In 1852, John Everett Millais finished a painting that would come to define a movement he had co-founded. ‘Ophelia’ was a modern masterpiece in Victorian England, and while not always critically acclaimed in its day, the painting went on to define a generation of artists.
‘Ophelia’ sealed Millais’ fate as a leading light within the Pre-Raphaelite circle, however this painting also cemented the face of one 19-year-old model, Elizabeth Siddal, into the minds of the public forever, making her one of the most recognizable faces of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
In a move to restore meaning to art, three young men, all of whom had been taught in the Royal Acadamy, decided to go against the academic thinking of their contemporaries. These artists were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holland Hunt and of course, John Everett Millais, all of whom were just around 20 at the time.
They all had a similar goal, unified interest in literature and poetry, and shared a dissatisfied opinion on the teaching of the Royal Acadamy.
This aim was to reverse the sterile, academic treatment they had all been told to develop at the Acadamy: one of form, colour, composition and academic tradition embodied in Raphael’s highly regarded Renaissance work. So, in 1848, the group set up an alternative to this academic mode of thinking about art, with all their experiences baring questions of art and literature.
Working as a team, they sought to gain inspiration from each other as peers, and resolved to paint moral and religious subjects, as well as drawing the main bulk of their thematic work from the likes of Shakespeare and nature, but also modern poets such as Tennyson and Keats, who was also an avid supporter of the group.
While much of their early attempts are handfuls of brightly coloured and minutely detailed pictures, depicting unconventional subjects culled from the Bible or medieval poetry, and imitating both the style and form of 14th and 15th century art, each picture bore the secret mark of pictorial reform- the initials ‘PRB’.
However, this unified take on shared subjects and morals could only last so long, and with the introduction of art critic John Ruskin, the Brotherhood turned into a form of self-gain and power in the harsh realities of the Victorian art scene, only enhanced by the sudden need for models in their paintings, taking the rivalries between the key players even further as they competed not only professionally, but also personally within their private relationships.
While the Brotherhood began with pure intentions to restore a certain faith in art, one of the more dominating forces of the group, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, could be regarded as one of the main causes of the friction that began to occur between the artists.
His relationship with model Lizzie Siddal not only had a dramatic impact on his artwork, but it also affected the lives of the other members of the Brotherhood too. Born in London on the 25th July 1829, at the family home in Charles Street, Hatton Garden, Lizzie Siddal’s life was changed completely when she was discovered by Walter Deverell, a friend of the Brotherhood, while working in the back room of a millinery shop near Leicester Square.
Having been brought up in a largely lower-middle class family (her father always believed their heritage to be of upper-class business people), Lizzie was one of eight siblings. While they were from a poor background, Lizzie’s parents strove to make sure she had the manners of a genteel upbringing. Although educated, presumably by her mother, most of the Siddal children worked from a young age to support the family.
Lizzie and her sister Lydia, who she was particularly close to, both worked for a Mrs Mary Tozer, who employed girls in her hat shop to not only make the products, but to model them as well. While working here, Lizzies striking looks caught the attention of Deverell, and in 1849 he persuaded Lizzie to model for Viola in his depiction of Twelfth Night. Deverell wanted his Viola to have red hair, something Lizzie was famous for.
Her contemporizes recalled that her “eyes were a kind of luminous golden-brown agate-colour, slender, elegant figure, tall for those days, beautiful deep-red hair that fell in soft heavy wings … She did not talk happily, (was) excited and melancholy, though with much humor and tenderness.
She possessed a “strange and mysterious” look which made her particularly appealing as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, as she came to reflect the beauty they saw in Medieval art and poetry, while the use of Lizzie’s red hair also became a very radical choice for the artists due to its negative connotations in Victorian society at the time.
Although, when Rosetti’s brother William reviewed Deverell’s painting using Lizzie for Viola, he saw her looks as working against the painting, as he saw her as “not physically beautiful enough”, however he would become contradictory in his view as William would go on to call Lizzie “a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and greatness; tall, finely formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features.”
However, this was her first modelling job and became the start of a new life for Lizzie, who was just twenty at the time. It was through Deverell that she met Rosetti and importantly Millais, who is regarded to have painted the most accurate portrayal of Lizzie’s appearance in ‘Ophelia’.
John Everett Millais was the youngest of the main Pre-Raphaelites, however his work became extremely well regarded, mainly due to art critic John Ruskin, who was central to many of the artist’s work as a patron and mentor. Ruskin also became a major supporter in Lizzie’s personal artwork which she began working on during when she first met Rosetti, as he would go on to be her teacher as well as her lover.
For Millais, the relationship between the young artist and the established critic began when Ruskin wrote two letters to The Times defending the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1851. Millais wrote to thank Ruskin, and Ruskin discovered a young artist he thought worthy of molding.
Yet despite this established bond, when Millais completed ‘Ophelia’ in 1852, Ruskin was among those who were critical of the painting. However, ‘Ophelia’ became Millais most acclaimed work, despite its poor reception at the time, and today it is the most popular painting in Tate Britain.
‘Ophelia’ was however, at the time, much more successful that Millais earlier painting ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ (1850) and had already been purchased by the time it was exhibited at the Royal Academy.