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Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting "Lady Lilith" (1863: watercolor, 1864-1868?: oil)


In 1863, Dante Gabriel Rossetti began painting his first version of "Lady Lilith," a picture which he expected would be his "best picture hitherto" (Rossetti, W.M., ed. 188). He referred to this painting as the "Toilette picture" in his letters to his mother, highlighting its emphasis on adornment and the central figure's location within an intimate boudoir-like setting (Rossetti, W.M. 188; Radford, xiii). Although the picture is certainly of Lilith, it is interesting to note that he entitled it "Lady Lilith," forcing the audience to focus on her sensuality and womanhood from the outset. (See illustration #19)

"Lady Lilith" is one of the many "mirror pictures" completed by Rossetti during this period. Others include "Fazio's Mistress," "Woman Combing Her Hair," and "Morning Music," all paintings which focus on a central female figure rapt in contemplation of her own beauty. According to J. B. Bullen, these mirror works of Rossetti "opened the way for a whole series of paintings in the 1860s of narcissistic female figures, each with potentially fatal characteristics" (123). Dijkstra noted the extent of this fad, stating that "there is scarcely a figure painter [of this period] who did not undertake to paint 'woman before the mirror'" (139). Despite the prevalence of this theme, "Lady Lilith" remains one of the first and certainly also "the epitome" of this series (Bullen 134).

A brief glance at the background images of this painting gives the illusion that Lilith is seated in the interior space of her boudoir. In actuality, however, the setting is an "ambiguous realm" of "pure artifice" (Bullen 136). Although a chair, mirror, and other interior objects are located in the background, this "room" is simultaneously teaming with flowers. Cold, white roses -- symbols of sterile passion -- envelop the top right of the painting and spread out across the line of Lilith's hair. Poppies -- symbols of death -- are also present. The space is at once realistic and mythic. As both an interior boudoir space and a sheltered exterior alcove, this background space of "Lady Lilith" graphically illustrates the double-meaning behind "bower" which Rossetti will explore in his poem "Eden Bower."

Another mysterious object in the painting is the magical mirror in the top left. This mirror shows the reflection of the candles before it, indicating that it is indeed a mirror and not a window into some other world. Yet, the majority of the reflection reveals a magical woodland landscape. In his essay on "The Mirror's Secret," Hillis Miller indicates that this image speaks to the "persistent castrating nightmares" symbolized in the poem "The Orchard Pit" (Miller 334). There is much indication, as will be considered in a following section, that "The Orchard Pit" indeed draws on the Lilith theme, echoing many of the themes present in "Eden Bower" (Bullen 125). Seeing this woodland reflection as a view into the castrating world of "The Orchard Pit," therefore, successfully links together this painting and various Rossetti poems which explore the theme of Lilith.

Lilith's own appearance in this painting establishes her as "the embodiment of carnal loveliness" (Waugh 134). The painting was thus described by H.C. Marillier:

A beautiful woman, splendidly and voluptuously formed, is leaning back on a couch combing her long fair hair, while with cold dispassionateness she surveys her features in a hand mirror. . . She herself was a serpent first, and knows the gift of fascination. Bowered in roses, robed in white flowing draperies that slip and reveal the swelling contour of her bust and shoulders, no painter has ever captured like this the elemental power of carnal loveliness. (Marillier 133)

As Marillier implies, what is perhaps most visually striking about the picture is Lilith's clothing, "clothes that look as if they are soon to be removed" (Marsh, 1985, 235). Her body, barely able to be contained by the clothing, invites the viewer to read Lilith as sensual and beautiful.

It is not only the nearly removed nature of Lilith's attire that draws attention to her image as a sexualized being. What is absent from the picture is just as important. According to Bullen, Lilith's sexual availability is more prominently signalled by "the absence of corsetry, tight-lacing, and other marks of bourgeois moral rectitude" (141). Bullen cites an anonymous source on the subject, saying that the corset is "an ever-present monitor individually bidding its wearer to exercise self-restraint: it is evidence of a well- disciplined mind and well-regulated feelings" (Bullen 142). Her hair loose and corset absent, this Lilith is assuredly a symbol of open sexuality.

In light of this, it may seem surprising that when scholars point to Rossetti as the primary transformer of Lilith's image, they often use this picture as evidence. Haag and S�lle, for example, state: "Lady Lilith, showing a woman with magnificent hair, is a new interpretation of pre-Biblical Lilith. For Rossetti, Lilith is not an evil demon, but essential woman, combining worldly and divine love" (30).

Rossetti himself held the view that this representation was divergent from earlier portrayals of Lilith. In 1870, he wrote about this picture:

Lady [Lilith] . . . represents a Modern Lilith combing out her abundant golden hair and gazing on herself in the glass with that self-absorption by whose strange fascination such natures draw others within their own circle. (Rossetti, W. M. ii.850, D.G. Rossetti's emphasis)

As indicated in this description, Rossetti was aware that this picture presented a "Modern Lilith," one who differed from the pre-Biblical Lilith of Jewish lore, and he apparently designed it to do just so.

In The Pre-Raphaelite Body, J. B. Bullen elaborated on the meaning of this transformation, stating:

The threat posed by Lilith in the literary and mythological accounts is translated by Rossetti into this act of self-contemplation [her gaze into the mirror], and that danger is given an added frission by the contemporaneity of the figure, a "Modern Lilith." She has stepped out of the past and into the nineteenth century. She is to be found in the modern upper-class Victorian boudoir or bedroom, and is as potent an influence over the nineteenth- century male mind as she was over the ancient male mind. (136)

Lilith's role, therefore, is just as powerful as it ever was. The result of this portrayal is to bring her from the mythical past into what was, for Rossetti, a realistic present.

