Posted by: simmo22hmtholyokeedu | November 29, 2018

Elizabeth Siddal: Muse and Martyr of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

If you have ever seen a Pre-Raphaelite painting, there’s a good chance you have encountered the face of Elizabeth Siddal. She is the model for John Everett Millais’s Ophelia and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix. She was married to Rossetti, served as his “”””muse””””,  and was a central figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Though she is best remembered for her striking features which adorn the aforementioned paintings, she was also a prolific poet herself. Sadly, the poetry she is most associated with was that of her husband, which was buried with her when she died.

Beata Beatrix (1864-70), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tate Gallery

Elizabeth Siddal was born to an upper middle class family in 1829 in London. Though she had no formal education, she nonetheless became a pivotal figure in the intellectual circle of Millais, Rossetti, and John William Waterhouse.

Ophelia (1851), John Everett Millais, Tate Gallery

I first encountered Siddal as the sitter for Millais’s Ophelia. In this painting, Siddal as Ophelia drifts along a river, captured right at the moment when her clothes are still helping her stay afloat before they become waterlogged and drag her below the surface. I was always disturbed by the depiction of Ophelia, in Shakespeare and later by Millais, as a pretty girl, even as she is about to die. In fact, Siddal was in danger of actually dying during the painting of this image. To pose as Ophelia, she lay floating in a bathtub as Millais painstakingly copied her likeness. The candles underneath the tub, which kept the water marginally warm, eventually blew out, leaving Siddal laying in rapidly cooling water in the middle of a London winter. She later caught pneumonia as a result of the ordeal. Both the painting and this anecdote lead me to the conception of this woman as a fragile, tragic figure.

While she was often painted, mostly by Rossetti, as varying folkloric and religious figures (Joan of Arc, Lady of Shalott, etc.), she ended up becoming a mythic figure in her own right. After her tragic death by suicide, her husband Rossetti was so distraught that he ordered all his poems be buried with her. Later, he realized this wasn’t such a great idea, and exhumed her coffin to retrieve his poetry. The legend goes that upon opening the coffin, her hair appeared to have grown after her death, filling the box with her distinctive red hair. Therefore, in death she takes on the kind of magical qualities associated with the women for whom she had served as a model.

What neither of these stories mention, however, is Elizabeth Siddal’s own artistic practice. By mythologizing her, and making her the victim of these two great artists, history has erased her personhood and agency. I highly recommend reading some of her poetry. They’re really lovely and brief, and help us to understand this woman as she was outside of the context of Millais and Rossetti: Alive, on dry land, and a woman who created her own works of art.



Bradley, Laurel. “Elizabeth Siddal: Drawn into the Pre-Raphaelite Circle.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1992, pp. 137–187. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Hassett, Constance W. “Elizabeth Siddal’s Poetry: A Problem and Some Suggestions.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 35, no. 4, 1997, pp. 443–470. JSTOR, JSTOR,

“Siddal, Elizabeth Eleanor (1829–1862), Painter | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.” (1892–1973), Writer and Philologist | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 9 Nov. 2017,




  1. Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shallot” has always been one of my favorite paintings, and I never knew it was based on a real woman! It seems so strange to me that not only did several different artists use this woman’s image to represent fictional characters, but that these characters were so often women on the brink of death. I mentioned something similar on a post about the painting in the MHC Art Museum of Joseph interpreting dreams, but the paintings themselves do not provide the context of these well-known stories. What we see as viewers is not immediately Ophelia or the Lady of Shallot, but is instead the same woman reproduced as she is dying as different characters. These stories, too, focus upon the gaze of the male: Ophelia, the Lady of Shallot, and Beata Beatrix are all representative of unrequited love in fiction. Only in the story of Beatrix is it the man who is in love – the Tate analysis of Rossetti’s painting describes it as a parallel “between the Italian poet Dante’s despair at the death of his beloved Beatrice” and Rossetti’s own grief after Siddal’s suicide. Notice that in all three of these example stories, it is the woman who becomes the victim of the unrequited love, and it is her despair, uncontextualized, that is depicted for viewers.

    Also I read some of Siddal’s poetry. Highly recommend!

  2. Upon seeing your analysis of Elizabeth Siddal’s position as a muse and tragic figure, I was struck by how similar this portrait of Ophelia is to the actress who plays Ophelia in a recent movie adaptation, which is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet based on Ophelia’s perspective. Interestingly enough, Ophelia’s character in the film bears a striking resemblance to Elizabeth Siddal. More specifically, in that they both are depicted with arresting red hair. I feel that this similarity is no coincidence, and relates to our earlier discussions on pictorial depictions of people representing the ‘real’, or how someone’s representation in visual form can confine people’s perception of them.

    It is incredibly ironic how Siddal, much like Ophelia, is mythologized within the imagination of people based on her representation in Millais’ work as such an iconic character. I have yet to see this film, but I believe that this adaption works to nuance Ophelia’s life before her tragic spiral and demise. Perhaps this use of Siddal’s likeness will push the movie audiences who are familiar with this painting to view Siddal in her dimensionality rather than strictly as an enduring visual representation of Ophelia. Nevertheless, their similarities are uncanny, and it is interesting to see how characters who are not explicitly described in their appearance within an original work take on a life of their own through the years, as each iteration is uniquely perceived and interpreted, or in this case, take on a rather inspired form.

    I’ve attached a link containing an image of Daisy Ridley, the actress who plays Ophelia, in costume. The review does not seem promising so I’ll probably hold off on seeing the movie!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: