Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal
A study under
this title has recently appeared in The Burlington Magazine
(May issue) which, because of its special interest, deserves more
than a brief mention in our Revue des Revues.
Having reproduced five unpublished drawings by Rossetti, which are in the possession of Mr Harold Hartley, The Burlington Magazine asked the famous artist's brother, Mr W. M. Rossetti, to add an accompanying commentary to them. He "took advantage of the occasion, he told us, to give a short monograph on a woman who played such an important role in his brother's life", who was intimately involved with the Pre-Raphaelite movement and who besides, in her own right, deserves to be equally honoured for the exquisite quality of a sensibility which was unfolded daily through love and suffering.
Elizabeth Siddal was the daughter of a Sheffield cutler. She was born in 1834. Rossetti in 1828. So she was six years younger than him. Her family had moved to London to set up in business: quite naturally she received a perfectly ordinary education there, before going on to apprentice to a milliner. It was said later that her real malady was merely that of a body over-worked by an over-active mind, such as M. Bouroux called "the body bent beneath the weight of the mind". In reality the germ of her consumptive illness was already present in her even then, an illness which would make the years of her love so painful and make her dying years so long.
At that time she was a ravishing young girl with blue-green eyes; devoid of any culture, she had only read Tennyson because one day by chance she had discovered some of his poetry printed on the paper that wrapped some butter she was bringing back to the house. Even though, later, she was to become, under Rossetti's influence, the most "unconventional" of women, she was then extremely "distant", whose reserved air of extreme nobility would alienate all those who were tempted to approach her. "She could have been born a countess" Ruskin's father said later when he saw her for the first time. She spoke little, in an intermittent fashion, with some amusing traits, she never talked about religion, and yet her poetry could make one believe that her interior life was imprinted with great religiosity. It was in 1848 that Hunt, Millais and Rossetti formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the P.R.B., whose history was related with much charm and a little severity by M. de Sizeranne in his Peinture anglaise contemporaine. One of the principles of the new school was that a painter, if he wanted to deal with an imaginary or poetic subject, must not use the usual studio models, but should seek out from real life creatures who, by their refinement of character or appearance, would seem to possess a natural affinity with the imaginary characters to be depicted. So, Walter Howell Deverell, a future young painter who was not a member of the P.R.B. but was closely linked with them, especially Rossetti, having gone to accompany his mother to a milliner's and spotted a young girl, through the open door of a ground-floor room, who was busy sewing, knew that he had found the perfect model he needed for Viola (at the time he was working on a painting from Shakespeare). The young girl, needless to say, was Elizabeth Siddal. Deverell managed to obtain her mother's permission for her to pose for him, and so she posed as Viola for his large painting and also for a small study sent to the journal The Germ.
Rossetti posed alongside her for the oil painting. They started to become acquainted and Rossetti asked her to pose for a small watercolour Rossovestita (1850). Rossetti knew that she was not only Deverell's ideal Viola, but she could also be his real Beatrice and realize many other dreams from his poetic imagination. It was at this moment that she began to pose for him, something she never stopped doing. She also posed for Hunt however, notably for his large painting The Christian Missionaries persecuted by Druids (1850) and for Millais' Ophelia. Sadly we cannot follow the very detailed description that Mr W. M. Rossetti has given us of the life which began in that studio at the time, where Elizabeth Siddal sometimes posed, sometimes drew on her own account. Nor does space permit us to quote the eloquent accounts that Swinburne has left us about the infinite nobility and untarnished purity of Elizabeth's character.
One part of the
study of Mr Rossetti which appeared to be of even more interest,
but which we must pass over in silence, is the august and
charming relationship between the engaged couple and Ruskin. We
know that Ruskin, as a fierce supporter of the P.R.B. in direct
opposition to the opinion of the English public, had, for a
considerable price relative to the youth and obscurity of this
new young painter, bought in advance everything that Rossetti
produced. Only great artists are able to be seen as such
intelligent and above all such generous "amateurs", and
here Ruskin provides a decisive and charming proof of this. Of
course Rossetti's most ardent desire was that his protector, his
master, his friend, this prodigious theoretician of the new
school, should become acquainted with Elizabeth Siddal. And, as
he thought her so brilliantly gifted, it was with confident
excitement that he showed Ruskin his girl-friend's drawings.
Ruskin proved to be no less enchanted by the drawings than with the young woman herself. He settled on the same "agreement", if one can use such an expression for an act dictated purely by an admiration of mind and generosity of heart, with her as he had with Rossetti. Later on, when she and Rossetti were living further away from him, Ruskin, in exquisite words of reproach, asked Lizzie to "slip on a dress" and that both of them come to see him. Because he had more confidence in Lizzie's fidelity than in Dante Gabriel's on account of the profound kiss she had given him on the day of her marriage (the letter to which I am alluding was, as a matter of fact, subsequent to the two artists' marriage). Mr Rossetti related many of the interesting episodes in the life of Elizabeth Siddal before the marriage took place, her relations with Tennyson's household etc. As for the marriage, postponed indefinitely, it was Elizabeth's precarious, if not to say already hopeless, state of health that decided the celebration. Then the life of suffering, which for several years before had been her lot, began once more. And Rossetti endured martyrdom dreaming of her genius crippled by illness, when so many others who enjoy robust health have no time for anything noble. And then the infinite sweetness, the sublime resignation of the inspired martyr made the spectacle of her suffering even more terrible. There is no doubt that Rossetti suffered cruelly. Yet may we not be permitted to observe that the tone of some of his letters, however painful they may be, is nevertheless rather peculiar? Finally the day of deliverance arrived, deliverance induced by nature, and not brought about voluntarily as has been said, by the bottle of laudanum that according to legend had been found beside Elizabeth's bed.
As for the interior drama that followed, symbolizing for ever in the most striking way the pre-eminence (in a certain sense perhaps - too obscure to explain here - justifiable) of self respect over love in a man of letters, it is well known, and Mr Rossetti did not dream of concealing it. At the very least we might say that he did not try hard enough to excuse it or to explain it. Rossetti, in the excess of grief at the death of Elizabeth, believing in good faith that life for him was now over, had interred beside her a small box containing all of his poems whose publication had just been announced. Then came the forgetfulness of human love, or at least the alleviation of grief. And, even more so, the desire for immortal love gained in strength. We may think it obtuse to speak only of a desire for glory. All the same it was only after seven years filled with painful struggles from which the conclusion, whatever we think about it, shows no nobility, even if, in a certain sense, it is not without grandeur, Rossetti had the grave reopened, the small box disinterred and took back his poems. And yet Elizabeth had been loved tenderly, loved by the man and by the artist, which is to be loved twice, because painters have a tenderness for the creature that suddenly realizes for them, in an exquisite and living form, a long cherished dream, and lavish upon her a gaze that is more thoughtful, more intuitive and, to put it plainly, more charged with love than is possible for other men. "I think Elizabeth must be very happy", wrote Ruskin to Rossetti, "to see that you never draw as marvellously, with such perfection and tenderness, as when you are drawing her. It seems as if you are able to cure your worst flaws when you are working after her..." Here Ruskin uses the same words as a person used in whom I saw the finest perception of the feelings of love, when she told me that Mme Michelet (then Mlle Mialaret) must have felt her greatest joy on the day when, during his peroration at Michelet's finest lecture at the Collège de France, she recognized, here applied to the diverse nations of Europe, but still intact in its form, a phrase with which she had begun the first love letter that she ever wrote to him... And we too, we like to think that in the same way Elizabeth Siddal, for whom life must have been inexorable, so unhappy and so brief, was at least "very happy".
First published in La Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, 14 November 1903.
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