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Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal | Love stories in art ❤️

Today’s post is dedicated to one of the most passionate and tormented love stories in the history of art: the one between the artists Dante Gabriele Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal. 

The love between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal began in 1850 when he was already an established artist in England and in London in particular where he was born and raised by an Italian family. 

Theirs is a tormented story because Rossetti is a tormented artist. He lives in the ideal of a fantastic Italy from which his parents actually had to flee due to political persecution and he re-proposes this magic in all his works and actions, even through writing and poetry in Italian. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites

In 1848 when he was still a student at the brotherhoodof the Illuminati, Rossetti decides to bring together four friends and founds his own secret brotherhood: they call themselves the Raphaelites. Their intent is to return to the representation of reality and nature as it is observed, according to the dictates of art prior to Raphael. 

In a short time the rumor of the existence of the secret group spreads in England and the names and works of the 7 artists who have become members appear in magazines and newspapers. In these years in 1850 Rossetti meets his Lizzie. The girl becomes his muse, his love and his obsession and later also his wife. 

Ophelia di Millais

When the two met, Elizabeth Siddal worked as a milliner making tailored suits. However, its physical beauty is so particular as to strike several artists, not only Rossetti but also Sir John Everett Millais. She then becomes the model for several works of the brotherhood. And the most famous is certainly Ophelia of Millais. 

The woman protagonist of the work that Elizabeth plays is Shakespeare’sOphelia , who died by drowning after the discovery of her father’s murder by her own lover, Hamlet. In order to complete the picture, the girl had to pose for 4 months immersed in a bathtub with water heated by lamps. 

And the story even tells that one day the lights didn’t work and the girl soaked in the water caught the flu for which her father sued Millais, in order to be able to pay for the doctor’s treatments and receive personal compensation. 

In the work every detail has a specific meaning, especially the nature represented. Poppies symbolize death, violets represent fidelity, and willow, nettle and daisy are associated with love, innocence and pain. 

Rossetti and Siddal love in art | Elisabeth, muse of the Pre-Raphaelites

In posing for the Pre-Raphaelite artists, however, Siddal never gave up his clothes. In fact, coming from a humble family and prostitution being one of the scourges of England in the mid-nineteenth century, the girl as a model does not want to compromise her figure. 

And that’s not the only reason, probably. Elizabeth Siddal in fact besides being a muse was also an artist. And many of her works are related to her lover, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The official engagement between the two took place in 1851, but they did not marry until almost 10 years later in 1860. In fact, despite being in love, Rossetti was ashamed of Lizzie’s origins and did not want to introduce her to the family. His two sisters, who knew her, didn’t appreciate her and Rossetti was afraid that even her parents, especially her father who was a teacher at King’s College London, wouldn’t accept her.

Rossetti and Siddal love in art | Elisabeth, muse and artist

If there was one person instead who was in favor of their union and who it has repeatedly been discovered had pushed Rossetti not to fill the girl with false hopes, this is another protagonist of 19th century English art Sir John Ruskin. 

Elizabeth Siddal was in fact considered a protégé of the artist and critic who is even one of the few to have paid to be able to buy her works. In fact, it is said that Ruskin gave her a salary of £150 every three months to give her the opportunity to work as an artist and not just as a model. 

Even Rossetti appreciates the drawings and poems but does not give them space. He was obsessed with her beauty as a woman but he cheated and deceived her, first of all by constantly moving the wedding date with silly excuses. 

At the same time, Elizabeth’s character was not to be simple. In fact, the woman seems angelic in the works of the Pre-Raphaelites, but in reality she is said to have a strong personality. The only weak point was the addiction to a very common substance in those years and invented in the 18th century by an English doctor: laudian. A mixture of alcohol and opium which perhaps combined with a form of depression often made Elizabeth unhappy. 

Rossetti and Siddal love in art | Elisabeth’s marriage and death

Unfortunately, the marriage did not last long. In fact, in 1861 Elizabeth suffers from a natural abortion and her unhappiness increases. Less than a year after Rossetti returned home he found her dead on his bed. It is recorded as a natural death caused by an incorrect dose of laudian but rumors soon spread that it was suicide. In those years suicide was illegal in England so Rossetti decided to bury her in a few days in order not to encourage suspicions and to leave a group of his love poems in her long red hair. 

Rossetti was shocked by Elizabeth’s death and continued to imagine and paint her for years, even though in the meantime he fell in love with other women and asked some of them to pose for him, such as Jane Morris, wife of the artist William Morris. One of the most famous works of the years following Lizzie’s death starring Jane is Proserpina which I told you about in my video vlog on What to see at Tate Britain.

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

But a true love story of art can only end with a work. For six years after Elizabeth Siddal’s death in 1862 Rossetti worked on one of his greatest masterpieces: Beata Beatrix finished around 1870. 

These were the years in which Rossetti was obsessed not only by Elizabeth’s death but also by his Italian origins and in particular from his own name: Dante. The Beatrice mentioned in the title is in fact Dante Alighieri’s Beatrice and the work seems to be set in Florence. it can be understood from the almost golden background of the work where the Ponte Vecchio is represented. On the right, a male figure seems to wander and has been associated with Dante Alighieri, while on the left, dressed in red, is Love. And then a sundial to indicate the exact time of Beatrice’s death. The symbols are the same as in another work from ten years earlier Dantis Amor but the atmosphere is completely different. 

Finally in the foreground is Elizabeth in the role of Beatrice kidnapped and almost completely absent but beautiful as in the first works of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. 

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