Les Femmes de la Décadence: The Destruction of the Muse for Art’s Sake: Idealising and Immortalising Lizzie Siddal

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall remains one of the most emblematic women of the Pre-Raphaelite Art Movement. Coming from a relatively modest household, Lizzie, through the brushstrokes of the brotherhood, in one way or another abandoned her own body and life in order to embody fictional women of great literary and cultural value. She entered a dreamworld where she could be anyone, a rich imaginative sphere with no boundaries that would materialise in the form of hundreds of everlasting sketches, drawings and paintings. These representations of her would become immortal mirror-images and her health, in real life, would decline drastically.

A face of fragile beauty that could be elevated towards the highest mythological aesthetic and offered a never-ending projection space for countless female personae, Lizzie dove into the world of art and never came up for air anymore. There wasn’t a physical agony that the painters couldn’t overrun with paint and superimposed identities. She would suffer great pains to become alive in the minds of these men, to be gazed upon, recreated and idealised, cherished as an immense well of enrapturing and fascinating beauty, finding herself in their visions of her, the multiple layers of women, of colour, of sophistication, of rich inner lives and images, to immortalise herself by devoting every fibre of her being to the artificial reproductions of her, walking in the shoes of other non-existent women.

As she loses herself, the painters find her and mould her and she becomes enamoured with the dictated female forms and characters, obsessed with their idolisation of her, shoving herself into the background of real life and circumstances, dullness, mediocrity, boredom, troubles, deteriorating health and death lurking around the frames of the paintings. It seems as if every brushstroke demands a piece of her, extracts a little bit of life and self-love from her, destroys her and re-establishes her as someone else onto a medium that, without her sacrifice, would be mute and dead. She wanted to be remembered as the sum of women embodied by her, the lives she nurtured in her heart and soul, the otherworldly personae adored by artistic men, everything she never or always was.

She put her life and fate into the insatiable hands of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her well-being was completely tied to her being seen and painted. Becoming immortal by letting go of life, the quintessence absorbed by canvasses, giving life to art and death to the ephemeral body. Dante became blind to the true Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, dedicating his craft and attention to deviations and deconstructions of her, to alter egos of her formed by him, overwhelmed by the imaginary women begging to come to life through her at the cost of her own life. So consumed by the lives he projects upon her that he cannot grasp her impending decease. A woman who is so full of life and vibrant in his paintings cannot die, a world has come into being, a force, where death has no power.

When she heard the sound of her own voice and the agency of her own creative hands, the pact had already been made, life leaking out of her, depression, drugs and death invading her body, it was too late to take back what had been given and make it hers, claiming ownership of herself.


Photograph of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall

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