The Beauty as Power in Rossetti's "Lady Lilith"


In his Lady Lilith painted between 1868 and 1873, Dante Gabriel Rossetti depicts the themes of both feminine sexuality and feminine culpability in an especially striking and unusual manner. Here he chooses to emphasize the parallel between the contemporary idea of the highly sexual seductress to that of Christian mythology's first female. According to myth, a highly sensual and erotic woman Lilith married Adam before his later union with Eve. Most of these accounts similarly portray Lilith in a less than favorable light—many of them hinting at her seductive nature as a supernatural or witch-like power over men. Here, Rossetti confronts us as the viewer with the central theme of this age-old tale, but forces us to consider the ways in which it applied to the Victorian women of his time.

The artist paints this subject within her own boudoir as she contentedly studies her appearance in the mirror and combs out her long, waving, bright-colored hair. In this work then, Rossetti not only follows the Pre-Raphaelite convention of illustrating subject matter whose title already holds meaning or narrative for many of its potential viewers, but he also presents his subject at the moment in which she concentrates on her power and capacity to control others. The woman looks into the mirror in contemplation and brushes out her hair for a reason, and that reason is to make certain of her attractiveness. The scene that Rossetti chooses to depict is a telling one. Here, Lady Lilith casually assures herself of her separateness and power over man.

For emphasis, Rossetti reminds us of this difference with every detail that he can. For instance, Lady Lilith wears no corset, her womanly body barely contained by her nightdress. He similarly paints her incredibly full lips a bright, rose red to make clear her extreme femininity and mirrors their hue in the detail of her bracelet and the red flower in the vase at her side. Perhaps most obviously of all, he depicts his subject with luxuriously long, thick hair displayed at this moment in its full glory. Here, Rossetti means to and successfully presents the female at her most beautiful and at the precise moment in which she is most conscious of this beauty as a form of strength.

Questions

1. Rossetti sets Lady Lilith in a boudoir, but many of the details of the painting such as the engulfing flowers behind her back and on her dresser as well as the seemingly impossible reflection of the woods outside that the mirror impart an especially dream-like quality to the work. What could be the function or significance in employing this surreal painting technique or style?

2. In which specific, physical ways does this depiction of a woman correspond with or differ from that of earlier paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? How does this woman compare to Millais' Mariana or the female in Hunt's Awakening Conscience?

3. Does Rossetti condemn, applaud, or simply tolerate this woman for her narcissism and vanity? In viewing this painting would the artist have you favor or dislike this woman for these characteristics and/or her power over man?

4. Do you perceive any significant symbolism in this painting? Why so many flowers? What might the wreath in her lap suggest, if anything?

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

Last modified 4 October 2004