Walter Howell Deverell, 'Study for 'Twelfth Night'' circa 1850

Walter Howell Deverell
Study for 'Twelfth Night' circa 1850
Pen and ink on paper
support: 216 x 292 mm
Purchased 1919

Elizabeth Siddal was much admired by the Pre-Raphaelites and was painted by Walter Deverell in Twelfth Night, 1849-50 (see sketch in the Tate Collection above). This was Elizabeth Siddal’s first appearance in a pre-Raphaelite painting, as Viola in disguise on the left of the picture.  She was also painted by Hunt in A Converted British Family (1849-50) and Valentine (1851-2), and then only by Rossetti from 1852.

She was Rossetti’s muse, inspiring his artistic production. He painted her as an enigmatic woman who never looks straight at the spectator unlike the directness of her own self-portrait. They married in 1860, but; ‘The marriage turned into a catastrophe. Siddal’s melancholia and illness prevailed. She was anxious, restless, in part because of Rossetti’s infidelities, heavily addicted to laudanum, to release her from the pain of both disease and distress.’ (Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic by Elisabeth Bronfen, 1992, p.176)

In 1862 she died from an overdose of laudanum; ‘perhaps accidental or perhaps a suicide; in either case the overdose may have been related to post-natal depression after the birth of her stillborn child the previous year.’ (The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites by Elizabeth Prettejohn, Tate, London, 2000, page 74).

Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix was a homage to the memory of his wife and illustrated Dante’s Vita Nuova (1290-4, 31 poems), recording Dante’s unrequited love for Beatrice Portinari and his mourning after her premature death. Rossetti stated that the painting must be seen not as a representation of the death of Beatrice, but as an ideal of the subject. He was ‘possessed by the notion of a dead beloved while his chosen muse was still alive, indeed before he had met her. It seems as if Elizabeth Siddal had to die so that she could fulfil the role he had designed for her in his imagination.’ (G Hough in Bronfen, 1992, p171).

Rossetti’s sister, Christine wrote:

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Siddal in this BBC film.