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Lady Lilith

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • Date: 1866 - 1873
  • Style: Romanticism
  • Genre: religious painting
  • Media: gouache, watercolor, paper, oil, canvas
  • Dimensions: 81.3 x 95.3 cm
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Lady Lilith (1866-1868, altered 1872-1873) belongs to Rossetti's famous series of half-length female portraits, which started with the painting Bocca Baciata (1859). The subject of the painting originates from Jewish mythology: Lilith was the first wife of Adam, and unlike Eve, she was created at the same time and from the same clay as Adam. In one version of the legend, Lilith betrayed Adam, after refusing to be his subordinate, and fled the Garden of Eden to join the fallen angel Samael. She is a demonic figure and seductress, known in folklore stories for killing babies and bewitching men.

In a letter from 1870 to his friend Dr. Hake, Rossetti wrote about the painting: "The picture… represents a Modern Lilith combing out her abundant golden hair and gazing on herself in the glass with complete self-absorption by whose fascination such natures draw others within their circle." Rossetti wrote the sonnet Body's Beauty that accompanies the painting. In the sonnet, he describes Lilith the seductress, who entraps young men with the strains of her golden hair. Rossetti represents Lilith's dangerous nature through her luscious hair, as well as the paraphernalia surrounding her. The roses, a flower associated with Aphrodite, symbolize sensuality, while the poppies signify sleep and forgetfulness. On the dresser under the mirror is a spray of foxglove, which can be used as a medicine, but also as a deadly poison. The painting forms a pendant with Sibylla Palmifera (ca. 1865-1870) that was accompanied by Rossetti's sonnet Soul's Beauty. The two figures embody contrasting ideas: Lilith represents bodily sin and vice, while Sibylla signifies the ideal of female virtue.

Scholars have suggested that Lady Lilith was inspired by Titian's painting Woman with a Mirror (1515). Rossetti saw the painting during his trip to Paris in 1864, where he spent his time exploring the Louvre's collection. The two paintings share several pictorial elements: Rossetti emulated Titian's treatment of the female's flesh, as well as the central parting and the wavy curls of the cascading hair. Additionally, Rossetti referred to Lady Lilith as a 'toilette painting,' reinforcing the assumption that Titian's work influenced him. The painting is also linked to the portrait Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl (1865) by French Realist Gustave Courbet. It is possible that Courbet was inspired by Rossetti, who visited his studio during his stay in Paris in 1864.

Rossetti worked on the painting for several years and created at least four related drawings of the composition, such as Study for Lady Lilith (1886), as well as watercolor replicas like Lady Lilith (1867). The model in the preparatory drawings, watercolors, and the original oil painting is Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti's housekeeper, and mistress. The painting was commissioned by Rossetti's patron Frederick Leyland, who received the picture in the spring of 1869. However, in 1872 Leyland asked Rossetti for a significant alteration: he wanted to substitute Cornforth's face with that of Alexa Wilding, who Leyland felt had more 'refined' features. It remains unclear whether Rossetti agreed with Leyland's assessment and whether he was ultimately pleased with the outcome.

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Lady Lilith is an oil painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti first painted in 1866–68 using his mistress Fanny Cornforth as the model, then altered in 1872–73 to show the face of Alexa Wilding. The subject is Lilith, who was, according to ancient Judaic myth, "the first wife of Adam" and is associated with the seduction of men and the murder of children. She is shown as a "powerful and evil temptress" and as "an iconic, Amazon-like female with long, flowing hair."

Rossetti overpainted Cornforth's face, perhaps at the suggestion of his client, shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland, who displayed the painting in his drawing room with five other Rossetti "stunners." After Leyland's death, the painting was purchased by Samuel Bancroft and Bancroft's estate donated it in 1935 to the Delaware Art Museum where it is now displayed.

The painting forms a pair with Sibylla Palmifera, painted 1866–70, also with Wilding as the model. Lady Lilith represents the body's beauty, according to Rossetti's sonnet inscribed on the frame. Sibylla Palmifera represents the soul's beauty, according to the Rossetti sonnet on its frame.

A large 1867 replica of Lady Lilith, painted by Rossetti in watercolor, which shows the face of Cornforth, is now owned by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has a verse from Goethe's Faust as translated by Shelley on a label attached by Rossetti to its frame:

On 9 April 1866 Rossetti wrote to Frederick Leyland:

Lady Lilith was commissioned by Leyland in early 1866 and delivered to him in early 1869 at a price of £472. 10 s. Two studies, dated to 1866, exist for the work, but two notebook sketches may be from an earlier date. The painting focuses on Lilith, but is meant to be a "Modern Lilith" rather than the mythological figure. She contemplates her own beauty in her hand-mirror. The painting is one of a series of Rossetti paintings of such "mirror pictures." Other painters soon followed with their own mirror pictures with narcissistic female figures, but Lady Lilith has been considered "the epitome" of the type.

Rossetti's assistant, Henry Treffry Dunn, states that the final part painted was the flowery background. He and G. P. Boyce gathered large baskets of white roses from John Ruskin's garden in Denmark Hill, and returned with them to Rossetti's house in Chelsea. Dunn is thought to have later recreated Rossetti's picture of Lady Lilith in coloured chalk.

Sources disagree on whether Leyland or Rossetti initiated the repainting, but the major change was the substitution of Alexa Wilding's face for Cornforth's. The painting was returned to Rossetti in February 1872, and he completed the repainting on 2 December at Kelmscott Manor before returning it to Leyland. Alexa was born Alice Wilding and was about 27 years old at the time of the repainting. Rossetti paid her a retainer of £1 per week for modelling. Wilding's face had earlier replaced the face in another painting Venus Verticordia. Despite Rossetti's record of serial liaisons with his models, there is little or no evidence of a romantic attachment between Wilding and Rossetti.

This is a part of the Wikipedia article used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). The full text of the article is here →

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