from Ophelia by John Everett Millais, c. 1851. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Katherine Duffy is a student on the MA Nineteenth Century Studies programme with a passion for the Pre-Raphaelites. She is using her research skills to re-examine the work of Pre-Raphaelite painter and muse Elizabeth Siddall.

The name Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862) brings to mind a plethora of paintings by artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais where she is the subject. But what of Siddal as an artist?

During her life Siddal produced many paintings, sketches, and poems which have been overshadowed by the works of her husband Rossetti. In recent years, though, attention is turning to focus on Siddal herself. I wish to continue this trend and consider Elizabeth Siddal through her own words and pictures, as opposed to other’s imaginings of her.

The Viewer and the Viewed: Rossetti and Siddal

Acts of viewing and being viewed are recurring tropes in Pre-Raphaelite art. Acts of viewing have also been at the forefront of critical discussion of Pre-Raphaelite legacies, from the recurring motif of the mirror and its association with vanity, to the unsettling dynamics of the male gaze on Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunners.’

By exploring the main differences between the works of Siddal and Rossetti, we can see the changing ways that she herself wished to be perceived.

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddall by D G Rossetti.  Siddal sits in a window with her arm over the back of the chair, her eyes downcast.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ’Elizabeth Siddal Seated at the Window’. Image: Wikimedia commons

In Rossetti’s early sketches ‘Elizabeth Siddal Seated at the Window’ (1854) and his ‘Beata Beatrix’ we see Siddal as the stationary muse.

Rossetti frames Siddal as the domestic figure, metaphorically and literally in the window to be looked at. She herself looks inward to the domestic space of the room, instead of outside through the window into the world. The woman here is framed so close to the window, so close to the outside world, yet remains enclosed domestically.

The window could act as a reflective surface through which Siddal could view herself, yet Rossetti’s positioning of Siddal refuses her viewing of her own reflection. Instead it turns her into the viewed and not the viewer.

In ‘Beata Beatrix’, Rossetti again places Siddal as the perceived (rather than the perceiver), the sitter, and most importantly, the muse. Painted after her tragic death in 1862, ‘Beata Beatrix’ acts as Rossetti’s memorial to his late wife, specifically to his perception of her beauty.

Rossetti painting of Siddall with eyes closed. Her red hair around her shoulders.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ’Beata Beatrix’, (1864-70) in Tate Britain. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

When we look at this painting we cannot help but be made complicit in complicated acts of viewing. Siddal is stationary, her head tilted upwards, and her eyes closed. She attempts no movement, not even to open her eyes and look back at us. Her ability to view herself – or others for that matter – is removed. Instead we, like Rossetti, are given full liberty to consume the image of Siddal’s beauty.

Siddal’s allure works as what Laura Bradley deems ‘an emblem of poetic inspiration’ that transcends her death, leaving her legacy for Rossetti as the heavenly muse.[1]

In Her Own Eyes

Self portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, staring straight at the viewer. Her hair is tied up in restrained mid-Victorian style.
Elizabeth Siddal, ’Self Portrait’. Image: Wikimedia Commons

I argue that Siddal’s own depiction of herself becomes a rebellious act of viewing rather than being viewed.

Siddal’s Self Portrait (1853-54), whilst it is obviously still meant to be looked at as an artwork for display, has a more direct and daring expression. She poses a challenge rather than passively averting her gaze. No longer does she wear the tranquil and meditative visage Rossetti bestows upon her, but adopts a more forceful and challenging expression, scrutinising us instead of being passively subjected to scrutiny.

Her famous red hair remains yet does not take up the space on the canvas the way Rossetti’s depictions of her usually do. Instead, it is her direct stare into the eyes of her audience that grab our attention, allowing her to view us.

Siddal’s Medieval Mirror

Sketch by Siddal of the Lady of Shallott, showing a woman indoors at a loom, weaving. She is turned in her seat, looking out of an open window. On the wall is a cracked mirror reflecting an approaching knight.
Elizabeth Siddal, ’The Lady of the Shallot’ (1853). Image: Wikimedia

Looking finally at Siddal’s sketch ‘The Lady of Shallot’ (1853), we see the female figure reframed in the domestic sphere, contrasting Rossetti’s 1854 sketch. The sketch depicts a scene from the story of Elaine Astolat and her doomed love for Lancelot. Siddal appears to subvert the tragedy, illustrating Elaine busy at work instead of her famous death due to her unrequited love.[2] Siddal chooses to focus on the woman as artist and viewer, depicting Elaine with agency instead of the motionless and tragic figure the Pre-Raphaelites tended to depict.

We see the seated figure not framed by the window as in Rossetti’s sketch, but instead looking out of it. She has become an active viewer. Siddal’s carves a space for herself and her own subjectivity within the Medievalism that was such a popular subject in the works of Rossetti, Millais and others.

Her sketch highlights what Deborah Cherry calls the ‘gendered social roles that differentiated between the outdoor world of men and the interior world of women’.[3] Yet Siddal frames the woman as the active agent within the domestic sphere, and one who is also actively consuming the sight of the exterior male world.

Detail of knight
Knight detail.

Siddal also playfully repositions the knight in the story as the figure to be viewed. Framing the knight in the mirror, Siddal positions both us and her female figure as the viewers. If mirrors are also commonly associated with female vanity in Pre-Raphaelite painting, then it perhaps even implies a sense of vanity and ego that has shifted to the knight rather than the female subject. Deliberately facing away from the mirror and towards the outside world, the muse rejects any accusation of vanity in preference for the sight of the outer world — a perspective she might herself reproduce in the tapestry she weaves.

In this piece the seated figure of the muse is not stationary. Instead Siddal places the figures’ hands busy with work on the tapestry — an art form placed in control of the woman here. The weaving of the tapestry not only places the sketch as a by product of Siddal’s interest in Medievalism but also demonstrates the movement and skill of the female figure.

Janetta Rebold Benton suggests that tapestries along with other Medieval art forms were ‘[t]he most intricately woven designs […] exquisitely executed with painstaking craftsmanship’.[4] The story of the tapestry is created by the female figure, the agency given to the woman artist, mirroring Siddal’s search for agency within her own art. Siddal frames the female figure as the artist viewing, instead of the muse waiting to be viewed.

You can find out more about the MA in Nineteenth Century Studies here.

[1] Janetta Rebold Benton, Materials, Methods and Masterpieces of Medieval Art (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009), p. xix.

[2] Referring to Thomas Mallory, Le Morte D’Arthur (London: Penguin, 2004) for this tale of Elaine. 

[3] Deborah Cherry, ‘Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites, ed. By Elizabeth Prette John (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[4] Laura Bradley, ‘Elizabeth Siddal: Drawn into the Pre-Raphaelite Circle’, in Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 18, 2 (1992), p. 137.

One response to “Elizabeth Siddal: Reception and Reflection”

  1. […] Katherine Duffy is a student on the MA Nineteenth Century Studies programme at Edge Hill University who has dedicated her studies to the Pre-Raphaelite artists that defined nineteenth century art. Her interests in the Pre-Raphaelites stemmed from her upbringing in Liverpool, home of the Walker Art Gallery and many Pre-Raphaelite paintings. She has previously published a blog on the importance of Elizabeth Siddal within the Pre-Raphaelite movement, titled ‘Elizabeth Siddal: Reception and Reflection’ ( […]