Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Lady Lilith’ Was an Infamous Symbol of Vanity. Here Are 3 Facts About This Alluring Pre-Raphaelite Masterpiece
The influential canvas is currently on view in "The Rossettis" at Tate Britain.
In the cultural ether of Victorian England, Lilith—an ancient Talmudic seductress and the mythical first wife of Adam—arose as a figure of renewed fascination in popular culture, and one who embodied societal anxieties around the changing role of women in the 19th century.
References to Lilith date back to the ancient Mesopotamian poem Epic of Gilgamesh (2,100 B.C.E.) and ancient Judaic texts from as early as the second century. In these, Lilith is described as an illusory demoness, a flashing blackness, almost formless in conception. During the Medieval age, Rabbinical texts, however, elaborated on this darkened visage, describing Lilith as an unsubmissive equal to Adam (made from the same clay earth, unlike Eve, who came from his rib). In a fit of fury, Lilith is said to have left Eden, spawning a flurry of demons and swearing to kill the children of Adam and Eve (some folk etymology suggests that the word “lullaby” derived from the Hebrew “Lilith-Abi” meaning “Lilith, begone”). Nevertheless, across millennia, Lilith was relegated to slinking through the corners of European histories.
That changed suddenly in 1808 when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s seismically influential play Faust debuted—Lilith appears as a central character, first wife to Adam, a beautiful temptress who beguiles and undoes him. The momentous play inspired numerous literary allusions, including John Keats’s poem series “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1819). The first known 19th-century painting of Lilith is believed to be by Queen Victoria’s painter Richard Westall, who took direct inspiration from the play with his 1831 painting Faust and Lilith. The most influential depiction, however, wouldn’t come for some three decades more, when Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founder Gabriel Dante Rossetti completed his Lady Lilith in the mid-1860s (1866–68; altered 1872–73).
Lilith was a natural choice for Rossetti. Seeking a return to the aesthetics of Quattrocento Italian painting, Pre-Raphealite artists exalted luxurious colors and intricate details, drawing their subject matter from legends, myths, poetry, and folklore. Women were almost always the focus of these compositions, depicted as heroines, damsels, and seductresses of the literary imagination and modeled by the women artists, muses, and wives of the Pre-Raphealite milieu. Lady Lilith embodied all of those elements: Rossetti’s depiction portrays Lilith brushing her long fair hair and staring at herself in the mirror with sultry self-possession—the hand mirror aligning Lilith with depictions of Venus, further embellishing her 19th-century transformation from a demonic spirit into a femme fatale.
Right now, Lady Lilith is a touchstone piece in Tate Britain’s “The Rossettis,” an exhibition that delves into the varied endeavors of the famously creative Rossetti clan, including the poetry of Dante’s sister Christina Rossetti as well as works by his wife and muse Elizabeth Siddall, a painter in her own right. The landmark exhibition also marks the first retrospective of Dante Gabriel Rossetti at the Tate and the largest exhibition of his iconic pictures in two decades. Lady Lilith appears on loan from the collection of the Delaware Museum of Art, to which the exhibition will travel in the fall of 2023.
On the occasion of the exhibition, we’ve taken a closer look at Rossetti’s infamous Lady Lilith and found three facts that may make you see it in a new light.
Rossetti Painted Over the Face of His Lover
Rossetti, for all his radical and bohemian inclinations, was not always a friend to the women in his life. During his long courtship with Elizabeth Siddall—who he long refused to marry given her low social status—he partook in several affairs, most significantly with Fanny Cornforth, his muse and housekeeper. Cornforth served as the original model of Lady Lilith in its 1866–68 state of completion. For reasons that are not entirely clear, between 1872 and 1873, Rossetti replaced Cornforth’s face with that of Alexa Wilding, another prominent Pre-Raphaelite model. The replacement may have come at the behest of shipping tycoon and Rossetti collector Frederick Richards Leyland, who displayed the painting along with five others by Rossetti in his home.
An 1867 watercolor and gouache made by Rossetti and his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers us a vision of Cornforth as Lady Lilith. To this version, Rossetti affixed a verse from Faust, as translated by poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to the label on its frame. The verses read: “Beware of her fair hair, for she excels / All women in the magic of her locks / And when she twines them round a young man’s neck / she will not ever set him free again.”
In 1881, Rossetti would compose his own sonnet which he attached to the final version of Lady Lilith, describing Lilith as “subtly of herself contemplative / Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave / Till heart and body and life are in its hold.”
The Devil Is In the Details
The Pre-Raphaelites’ passion for painted detail often embedded symbolic meaning into the compositions, too. Here, the blossoms that surround Lilith offer a bouquet of meanings. Poppies at the bottom right of the painting are an allusion to opium and death. Foxgloves, in the Victorian era, symbolized the keeping of secrets and insincerity. Some believe that white roses in the background suggest Lilith’s cruel detachment—white roses are sometimes. said to blush in the presence of true love. Still, others believe that the white of the roses is a virginal contrast to the blood red of the poppies, suggesting Lilith’s earthly balance between the two realms.
Another detail hints at Lilith’s ancient origins—the red ribbon tied at her left wrist. In certain Jewish traditions, mothers would tie a red string to their baby’s wrist as a means of warding off Lilith, who had promised to punish the children of Adam and Eve. Here, however, Lilith wears the bracelet herself—a frightening allusion to her powers. In many ways this aligning of vanity and evil powers underscored tensions in Victorian society as women left behind wholly domestic existences. “She represents the New Woman, free of male control, scourge of the patriarchal Victorian family,” wrote historian Virginia M. Allen.
It’s Rossetti’s Evil Twin to Another More Virtuous Depiction of Beauty
Lady Lilith was intended to be paired with another of Rossetti’s paintings, Sibylla Palmifera (1866–70). Wilding served as the model for this composition and it’s possible that Rossetti overpainted Cornforth in Lady Lilith to make the relationship between the two compositions more apparent.
While Lady Lilith is a representation of the vanities and fickleness of corporeal female beauty, Sibylla Palmifera is said to represent the beauty of the soul. Rossetti similarly affixed a sonnet to this work’s frame. The palm, along with the butterflies, suggests the spiritual nature of the painting. At the same time, the palm indicates to the viewer that the painting, much like Lady Lilith, is more interested in the male response to female beauty than the women themselves: the palmifera or “palm-bearer,” according to Rossetti’s poem, is offering a palm to the man she is allowing to possess her. Fully covered and seated in a kind of throne, Sibylla Palmifera offers an idealized model for the Victorian woman.
The two paintings were published along with their respective sonnets in the catalogue, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, in 1868. Then, in 1881, the poems were renamed—”Lilith” to “Body’s Beauty” and “Sibylla Palmifera” to “Soul’s Beauty”—making the contrast even more apparent.
“The Rosettis” is on view at Tate Britain, Millbank, London, through September 24.
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