In Rossetti's painting, Lady Lilith, the subject dominates the picture. It is to her striking features that the eye is drawn, thanks in part to the brilliance of her skin, which almost acts as a source of light. Her gaze is remarkable for its intensity. However, it is not focused outside at the viewer, nor at any object in the picture except her own reflection. She attracts our gaze, only for us to become aware that she too is utterly absorbed by her own image.

This sets up a peculiar doubling — we are looking at an image that is looking at an image of itself — but it also raises the question of whether or not the subject is aware of our gaze. In most paintings this would not arise, for example in Rossetti's "Aurelia (Fazio's Mistress)" the subject is clearly absorbed in braiding her hair and displays no awareness whatsoever of the gaze of the viewer. However, there are three factors that generate uncertainty about whether or not Lilith is responding to our gaze. She is ostensibly displaying her hair for the mirror's reflection, but she is holding her head and lifting her hand at such an angle that it seems as though the hair is being displayed directly for the viewer. The angle of Lilith's face leads the eye into the painting, only for it to be confronted by this mass of hair held almost horizontal to our view. The second factor is her expression — whilst any interpretation of such a thing is necessarily subjective, I would argue that her gaze has a coolness and self-possession to it that does not quite agree with the idea of a woman by herself in her bedroom. Her expression seems to be a mask of beauty and detachment, something worn when conscious of the gaze of another. There is no relaxation as there is in "Aurelia (Fazio's Mistress)" — in that painting the woman seems absorbed in her task and possibly finding it slightly tricky; we can see a slight double chin as she peers at the mirror, and we do not feel that she is aware of our view and posing to her best advantage — the only gaze she seems concerned with is her own. Lilith, on the other hand (and this is the third factor) seems to be posed in order to display herself to the viewer at maximum advantage. As many commentators note, she is not wearing a corset and the angle of her figure is such as to draw attention to her breasts; her dress is slipping off her shoulder, revealing even more flesh (and I have already mentioned the brightness Rossetti gives to her skin).

Do we read this as a subject who is herself aware of her position within the frame of the painting, or do we simply see a figure that Rossetti has arranged for the pleasure of the viewer? The issue is one of power. In his poem, 'Body's Beauty', that accompanies the painting, Lilith is portrayed as seductive, dangerous and controlling:

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. [ll. 6-9]

These lines seem similarly ambiguous over the extent of Lilith's ingenuousness in her self-contemplation: for example, "subtly of herself contemplative" where "subtly" might mean craftily or cunningly contemplative. The caesura between lines 6 and 7 creates uncertainty over whether Lilith "Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave" by means of her subtle self-contemplation; the two things need not necessarily be connected, but these lines seem to imply that they are. If so, Lilith is the centre of power of the painting, using the opportunity to exercise that ability to draw the viewer into her web "Till heart and body and life are in its hold". However, if she is not aware of being the subject of the viewer's gaze, the centre of power has arguably shifted — either to the viewer, who voyeuristically spies upon her in a moment of privacy, or to the painter, who displays her to the best aesthetic and sensual advantage he can.

Rossetti himself seemed to conflate these two possibilities in a letter to his friend Dr Hake concerning the painting:

You ask me about Lilith — I suppose referring to the Picture-sonnet. The picture is called "Lady Lilith" by rights (only I thought this would present a difficulty in print without paint to explain it) and represents 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 draw others within their circle. The idea which you indicate (viz: of the perilous principle in the world being female from the first) is about the most essential meaning of the sonnet.

There are a number of interesting and puzzling things about Rossetti's words here, however most relevant to the discussion thus far is the fact that he describes Lilith staring at the glass with "complete self-absorption". She is, according to the painter, completely engrossed in her own image, much like his "Aurelia (Fazio's Mistress)". However, this does not reduce her power, since it is precisely thanks to this self-absorption that she exercises fascination. She is simultaneously a passive and a powerful subject.

Rossetti calls his creation a "Picture-sonnet", suggesting that one cannot be read without the other and that in fact they are almost one creative entity. This yoking together of words and image is deepened and confused by Rossetti's suggestion that calling the painting "Lady Lilith" would "present a difficulty in print without paint to explain it". This is a puzzling statement. It almost seems as though Rossetti is suggesting that the painting "explains" its own title, which is precisely the reverse of the way titles to paintings usually operate. Indeed in this instance, I would argue, the title adds a great deal to our interpretation of the painting, since the image on its own is not sufficient to convey the specific idea of the woman being the mythic Lilith. It is difficult to parse out what Rossetti means by this sentence, however we can again examine the issue as one of power — does the paint serve the language, being there to explain it, or does the paint possess a power that the language does not, able to make clear what the words fail to do?

Rossetti's sonnet certainly seems to elaborate certain points that his painting does not. It places much more emphasis on Lilith's powers to ensnare, deceive and subdue. She is given a destructive, active agency:

Lo! as that youth's eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair. [lines 12-14]

In the sonnet at least, she is no passive figure, and it is possible to see the painting as enacting the words of the sonnet:

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. [lines 6-9]

In her contemplative state, Lilith achieves an agency. She is not submitted to the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer; instead she turns her passive, apparently narcissistic activity and her position as the centre of our focus into a source of power.

Questions

What does Rossetti mean when he says that calling the painting "Lady Lilith" would "present a difficulty in print without paint to explain it"?

What might be understood by the category of a "Picture-sonnet"? Is this a helpful category?

Does the presentation of Lilith (in both painting and sonnet) tell us anything about Rossetti's (and perhaps society's) view of women?

The painting displays another mirror (in the top left hand corner). What is the function of this mirror? What does it reflect and to what purpose?

Related Material

References

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jerome McGann. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Allen, Virginia M. "'One Strangling Golden Hair': Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith". The Art Bulletin 66.2 (June 1984): 285-94.


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Last modified 8 November 2007