The subject of Lilith can be found in Babylonian mythology from the Third and Fourth Centuries and was retold in Hebrew scripture in the Alphabet of Sirach, which explains how she was created from the same earth as Adam before the creation of Eve. In a variation of her story from the Thirteenth Century, Lilith had refused to be subservient to Adam and had abandoned the Garden of Eden and coupled with the archangel Samael. By the nineteenth century the name Lilith had become synonymous with powerful female independence and primordial sexual allure and she was identified either as a demoness or enchantress, the original femme fatale. Rossetti seems to have regarded her as the latter and when he painted Lady Lilith he recalled Mephistopheles’ description in Goethe’s Faust;
‘Adam's wife, his first. Beware of her. Her beauty's one boast is her dangerous hair. When Lilith winds it tight around young men She doesn't soon let go of them again.’ Goethe, Faust, 1992 Greenberg translation
Rossetti began the large oil Lady Lilith (Fig 1. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington) in 1864 as the first commission for Frederick Richards Leyland, who would become the artist’s greatest patron. Sadly Leyland disliked the way Rossetti had painted Lilith’s face and asked Rossetti to scrape it out and repaint it with a different model. This was done and many scholars believe that the repainting of the oil is among the greatest Pre-Raphaelite travesties. Fortunately Rossetti had made two replicas of Lady Lilith before the repainting was undertaken. Both were made in 1867, the year the oil was completed in its original form. One of these replicas was made for the collector William Coltart (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) whilst the present picture was made for Alexander Stevenson (1826-1900). Stevenson visited Rossetti’s studio in Chelsea on 13 July 1867 and wrote to his brother; ‘I was tempted to invest rather largely. You saw I think two large pictures. One of Adam’s first wife! A siren, mentioned I think he said by Goethe, she is combing out her golden hair as if to make a net to catch men attracted by her personal beauty. Of course I couldn’t go in for the big picture 500gns but I am getting a smaller one in water colours for 150gns’ (M.S. letter dated 14 July 1867). In 1866 Stevenson inherited a fortune from his father’s chemical works and had the means to indulge in his greatest passion, art collecting. During the summer of 1867 he stayed at the prestigious new hotel in Portland Place, The Langham, and visited various artists’ studios to find pictures for his home in Tynemouth, each room of which was decorated in the taste of a different nation. The replica was completed by November that year and Stevenson in August 1867 also commissioned a replica of The Loving Cup (sold in these rooms 11 December 2007, lot 25).
Although the painting is now titled Lady Lilith, the connection with the enchantress was probably not made until the picture had been designed. It is more accurate to regard the picture as a celebration of the beauty of Rossetti’s mistress, Fanny Cornforth and more specifically a pictorial hymn to her glorious corn-gold hair. In the 1860s Rossetti painted a remarkable series of intimate pictures depicting Fanny which are essentially without narrative. These began with the seminal Bocca Baciata of 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) which was painted for George Price Boyce who shared Fanny’s affections with Rossetti when they rented a studio together. The fact that the two men appear to have been sexually active with the same woman is made evident by the way Fanny is depicted in a dress that is open at the front and the way she leans from her parapet with an expression of allure and recognition. This picture shares many elements with Lady Lilith, including the boudoir setting filled with flowers and the focus on Fanny’s beautiful hair and pouting Cupid’s-bow mouth from which it takes its translated title (The Kissed Mouth). In 1863 Rossetti painted Fanny unplaiting her hair in Fazio’s Mistress (Fig 3. Tate) and in 1864 he painted two watercolours simply titled Woman Combing her Hair (one in a private collection and the other Fig 2. sold Christie’s, London, 13 July 2016, lot 114).
When Rossetti wrote to his doctor Thomas Hake on 21 April 1870, he made it clear that his intentions had been to paint a picture that ‘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 circle.’ An alternative title for Lady Lilith was Body’s Beauty which demonstrates that it was intended to be regarded as a counterpoint to the more cerebral and prophetic Sibylla Palmifera (Lady Lever Art Gallery) which was also known as Soul’s Beauty.
There can be no doubt of the physical and intimate nature of Rossetti’s relationship with Fanny based upon the evidence of his paintings alone. In most pictures she is depicted as a romanticised courtesan dressed in an exotic oriental silk dress lined with white fur and with an immodest, proud sensuality that exudes a desire to be admired. He even chose titles which evoked historical mistresses, such as Fazio’s Mistress and Fair Rosamund (National Museum of Wales) which depicts the paramour of Henry I. In Lady Lilith, Rossetti presents a remarkably intimate depiction of a woman, only partially dressed in her night-gown or under-dress with her hair loose on her shoulders. This was based upon precedents by Titian and Bellini but in the nineteenth century, such frank observations of the bedroom activities that would only be witnessed by a lover or voyeur would have been considered shockingly modern.
