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Lady Lilith

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • Date: 1868
  • Style: Romanticism
  • Genre: mythological painting
  • Media: gouache, watercolor, paper, oil, canvas
  • Tag: female-portraits
  • Dimensions: 81.3 x 95.3 cm
  • Order Oil Painting

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.

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