Elizabeth Siddal, discovered in a millinery shop, was not content to be merely an artist’s model. She could have been satisfied with her role as the lofty muse to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but instead chose to pursue inspirations and desires of her own. In an era where women were not encouraged to achieve anything other than a good marriage, Lizzie expressed a desire to learn and develop her craft.
True, she did not have the advantages that others in the Pre-Raphaelite circle enjoyed. She could not have entered the Royal Academy at a young age as Millais had, nor could she have sent a simpering and flattering letter to Ford Madox Brown as Rossetti had done, procuring Brown as a mentor (after convincing Brown that the letter was genuine and not an attempt to mock).
I’ve seen Siddal’s work criticized as derivative of Rossetti’s, which has to be natural to a certain extent. She was his pupil, after all. And they worked in such close quarters that it can not be helped that he would influence her work a great deal. I speak, though, as someone who holds a fascination for Elizabeth Siddal. I am neither an art critic or a scholar. But I am convinced that over the years some authors and critics have looked at Lizzie’s work mainly in the shadows of Rossetti’s and fail to judge her work on its own merits.
One of my favorite drawings of Lizzie’s is an illustration of Pippa Passes, a poem by Robert Browning. Pippa is a naive, innocent girl and Browning’s poem follows her as she travels through the tough neighborhoods of Asolo. Lizzie chose to illustrate the passage where Pippa encounters a group of prostitutes. She uses posture and body language to show the difference between the lives of Pippa and the fallen women. Pippa stands erect and tall, which is interesting to me since Lizzie’s own perfect posture has been frequently mentioned. The prostitutes have sort of sly, mocking glances while Pippa’s face is passive. Lucinda Hawksley describes their body language well in Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel:
“Pippa holds herself awkwardly, her spine and head held proudly erect with her right arm brought in close to her body as though protecting herself; the “loose women” are more fluid in their movements, at ease with their bodies and openly curious about her.”
I think that Lizzie’s illustration of Pippa Passes demonstrates that at this time (1854), her work was progressing and improving. I can see so much potential for what Lizzie’s body of work could have become had the circumstances of her life been different. And then we fall into playing the “what if” or the “if only” game, as we do with so many other famous talents struck down before fully making their mark. I don’t want to play that game. Instead, I choose to use it as an inspiration – a method to inspire me to remember that I have this day and these circumstances which far more talented women in the centuries before me could never have enjoyed.