One of the most essential elements of this painting is Lilith's seductive beauty, extolled especially by the "erotic entrapment" of her beautiful hair (Howard 204, Haag and S�lle 30). It is this object which plays the primary role in the picture, occupying the center space and being held out by Lilith to show its full extent and beauty. This focus on the hair harkens back to earlier portrayals of Lilith, including the hair imagery of Goethe that so highly influenced Rossetti, and foreshadows the emphasis which Rossetti will place on Lilith's "castrating, cutting" golden hair in his poem entitled "Lilith" (Bullen 130).

The metaphor of women's hair has always been potent, but, during the Victorian period, this was especially so. In her article on "The Power of Women's Hair in the Victorian Imagination," Elizabeth G. Gitter states:

The more abundant the hair, the more potent the sexual invitation implied in its display. For folk, literary and psychoanalytic traditions agree that the luxuriance of the hair is an index of vigorous sexuality, even of wantonness. (938)

Thus, Lilith's excessive hair indicates an excess of sexuality. The manner in which she holds it out, purportedly to comb it, serves to openly display her sexuality on the canvas. It is the first and last impression that a viewer will receive.

As noted earlier, Goethe's influence on this painting is direct. Rossetti's 1868 watercolor of "Lady Lilith" (the date is contested) is often accompanied by the epigraph which Rossetti translated in 1866 (see previous section). An alternate translation of that passage further illuminates the correlation between this painting and Goethe's portrayal of Lilith. Mephistopheles' words to Faust read:

'Tis the first wife of the first man. Adam's first wife, Lilith. Beware, beware of her bright hair. . . Many a young man she beguileth, smiles winningly on youthful face, But woe to him whom she embraces! (Faust I, 4208-4211, as quoted in Haag and S�lle).

This message of "woe" seems to emanate from Rossetti's picture, for the beautiful Lady Lilith does not appear to be inviting the audience or any other to watch her.

Instead, she holds a look of self satisfaction. Although not directly recognized by earlier critics, this aspect gives ample opportunity for feminist interpretation. F. G. Stephens' 1984 article recognized some of these aspects which held out promise, stating:

She appears in the ardent langour of triumphant luxury and beauty. . . . The haughty luxuriousness of the beautiful modern witch's face, the tale of cold soul amid its charms, does not belie . . . the fires of a voluptuous physique. (68)

What makes this representation of Lilith different from earlier portrayals, therefore, is that Lilith's overwhelming beauty, not her moral culpability, is the primary focus.

Expounding on the "voluptuous self applause" and "haughty luxuriousness" indicated in Lilith's gaze, Jane Ussher, in her 1997 book Fantasies of Femininity: Reframing the Boundaries of Sex, states:

Lady Lilith stands as a classic example of the artistic representation of this passionate, fearful woman. . . It is a painting of a beautiful, almost haughty woman whose hand toys with her luxurious long hair as she gazes unsmiling at her own reflection in a mirror. She is engaged and satisfied with herself, not with any male voyeur. She is sexual, dangerously seductive, and does not give the appearance of an acquiescent femininity which will be easily satisfied. . . Fear of and desire for 'woman' is incarnated in one painting. She is both sexual and selfish, gazing upon herself with satisfaction, symbolizing her rejection of 'man.' (96, emphasis added)

This relatively recent criticism points clearly to Rossetti's role in opening the mythical figure of Lilith to feminist interpretation. Resisting male voyeurism, she delights in the pleasure of looking at herself.

Much like Keats' La Belle, Lilith has a "beauty without tenderness or sympathy for others" (Marillier 133). She does not look back at the spectator to engage in any sympathetic eye- contact, but looks only at herself. Her passive self-absorption and simultaneous lack of submissive acceptance of a male voyeur results in a threat to masculinity. This passive threat is markedly different from the active and aggressive threat posed by Lilith the succubus or Lilith the child-slaying witch, marking a transformation from these earlier images of Lilith as actively aggressive and unjustifiably evil.

This self-involvement likewise symbolizes a rejection of "man," a rejection of the roles of "wife" and "submissive, sexualized other" which are so often given to women. It is for this reason -- not any inherent wickedness -- that Lilith is labeled a "witch." Ussher explains, "She is a witch who is cruel and castrating, because she is powerful and strong" (96, emphasis added). Readers of Rossetti will note that it is this story -- the story of the powerful and strong woman -- which is further drawn upon in the poem "Lilith," written to accompany this painting.

Finally, "Lady Lilith" serves to problematize the nature of masculine desire by raising questions about the relationship between subject and object and threatening the identity of the male subject. Although some recent feminist criticism has stressed the absence of agency in Rossetti's female figures, it has failed to recognize the degree to which these figures, especially Lilith, are empowered (Anderson 151, Pollock 113, quoted in Bullen 147). Bullen states:

Within that discourse on masculinity the female is envisaged as significantly, if damagingly, empowered. . . . Lady Lilith's self-contained indifference offers an unanswerable challenge to the male psyche. (148)

By resisting compliance with the male gaze, Lilith, therefore, threatens the identity of the male voyeur.

Representing "beauty gazing at itself," Lilith arouses desire in men but also threatens them with her power (Bullen 148). She is an unobtainable beauty filled with power. And while this combination makes her irresistible, it also leads to the capture, castration, and death of any male who enters her presence. In "Lilith," Rossetti makes this story even more explicit.

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