Behind Millais’ Ophelia: the tragic story of Lizzie Siddal

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Ophelia, the famous painting by Sir John Everett Millais exhibited at London’s Tate Britain, is well known to many of us. Who had the possibility to see it in front of his face, has been surely hit by the ancient charm and the desperate romance that transpires from the canvas. The body of Ophelia floats on the water, the newly collected flowers scattered around, the face frozen in her last breath.

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Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2

But not everyone knows the story of the woman portrayed in this picture.

Pale skin, blue eyes and red hair, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal was 23 when she posed for Millais. Coming from a humble family, she works as a milliner in London. Noticed by W.H. Deverell for her appearance and her skills as a painter, she began to attend the pre-Raphaelite scene, where she becomes everyone’s favorite model. Her angelic beauty makes her the ideal female figure to embody the allegories much beloved by those artists. However, this brought some little troubles.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal Reading, 1854

While posing for Millais as Ophelia, with her clothes immerged into the water, the rudimentary lamps which were warming her broke Lizzie passed out from cold. She caught a pneumonia that will cause permanent damages and she started to make use of laudanum, a very potent mixture made from opium, in order to relieve her pain. In the same year, she knows Dante Gabriele Rossetti and will become his muse, pupil and lover. Despite her poor health, she continues to paint under the guidance of the painter and she manages to exhibit a series of oil self-portraits in the pre-Raphaelite environment.

Her works hit the critics and Ruskin becomes her patron, offering to pay her medical care. It seems that Rossetti is annoyed by the appreciations that Lizzie receives, and that, fearing her competition, he does his best to hinder her ascent. He starts relationships with with other models and let almost ten years pass, before he decides to marry her. Rossetti family opposed to the marriage, because of her humble origins.

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Lizzie Siddal, self-portrait, 1854

In addition to the paintings, the young woman writes a series of fifteen poems, showing the suffering and disillusionment given by her relationship with the husband:

Dead Love

Sweet, never weep for what cannot be,
For this God has not given.
If the merest dream of love were true
Then, sweet, we should be in heaven,
And this is only earth, my dear,
Where true love is not given.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1870

After another traumatic event (a pregnancy ended badly), in 1862 Lizzie was found dead in her bed, after having taken a lethal dose of laudanum. Rossetti will continue to portray her for the rest of his life.

Death from suicide, young age, an impossible love. All these characteristics match the model with the character and turn Ophelia‘s lifeless face into the sad omen of the end of a woman with a cursed fate. Her artistic legacy is the proof of the importance she had in the time she lived: a value that is worth discovering again.

Love and Hate

All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

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