in One Takes | 02 NOV 11
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Issue 54

Picture Piece: Virgin Suicides

Contemplating the Chinese whispers history of the iconic virgin suicide

in One Takes | 02 NOV 11

It is said that the model for Millais’ Ophelia (1851–2), after soaking for days in a bath of cool water, contracted pneumonia and died. As a sinister reminder of the artist’s passion for capturing something close to the ‘real thing’, it makes for a very good story.

This is all nonsense, of course. Elizabeth Siddal dried herself off and went home, leaving behind a record of her beauty and an image that has become the iconic virgin suicide. Even the rumours of £50 compensation for her ensuing sniffle have never been verified. The real reflection in the water is a story the picture could not have known as its verdant tragedy set – that of Siddal’s own suicide ten years later.

Such is the lack of trauma in this painted, sing-song moment it makes you want to tear apart the cloud of the unblemished body and replace it with a bloated corpse, heavy and purpled by drowning. The picture, and its Chinese whispers history, lures us away from a world that abuses beauty in a way that it will never suffer under art; a world that allowed Siddal’s husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to redeem a notebook of his poetry from her coffin, a year after she was buried. His regret at the loss of his grandly given words was now replaced by regret for his act of reclamation. How one real woe does tread upon another’s heel.

The shape of the drifting girl hovers still. Her image, something like a Medieval effigy, is the steady face of a world before time-lapse photography and disposable razor blades. Carried within a soprano summer, she opens her mouth, relaxes, and floats downstream.

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