The Modern Lilith


Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith changed the ideal of feminine beauty in Victorian times. The painting depicts Lilith who in Jewish myth was the first wife of Adam. Rossetti depicts Lilith in the traditional form as the long-haired seductress who abandoned Adam when he denied her equality. During the 1850s and 60s, Rossetti became obsessed with the depiction of the beautiful, sexually aggressive and intimidating woman. The painting focuses on Lilith captivated with her beauty. The background suggests a bedroom but this is disturbed by the reflection of a dense, lush forest in her mirror. Nature creeps into this interior space as Lilith is surrounded by white roses and poppies.

The most striking aspect of the painting is Lilith's clothing. Instead of the rigid and proper portraits of Victorian women made up in the latest fashions, Lilith reclines in her bedclothes. The very absence of her corset suggests Lilith's openness and lack of restraint. The flowing and loose nature of her hair echoes this suggestion. Rossetti champions this freedom and Lilith symbolizes his views on the spiritual power of sexual love. Rossetti does not make Lilith the demon as she is represented in the Bible but instead creates a character that attracts the viewer with her beauty. Rossetti positions Lilith open, her long hair embraces and draws the viewer in. By showing a modern Lilith, Rossetti attempts to show the potent power that modern Victorian women could possess over the male mind.

Questions

1. Lilith is a figure from religious mythology, but does this painting in fact depict a religious scene?

2. Lady Lilith was accompanied by the poem "Body's Beauty" that states that Lilith, "draws men to watch the bright web she can weave." The voyeuristic nature of this painting is emphasized by Lilith's disinterest in acknowledging the viewer. Can these observations tell us about Victorian ideas regarding the role of women and sex?

3. How are we meant to feel about the character of Lilith. Is she a sympathetic figure?

4. How has the form of a woman's body changed in Rossetti's works from those we have seen in other PRB paintings?

Related Materials


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

Last modified 8 October 2004