Lady Lilith

‘Marcus is fond of the Pre-Raphaelites, and Miriam knows a lot of mythology. They picked the name,’ Matthew said by way of explanation.

The Pre-Raphaelites loved Lilith. Dante Gabriel Rossetti described her as the witch Adam loved before Eve.’ Marcus’s eyes turned dreamy.’

A Discovery of Witches, chapter 36, page 563.

Dante Rossetti and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood members sought to revive the simplicity and realism of Early Renaissance art, and often featured medieval legends creating impressions of a romantic Middle Ages. The brotherhood, founded by Rossetti along with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, was promoted largely by John Ruskin, an important Victorian art critic. Rossetti eschewed formal training while bemoaning his own lack of technical skill. Many of Rossetti’s works feature related poetry on the frame; the poems were published in individual volumes.

Rossetti’s portrait of Lilith shows the figure sitting at a dressing table brushing her hair out while she contemplates her reflection in the small mirror that she holds. The scene is filled with flowers. The frame features a sonnet that describes Lilith as a witch who seduces men only to strangle them with her golden hair. The sonnet reads:

Of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, it is told

(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve.)

That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,

And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still, she sits, young while the earth is old,

And 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 rose and poppy are her flowers; for where

Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent

And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?

Lo as that youth’s eyes burned at thing, so went

Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent

And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

Lady Lilith
DG Rossetti, Lady Lilith, 1866-8/1872-3. Delaware Art Museum.

Rossetti’s Lady Lilith was painted in 1868-88 and originally showed the face of his mistress, Fanny Cornforth. Her features were replaced by those of Alexa Wilding’s face, perhaps at the behest of Rossetti’s patron Frederick Leyland (key art collector, ship owner and mercantile trader, and one time tenant of Speke Hall, the inspiration for The Old Lodge). Rossetti referred to the painting in a letter as showing ‘a Modern Lilith, combing out her abundant golden hair and gazing on herself in the glass with that complete self-absorption by whose fascination such natures drew others within their circle.’ As she stares at herself, so do men fall for her trap by staring at her, creating a cycle of looking upon that which is dangerous. While Lilith is not dangerous to herself, she is to those who would gaze on her adoringly. Her portrayal as a recognisable contemporary woman, moreover, implies that the dangers Lilith represents are evident in Rossetti’s society. This has lead scholars to argue that the combination of the painting, its frame sonnet, and Rossetti’s description create a parallel between Lilith and contemporary ideas reflecting the perceived dangers of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Sources & More Information:

Allen, Virginia. ‘”One Strangling Golden Hair”: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith.’ The Art Bulletin 66.2 (1984), 285-294.

Bullen, JB. ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Mirror of Masculine Desire.’ Nineteenth Century Contexts 21:3 (1999), 329-352.

Fredeman, William, ed. The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 6 vols. DS Brewer.

Harrison et al, eds. The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2010.

Holmes, John. Pre-Raphaelites and Science. New Haven: Yale UP, 2017.

Surtees, Virginia. The Paintings & Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

“Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3.7 (1908), 144-145.

2 thoughts on “Lady Lilith

  1. I found an amusing typo: “Lol as that youth’s eyes burned at thing, so went” should be “Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went”
    Thanks for the research, very interesting to learn the background to All Souls.


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