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Art and Images in Psychiatry
November 2007

Beata Beatrix

Author Affiliations

James C.HarrisMD

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007;64(11):1228. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.64.11.1228

He feeds upon her face by day and night,/And she with true kind eyes looks back on him . . . 

Not as she is, but was when hope shown bright;/Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

—From “In an Artist's Studio,” Christina Rossetti (1856)1(pp796,1136)

Shortly before Elizabeth (Lizzie) Eleanor Siddal's coffin was taken for burial in February 1862, her husband, Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), softly lifted her hair and with tenderness placed a slender volume of his poetry next to her cheek.2,3 Believing that she inspired his poetry, he thought it fitting to bury the only copy of these poems with her. The son of a professor of Italian literature at King's College, London, Rossetti had found his Beatrice in Lizzie Siddal (1829-1862), telling his mentor, Ford Madox Brown, that, like his namesake, 13th-century poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), when he met her his destiny was defined. In 1861, the year after they married, Rossetti dedicated to her his translation of the Florentine poet's Vita Nuova (New Life), which tells the story of Dante Alighieri's meeting Beatrice Portinari, his idealized love for her, and her early death in her 20s. Shortly after Rossetti and Siddal met 10 years earlier, and after she had successfully posed for John Everett Millais's Ophelia,4 he asked her to model exclusively for him. His sister, Christina Rossetti, wrote a poem about them, “In the Artist's Studio” (epigraph), emphasizing his preoccupation with her and the projection of his dreams onto her.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), English. Beata Beatrix, circa 1864-1870. Oil on canvas, 86.4 × 66 cm (34 × 26 in). Tate Britain, London, England (http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=12769). Image © 2007 Tate, London.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), English. Beata Beatrix, circa 1864-1870. Oil on canvas, 86.4 × 66 cm (34 × 26 in). Tate Britain, London, England (http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=12769). Image © 2007 Tate, London.

Soon after Siddal began posing for him, Rossetti recognized her own artistic talent and instructed her in painting and in poetry. Her talent was sufficient that, on seeing her work, renowned art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) agreed to buy everything she produced and eventually provided an annual annuity of 150 pounds, allowing her to be established as an artist in her own right. However, her health problems compromised her productivity. William Rossetti described her health as delicate, noting that a recurring symptom was “want of appetite and inability to retain food on the stomach.”2(p284) Laudanum (30 grains of opium per 1 ounce of alcohol), a common remedy, was prescribed, and she was soon addicted. William Rossetti wrote that “she could not sleep or take food without it” and she took stimulants as well. Opium was unregulated before the 1868 Pharmacy Act required that it be labeled a poison; it was frequently prescribed and widely available.5 In 1830, more than 22 000 pounds of opium was imported into Britain, an amount that had quadrupled by 1860.3 It was often unclear whether Lizzie's symptoms stemmed from a specific illness or drug withdrawal.

Still her episodes of illness were marked by self-starvation and low mood. At times, seemingly near death, she would recover dramatically over days or weeks, apparently dependent on Rossetti's attention. It was during one of these episodes that Rossetti proposed marriage and, after 9 years together, they were married on May 23, 1860. New stresses occurred when she gave birth to a stillborn infant the following year. Diagnosed with neurasthenia, she continued to take frequent doses of laudanum, as much as 100 drops at a time, increasing the amount after the stillbirth. Although she became pregnant again, she remained depressed much of the following year. Returning home at 11:30 PM on February 10, 1862, Rossetti found her unconscious in bed with an empty vial of laudanum on the table; the bottle had been half full when he left to go out that evening. Successively, 3 physicians were called and sought to revive her using a stomach pump in a fruitless attempt to remove the drug. She died at about 7:15 the following morning. The coroner's jury ruled it an accidental death. Years later, it was revealed that there was a suicide note pinned to her nightgown that asked Rossetti to care for her handicapped brother, Henry. Apparently Rossetti found the note and took it to his friend Ford Madox Brown, leaving her while the doctors were attempting resuscitation; Brown threw it the fire, fearing the social stigma of suicide on both families. After her death Rossetti sought to have her poems published by his sister, but they were deemed too melancholy. Her last poem was titled, “Lord May I Come (Soulless Eyes Have Ceased to Cheer.)”3

Rossetti could not accept her death. He complained that her ghost visited him every night and eventually turned to séances to make contact with her. In October 1869, on his agent Charles August Howell's suggestion, he sought and was granted permission to have her body exhumed from Highgate Cemetery to recover his book of poems, but perhaps, too, to be certain that she was dead. The poems were recovered; his unscrupulous agent told him that her body was remarkably preserved and that her lovely red hair had continued to grow after death and filled the coffin.3

Rossetti worked for 6 years after her death to memorialize Lizzie Siddal. He did so in Beata Beatrix (cover), a painting that represents the beatification of Beatrice, the very moment of her assumption into heaven. She is shown as she is described in the closing lines of Dante Alighieri's Vita Nuova, when he beholds the glory of his lady, “blessed Beatrice who now gazeth continually on His countenance who is blessed through all ages” (Rossetti’s own translation).7(p80) The face is that of Lizzie Siddal who, in life, William Rossetti described as tall, “with a stately throat and fine carriage, pink and white complexion, and massive straight coppery golden hair with large-lidded greenish blue eyes.”2(p273) In the painting, Lizzie's face is soft and she appears transfixed. A red dove, a symbol of love and her husband's term of endearment for her, drops a white poppy, which represents sleep or death (possibly a reference to her death by overdose of opium), between her open hands. The shadow of the sundial rests on the figure 9, the number the Italian Dante Alighieri connects mystically with Beatrice and her death. In the background, the shadowy figure of Dante holding a book gazes toward the Lord of Love, who holds a flaming heart. In Vita Nuova, Dante experiences a series of visions brought on by the Lord of Love after each encounter with Beatrice; reflecting on them, he comes to understand that the Lord of Love is preparing him for Beatrice's early death. When Lizzie died prematurely, was Dante Gabriel Rossetti's grief confounded by his projection of Dante Alighieri's myth onto her? Vita Nuova is the prelude to Dante's Divine Comedy, where in the Paradiso the glorious lady “will guide her pilgrim lover beyond the spheres of God.”6(pxix) For Rossetti, who became addicted to chloral hydrate and alcohol, depressed, involved in an adulterous affair with Jane Morris, and reclusive in his last days, it seems there was no such final spiritual transformation.7

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