Vanity, thy name is woman? "Lady Lilith"


Shakespeare never wrote the line "Vanity, thy name is woman." Hamlet's line reads, "Frailty, thy name is woman," in relation to his mother's hasty marriage to Claudius after the King's death. But upon looking at Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith, it is impossible not to conjure up Shakespeare's misquoted line. Lady Lilith sensuously reclines in a luxuriant, though decidedly ambiguous, environment. Rossetti's placement of a mirror behind Lilith, reflecting a lush tree in the exterior, complicates the scene both visually and symbolically as the viewer struggles to discern between interiority and exteriority. Yet the focus of the painting is most certainly Lady Lilith herself. She is the consummate image of sensuality and beauty. With heavy-lidded eyes she gazes at herself in the mirror, completely absorbed in her own image. Lady Lilith has eyes only for herself. Surrounded by a myriad of flowers, she sits and combs her luxurious copper hair. There is nothing of the confining Victorian concept of feminine constraints; her hair is unbound and she does not wear a corset. Instead, she wears what looks to be a nightgown that has slipped off her shoulders, revealing her long neck. Rossetti paints her skin and gown in the same tones, and thus, in a rather Deleuzian way, her alabaster flesh seems to permeate her dress. Yet despite her overtly feminine sensuous lips and flowing hair, there is something rather masculine in Lady Lilith. The line of her jaw, her powerful neck, and heavy shoulders are those of a man, not a frail Victorian woman. Thus I see Rossetti's consummate image of beauty as decidedly androgynous.

Questions

The painting is anything but static. How does Rossetti achieve movement?

Barthes wrote that perversion and eroticism lie in the intermittence of an image of sensuality. Lady Lilith's gown is about to fall from her breast and one could easily imagine her lifting her shoulder to prevent the dress from slipping. Is Rossetti's image perverse? Is it perverse in the Victorian or modern sense?

It is said that Rossetti changed the concept of feminine beauty in painting in Victorian England. I have read Lady Lilith as an androgynous figure. What could this say about Rossetti's and, in turn, the PRB's notion of vanity?

What does the tree reflected in the mirror represent?

There exist innumerable representations of vanity in Western art. Rossetti painted Lady Lilith in 1868. The French painter Gustave Courbet painted his version of vanity, Jo, la Belle Irlandaise in 1866. What is the relation between these paintings? How are they similar and how are they different? Could Courbet have influenced Rossetti? Rossetti influenced Courbet? (Hint: What connection existed between Courbet, Rossetti, and Jo?)

Related Materials


Victorian Web Overview Visual Arts Dante Gabriel Rossetti Rossetti's paintings Discussion questions for Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Last modified 4 October 2004