Beautiful, captivating, inspiring, complicated and often misunderstood - the women who became muses for their masters had more in common with the artists who painted them than might be seen on first glance.
These women from all walks of life often reviled and looked down on in their own time, have transcended their humble beginnings through canvas and paint to inspire and utterly captivate their audiences.
Elizabeth Rossetti (née Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddall) 1829 - 1862
Born in 1829 Lizzie was first "discovered" by the artist Walter Deverell in 1849 who had close associations with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Less than 2 years later, Lizzie was sitting almost exclusively for the jealous Rossetti.
Lizzie's life with the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was turbulent and complicated, much like her relationship with Rossetti who during his lifetime painted and drew thousands of pictures of the young woman - who later became his wife.
Illness from posing in a freezing bath of water for Millais' "Ophelia", afflicted with depression and an addiction to Laudanum affected Lizzie's health greatly. It is perhaps her struggle with this, that makes such a striking comparison with the beautiful aloof woman you see in the paintings of her.
The circumstances surrounding her tragic death in 1862 - attributed to an accidental overdose of Laudanum and persistent depression after the birth of her still-born daughter, along with tales of a suicide note, means to this day it remains somewhat of a mystery.
Laid to rest in Highgate Cemetery her grave, tragically re-opened by Rossetti 7 years after to retrieve his manuscript of poems spurred further folklore. Howell, Rossetti's agent who was present at the exhumation is said to have told Rossetti later that her body had lain preserved, and her delicate beauty intact surrounded by her copper hair - which had by all accounts continued to grow after her death, filled the coffin.
Her grave - frequently to be found with fresh flowers on it, has become a place of pilgrimage for fans and admirers of both Lizzie herself and Rossetti's work.
Fanny Cornforth (Sarah Cox?) 1835? – 1906?
Fanny (Her real name is thought to be Sarah Cox) was discovered by Rossetti in 1858 during the years that Lizzie was living in France to improve her health. Fanny was born into a working class family of a Blacksmith. Throughout her life and after her somewhat undocumented death, she was branded by critics amongst other things, an obese illiterate prostitute and a thief; a woman from a poor background who was greedy for more than money and fame.
Despite this less than flattering description from her critics, Fanny's earthly beauty delighted Rossetti who continued to paint her after Lizzie's death when Fanny moved into his home to be his house keeper. Her striking and bold red hair became almost synonymous with the Pre-Raphaelite look.
It is to be noted that Rossetti's final thoughts were of Fanny, showing his continued fondness for her despite their relationship being frowned upon.
Jane Morris (née Jane Burden) 1839 - 1914
Jane Burden was the daughter of a stableman, born in Oxford. It was whilst at a theatre showing in the audience that she was noticed by Rossetti and Burn-Jones who asked her to model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her first "sitting" was initially Rossetti who was at the time painting "Queen Guinevere" during which time she was introduced to William Morris, whom later she married.
After Lizzie passed away Rossetti turned more and more to Jane as his muse, and despite her being married to Morris they formed an attachment that lasted til Rossetti's death in some form or another.
Jane, like Lizzie and Fanny had striking features with her dark hair and Romanesque profile. She is noted for having rather large hands, though with the help of private education after her marriage to Morris, she was also noted for her extreme grace and "queenly" presence.
Henry James a novelist described Jane
"...with a maze of crisp black hair, heaped in a great wavy projections on each of her temples, a thin pale face, great thick black oblique brows, joined in the middle and tucking themselves away under her hair, a mouth like the "Oriana" in our illustrated Tennyson, a long neck, without any collar, and in lieu thereof some dozen strings of outlandish beads. In fine complete."
Her close association to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood encouraged her own creativity in embroidery and painting fostered by her husband and the development of the Arts & Crafts movement that came out of the Pre-Raphaelite era.
The only surviving oil painting by her husband William Morris conveys just how much she was admired and loved by the artists who drew her. Morris in despair of being able to capture her beauty wrote on the work
"I cannot paint you but I love you"
To Every Artist, a Muse
In any shape or form we all find inspiration in a variety of ways; ask any artist and they will tell you that at some point they have been inspired by an artistic "muse"
1) Have you had - or do you currently have an artistic muse?
2) Do you think that having an artistic muse is as important in modern styles of art?
I highly recommend the following sites and blogs with grateful thanks which were extremely helpful in putting together this short article. If you have as much interest in Pre-Raphaelite art as I do you will find them great reads!