By Brenda Roger
Last Friday was a milestone in my career at the Frick Art and Historical Center. I was unleashed on the adult public. It was my first attempt at a “Friday Feature”, which is a fifteen-minute gallery talk on a specific subject or painting in the current exhibit. My topic, Elizabeth Siddal, was particularly juicy.
“Stunner” was Pre-Raphaelite slang for a beautiful woman. Much to the credit of the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), they didn’t always find the accepted standard of beauty in Victorian England all that stunning. The models they chose frequently had some combination of red hair, compromised reputations, heavy eyebrows or Herculean physiques. The most famous stunner, Lizzie Siddal, only had the red hair, until the prince of the PRB, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, compromised her reputation.
Siddal and Rossetti had a relationship that was both poison and nourishment. Rossetti said that when he first saw her he felt his destiny was defined. Apparently, that wasn’t a strong enough feeling for him to marry her for almost a decade.
Rossetti was not exactly a catch in 1849 when he met Siddal. He had an overbearing Italian mother and an income that was irregular at best. He was the kind of man who would borrow money from you without paying it back and steal your wife, but whose charisma and talent were so powerful that you found yourself in a constant state of acceptance and forgiveness.
The pair spent almost all of their time together in the first few years of their relationship. Lizzie started out as a model, but progressed quickly to being Rossetti’s pupil. The pair spent days of un-chaperoned time together under the guise of student and pupil. Before agreeing to pose exclusively for Rossetti, Siddal posed for what is perhaps the most famous Pre-Raphaelite painting, Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Over time she became unmarriageable by anyone other than Rossetti because she was a well know artist’s model (Ophelia was a famous painting in her lifetime) and was widely believed to be Rossetti’s mistress.
Lizzie Siddal also suffered from a mystery illness that was most likely a combination of depression and laudanum addiction. It is difficult to determine which came first. However, the laudanum addiction would eventually cause her demise. She intentionally took an over-dose of the opium syrup in 1862. She was 32, finally married to Rossetti, selling and exhibiting paintings and pregnant.
All the years of push and pull and the resulting turmoil had done their damage. The relationship defined and destroyed them both. Each did their best work and lived their fullest lives when they were together. However, each was the other’s weakness and undoing.
The research for my first gallery talk got me thinking about writing a relationship like that. How can the depth of such a relationship make it onto paper? What did these two people say to each other when no one was listening? What a great relationship and setting for a thriller. Hmm.