Dante Gabriel Rossetti
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Elizabeth Siddal Playing the Cythern, 1852
20.0 x 23.0 cm
John Bryson Bequest, 1977

One flame-winged brought a white-winged harp-player
Even where my lady and I lay all alone;
Saying: "Behold, this minstrel is unknown;
Bid him depart, for I am minstrel here:
Only my strains are to Love's dear ones dear."
Then said I: "Through thine hautboy's rapturous tone
Unto my lady still this harp makes moan,
And still she deems the cadence deep and clear."

 Then said my lady: "Thou are Passion of Love,
And this Love's Worship: both he plights to me.
Thy mastering music walks the sunlit sea:
But where wan water trembles in the grove
And the wan moon is all the light thereof,
This harp still makes my name its voluntary."

 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Passion and Worship” 1869

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) met Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862) in 1849. Legend has it that Rossetti’s friend Walter Deverell was working on a painting of a scene from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and was in desperate need of a red-haired female model who satisfied his notion of classic, Shakespearean beauty. Deverell accompanied his mother to a milliner’s shop off of Leicester Square in London and spotted Elizabeth (or Lizzie, as she was called) working in a back room. Lizzie agreed to pose for the painting and was subsequently introduced to Rossetti, who fell madly and instantly in love with her. Although Lizzie at first modeled for nearly all of the Pre-Raphaelites—as Rossetti and his comrades called themselves due to their interest in early Renaissance Italian painting—she soon sat exclusively for Rossetti. Over the next decade, Rossetti painted and drew Siddal obsessively and she became his muse and eventually his fiancée. Evidence as to whether or not they became lovers before marriage is inconclusive, but the tempestuous, volatile nature of their affair is legendary. They parted ways at least once: Siddal, frustrated by Rossetti’s frequent and unsubstantiated promises of marriage, fled to Bath in 1858, vowing that she was through with Rossetti forever. The pair eventually reconciled in 1860 and married. Siddal, already seriously ill with tuberculosis, died of a fatal laudanum overdose two years later.

Rossetti’s vision of Siddal must have been extremely conflicted. On one side was his beautiful “Guggums” (his pet name for her), the paradigm of Pre-Raphaelite tragic, romantic beauty and a model of virtuous womanhood. On the other side was Elizabeth Siddal, his pupil, model, and the object of sexual desire which he believed, by painting her, he owned.[i] This dual image—a classic virgin/whore dichotomy--is clearly articulated in a pair of drawings done by Rossetti in 1852, at the height of his infatuation with her. Studies for an unspecified painting, the drawings depict Siddal playing the double-pipes and the cythern—a type of harp or lute held on the forearm. Although Rossetti abhorred music, thinking it a “noisy nuisance,” musical instruments figure prominently into his work, often as symbols for death, sexual desire, and love.[ii] Rossetti was particularly interested in winded and stringed instruments and the sexual and romantic connotations they conveyed. Phallically-shaped wind instruments, played by satyrs in Classical mythology, connoted base desires. Alternately, stringed instruments carried noble connections as the favored instruments of poets and angels.[iii]In his sonnet “Passion and Worship,” Rossetti used the motif of the oboe (hautboy) to indicate sexual desire and the harp to represent virtuous love. The flame-winged oboe player is trumped by the white-winged harp player, whose “strains [only] are to Love's dear ones dear.”[iv] Elizabeth Siddal Playing the Double Pipes and Elizabeth Siddal Playing the Cythern can be viewed as representing the same tension between sacred and profane love.

The double pipes, or aulos, were one of the most important instruments in ancient Greek music and the men who played them were highly respected in society. However, female aulos players, referred to as auletrides, were prostitutes playing for the lustful pleasure of groups of men.[v] Rossetti repeatedly used elongated wind instruments to signify lust and the aulos’ appearance in this drawing, especially when juxtaposed with the cythern, suggests base intentions. In the drawing, Lizzie’s famous hair is loose, a clear indicator of uninhibited sexuality. J.B. Bullen has commented on the almost excessive attention paid by Rossetti to the flowing hair of his painted women and its indication of his bodily desires[vi] and Elizabeth Gitter notes in her article on the subject, “the more abundant the hair, the more potent the sexual invitation implied in its display.”[vii] Siddal’s bounteous, loose drapery additionally suggests sexual passion.

In contrast, Elizabeth Siddal Playing the Cythern depicts “The Dove” demurely. Her hair modestly tied back and her dress fitted and high-cut, Siddal is presented as a model of virtue rather than as an object of desire. The choice of instrument further emphasizes her purity. The cythern was an instrument of worship, described in Dante’s Divine Comedy—which Rossetti greatly admired—as the instruments of the angels and in Classical mythology as those of the psychopomp musicians that led the soul to the Elysian fields.[viii] Rossetti acknowledges the role of the cythern in an early poem, “The Blessed Damozel:” “Angels meeting us shall sing to their cytherns and citoles.”[ix] The Elizabeth Siddal who plays the cythern is thus very different from Elizabeth Siddal the auletride; she is a figure of virtue and object of love, not a figure of passion and an object of lust.

Although recent scholarship has stressed Elizabeth Siddal’s status as an artist in her own right, independent of her more famous lover, Rossetti has immortalized her purely in the context of their tumultuous love affair. Through these two drawings we are thus afforded a glimpse of the complex and difficult relationship between the artist and his muse. On one hand we see his Beata Beatrix, the essence of purity and love and paradigm of femininity. On the other hand we see the temptress, of whom he desired physical access and ownership.

[i]Debra Mancoff, “Is There Substance Behind the Shadows? New Works on Elizabeth Siddal,” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies (New Series I, Spring 1992) p. 22.

[ii]Kirsten H. Powell, “Object, Symbol, and Metaphor: Rossetti’s Musical Imagery” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies (New Series II, Spring 1993), p. 16.

[iii]Ibid, p. 19.

[iv]Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Passion and Worship,” The House of Life: Ballads and Sonnets (sonnet 9, 1869) <http://www.sonnets.org/house.htm#009>

[v]Grove Music, “Aulos”

[vi] J.B. Bullen, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Mirror of Masculine Desire” Nineteenth Century Contexts (vol. 21, no. 3, 1999) p. 345.

[vii] Elizabeth G. Gitter, “The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination” in Bullen, p. 335.

[viii] Powell, p. 18.

[ix] Ibid, p. 18.

Pamela Stewart

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