Tumbling locks of hair, a soulful, often tragic gaze into the distance, and a loose, glittering gown are but a few of the characteristics of the women immortalised in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Portraying Biblical heroines, goddesses, historical, and literary figures, the images of these women have stood the test of time. But who were the models behind the paintings? And how did they come to be?

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal

Who was Elizabeth Siddal:

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862), better known as Elizabeth Siddal, or Lizzie Siddal, was perhaps the most significant of the women immortalised in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. What we now see as the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of female beauty was fundamentally influenced and personified by her. In exchange for modelling, she requested drawing lessons from artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and she became an artist in her own right. Siddal was the only woman to exhibit at the 1857 Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, and significant collections of her artworks can be found at Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Elizabeth Siddal’s relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites:
In 1849, while working at a hat shop in Cranbourne Alley, London, Siddal made the acquaintance of artist Walter Deverell. Deverell subsequently employed Siddal as a model and introduced her to the Pre-Raphaelites. Deverell, William Holman Hunt

Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1860

John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti all painted Siddal. She embarked on a relationship with Rossetti quite soon after being introduced, and they were engaged by 1851 or 1852. Early in her relationship with Rossetti, Siddal became his muse and exclusive model, and he portrayed her in almost all his early artwork depicting women.

In 1851 she began to model for Millais’s painting Ophelia. Millais was eager to recreate the image of Ophelia’s death by drowning, as reported by Queen Gertrude in act IV, scene vii of Hamlet. Siddal floated in a bathtub full of water to portray the drowning Ophelia, and Millais painted daily throughout the winter, putting oil lamps under the tub to warm the water. On one occasion, the lamps went out and the water became icy cold. Millais, absorbed by his painting, did not notice and Siddal did not complain. After this, she became ill with a severe cold or pneumonia. She never sat for Millais again.

Siddal suffered from ill health and melancholia during the last decade of her life and died of a laudanum overdose in 1862 during her second year of marriage to Rossetti. She was buried in the Rossetti family grave in Highgate Cemetery on the 17 February 1862. In August 1869, Rossetti had her coffin exhumed to retrieve a handwritten book of his poems which he had buried with her. The book was disinfected and Rossetti published the contents in Poems (1870).

Famous paintings of Elizabeth Siddal

Annie Miller

Who was Annie Miller:

Annie Miller (1835–1925) came from a humble English background; her father Henry had been a soldier and was wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, and her mother was a cleaner. She was a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, and the muse of William Holman Hunt.

Annie Miller’s relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites:
Miller was working as a barmaid when she attracted the attention of Holman Hunt in 1850. Hunt took Miller under his wing and envisioned her as his ultimate muse and future wife. He invested in her, taking the steps to mould her into a respectful woman. She sat for Hunt and was the subject of his 1853 painting The Awakening Conscience. The Awakening Conscience depicts a mistress rising from her position in her lover’s lap, gazing transfixed out of the room’s window. It was interpreted as showing the moral dilemma of a woman who realises her sinfulness and is seeking redemption. Hunt travelled to Palestine in 1854, but before leaving he made arrangements for Miller to be educated while he was away. He also left her a list of artists for whom she was allowed to model for.

William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1854

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was not on this list, but despite this, during Hunt's absence, Miller sat for him. Artist Ford Madox Brown described Annie as ‘siren-like’, and commented that all the artists for whom she modelled were ‘mad’ about her. Rossetti seemed to go out of his way to arouse Hunt's jealousy by taking Miller to various places including Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. This liaison caused a permanent rift between Hunt and Rossetti.

Famous paintings of Annie Miller

Fanny Cornforth

Who was Fanny Cornforth:

Fanny Cornforth (born Sarah Cox; 3 January 1835 – 24 February 1909) was the mistress and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She also became his housekeeper. Cornforth came from the lower working class of English society.

Fanny Cornforth’s relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites:

Cornforth met Rossetti in 1856, and became his model and mistress in the absence of Elizabeth Siddal. It has been presumed that Siddal disliked Cornforth, but there is no proof that she even knew of her existence. In Rossetti’s paintings, the figures modelled by Cornforth are generally more voluptuous and sensual than those of other models.

Cornforth’s first modelling role for Rossetti was for the painting Found. Found depicts a young countryman coming to London to bring a calf to sell at the market.. He sees his former sweetheart, who is now a prostitute, and attempts to reach out and save her from her terrible fate. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Found, 1854–1855, 1859–1881

After Siddal's death in 1862, Cornforth moved into the widowed Rossetti’s home as his housekeeper. After Rossetti’s health started to decline, his family became more involved in his life and Cornforth was forced to leave his house in 1877. Rossetti paid for a house for her nearby, writing “You are the only person whom it is my duty to provide for, and you may be sure I should do my utmost as long as there was a breath in my body or a penny in my purse.” He gave her several of his paintings, and made sure that her ownership of them was legally documented.

Famous paintings of Fanny Cornforth

Jane Morris

Who was Jane Morris:

Jane Morris (née Burden; 19 October 1839 – 26 January 1914) was an English embroiderer associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. She was married to designer William Morris and had an affair with artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Jane Morris’s relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites:
In October 1857, Jane and her sister Elizabeth attended a theatre performance in Oxford. Jane was noticed by Rossetti and Burne-Jones who were at that time painting the Oxford Union murals which were based on Arthurian tales. Struck by her beauty, they asked her to model for them. Jane sat mostly for Rossetti as a model for Queen Guinevere and afterwards for William Morris, who was working on an easel painting, La Belle Iseult.