Even the flowers in the picture are laden with symbolism and erotic suggestion. The roses have an almost fleshy voluptuousness and whilst their colour suggests purity, their showy exuberance seems to be more indicative of fulfilment. The red flower in the foreground may be a poppy, the symbol of languor and drowsiness, but the fact that it is plucked and contained in a vase may represent the de-flowered ‘kept woman’. The only allusion to Lilith’s malignancy is the poisonous digitalis on her dresser beside a pot of hair-oil and a mirror which reflects the view of the Garden of Eden. The mirror reflecting the garden links Lady Lilith to Holman Hunt’s famous depiction of a mistress The Awakening Conscience of 1853 (Tate) in which the woman rises from the embrace of her lover at the sight of the garden beyond the gilded luxury of her room.
‘It did not signify what we were talking about or how agreeable I was; if a particular kind of reddish brown, crepe wave hair came in, he was away in a moment, struggling for an introduction to the owner of said head of hair.’ Letter from Elizabeth Gaskell, 25 October 1859
Rossetti created the cult of the Pre-Raphaelite beauty, or ‘Stunner’ as he called them, with their towering swan-like necks, full mouths and wealth of glorious pale-auburn hair. Fanny Cornforth embodied all of these physical qualities. In one of the many stories concerning Fanny’s first meeting with Rossetti, he ‘accidentally’ undid her hair in a restaurant – a provocatively intimate gesture.
Fanny was devastated when she learnt that her face had been obliterated from the oil version of Lady Lilith in 1872 to be replaced by the face of a professional model named Alexa Wilding whose flame-red beauty ignited Fanny’s jealousy. Rossetti tried to keep the news of what he had done to Lady Lilith from Fanny, knowing that she would be upset by having the celebration of her beauty destroyed in such a way and it seems that he did feel guilty that he had allowed a patron to cause him to alter a picture so drastically; in a letter to Madox Brown Rossetti wrote ‘he [Leyland] has every reason to be pleased with the way I have worked for him lately – having very greatly increased the value of two pictures (Lilith and Loving Cup) for him without asking a penny… I have often said that to be an artist is just the same thing as being a whore, as far as dependence on the whims and fancies of individuals is concerned.’ Fanny claimed (she was prone to exaggeration) that when Rossetti had removed her face from the picture, he sat down and wept ‘until the tears ran through his fingers, and said ‘I can’t do it over again, and you are not what you were!’ (letter from Fanny to the American art collector Samuel Bancroft, 18 August 1908). There may be some truth to this as by the 1870s, Fanny’s youthful buxom charm had been replaced by a more expansive matronly heaviness. She did not pose for another painting by Rossetti, although she did eventually forgive him for his slight.
Rossetti first met Fanny Cornforth (1835-1906) during the summer of 1856, apparently at a procession celebrating the return of soldiers from the Crimean war. She was born Sarah Cox, the daughter of a Sussex blacksmith and much has been written about the perception of her virtue, possibly based on the spite of members of Rossetti’s circle who did not like her earthy charms. She was coarse, ill-educated and light-fingered but she had a deep well of affection, a wonderful sense of humour and an open-mindedness which must have been very refreshing to Rossetti. With an open sensuality, sense of good fun and a mass of golden hair that reached the ground, she offered Rossetti an energetic antidote to the ailing fragility of his future wife Lizzie Siddall, with who he was separated at the time he met Fanny. Even after Rossetti’s marriage, he remained close to Fanny and felt responsible for her. After Lizzie’s suicide Fanny moved into Rossetti’s studio to be his ‘housekeeper’ although there can be little doubt that this was a euphemism. Rossetti developed infatuations for other women as Fanny’s golden beauty faded but he never abandoned her and even through her two marriages he continued to remain close to her and gave her money and possessions to assist her various financial difficulties. That he loved her in the late 1860s there can be no doubt but his early passion became something more paternal in later years and he saw his role as being as her protector. During the ten years of Rossetti and Siddall’s protracted engagement it is thought that their relationship was not consummated. It is therefore likely that Fanny was the first woman that Rossetti had slept with which makes the painting of Lilith, the first woman, even more poignant. Rossetti described Lilith as being ‘the first gold’ and it seems that this is how he regarded Fanny, with whom he probably made his first sexual adventures. It was her warmth he called for whilst in the grip of fear as death approached him in 1882. He wrote to her pleading for her to come to his death-bed and be with him at the end of his adult life, as she had been at the beginning and throughout. His circle of friends cruelly chose not to deliver his pleas and she was only told of his death days after his funeral.
The rediscovery of Lady Lilith after thirty years offers an opportunity to acquire the only version of one of Rossetti’s most iconic pictures to remain in private hands. It presents the artist’s original vision of the picture and was painted during his most innovative period in the 1860s.
We are grateful to Chiaki Kato for her assistance cataloguing this picture.
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