Jane Morris, 1865, posed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1858

Morris cast Jane as the tragic Arthurian princess Iseult and wrote on the finished canvas “I cannot paint you, but I love you.” It is believed that La Belle Iseult is the only oil painting William Morris ever completed. Jane and Morris became engaged, though by her own admission she was not truly in love with him. Despite this, they married on the 26 April 1859, and they had two daughters.

In 1871, Morris and Rossetti took out a joint tenancy on Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. Morris went to Iceland, leaving Jane and Rossetti to furnish the house and spend the summer there. Jane had become closely attached to Rossetti and became a favourite muse of his, inspiring his poetry and paintings. Rossetti challenged conceptions of ideal femininity with his paintings of Jane by formulating a type of beauty characterised by thick, dark waves of hair, well-defined brows, large, expressive eyes, and an altogether more masculine look. Their romantic relationship is reputed to have started in the late 1860s. 

Jane ended the affair with Rossetti in 1876 because of the drastic decline in his mental health, but they stayed in touch until he died in 1882.

Famous paintings of Jane Morris

Alexa Wilding

Who was Alexa Wilding:

Alexa Wilding (born Alice Wilding, c. 1847 – 25 April 1884) was one of the favourite models of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, featuring in some of his finest paintings of the later 1860s and 1870s. She sat for more of his finished works than any other of his models, and yet comparatively little is known about her.

Alexa Wilding’s relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites:
Wilding was first seen by Rossetti in 1865, when she was walking one evening along the Strand. He was immediately impressed by her beauty, and she agreed to sit for him the following day but failed to arrive as planned. It is possible that she was put off by the dubious reputation of artist’s models. Weeks went by, and when Rossetti spotted Wilding again in the street, he jumped from the cab he was in and persuaded her to be led straight back to his studio. He paid her a weekly fee to sit for him exclusively, fearing that other artists might also employ her.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia, 1868


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Damsel of the Sanct Grael, 1874, (modelled by Alexa Wilding)

In Rossetti’s paintings, Wilding’s elegant looks and ethereal beauty epitomised dainty femininity. Wilding’s features were substituted in place of Fanny Cornforth’s in Lady Lilith, partly due the owner of the painting considering the original to be too earthy. Similarly, the painting Venus Verticordia, originally modelled by a tall cook, was repainted with Wilding’s face in January 1868.

Wilding’s features are easy to spot in Rossetti’s art; the red hair, long neck, Cupid’s bow lips, and somewhat softer eyes compared to Elizabeth Siddal’s heavy-lidded ones. However, some of Rossetti’s paintings featuring Wilding are very similar to those originally modelled for by his late wife Elizabeth Siddal, with one example being Damsel of the Sanct Grael.

Wilding and Rossetti shared a lasting bond; after Rossetti’s death in 1882, Wilding, though not particularly financially well off, was said to have travelled specially to place a wreath on his grave in Birchington-on-Sea.

Famous paintings of Alexa Wilding

Maria Zambaco

Who was Maria Zambaco:

Maria Zambaco (29 April 1843 – 14 July 1914), born Marie Terpsithea Cassavetti, was a model and sculptor of Greek descent. She was the mistress of Edward Burne-Jones.

Maria Zambaco’s relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites:
Zambaco met Burne-Jones in 1866, when her mother commissioned him to paint her and they had an affair. In 1869, Burne-Jones attempted to leave his wife for her, which caused a great scandal. Zambaco entreated him to commit suicide with her by laudanum overdose by the canal in Little Venice and the police had to be called. After the affair ended, Zambaco continued to appear in Burne-Jones’s paintings as a sorceress or a temptress, such as in his last major work of her, The Beguiling of Merlin, and the 1870 painting Phyllis and Demophoön.

Famous paintings of Maria Zambaco

Fanny Eaton

Who was Fanny Eaton:

Fanny Eaton (23 June 1835 – 4 March 1924) was a Jamaican-born artist’s model and domestic worker.

Fanny Eaton’s relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites:

In the 1860s Eaton began modelling for the Royal Academy of Arts School of Painting where she was paid 5 shillings for each modelling session. She went on to model for the Pre-Raphaelites, and for other artists of the period.
Artist Simeon Solomon, who is associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, and his sister, Rebecca Solomon, painted Eaton during this period. Rebecca studied with John Everett Millais and may have provided Eaton's link to artists in the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. In 1865, Dante Gabriel Rossetti employed Eaton to pose for the figure of the one of the bridesmaids in his painting The Beloved. Rossetti further produced at least one other portrait sketch of Eaton.

John Everett Millais, Jephthah, 1867 (close up of Fanny Eaton)

The painting Jephthah by John Everett Millais shows Eaton standing in the upper right-hand side of the canvas. 1867 appears to be the latest date at which Eaton was actively working as a model. It is not known why she discontinued this work, whether she decided to quit or if her services as a model were no longer in demand.

Famous paintings of Fanny Eaton
In conclusion, Elizabeth Siddal, Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris, Alexa Wilding, Maria Zambaco, and Fanny Eaton were more than just Pre-Raphaelite models or muses. They were multidimensional individuals who defied Victorian norms and left their mark on the art world, playing unique roles as artists, lovers, caregivers, and social changemakers, shaping and enriching the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's legacy. Understanding who they were beyond the canvas provides a more complex understanding of women's roles in the nineteenth century art scene.