Feel Art Again: "Lady Lilith"

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The Rossetti family, helmed by Gabriele and Frances, was thoroughly enmeshed in the arts. Papa Gabriele was a Dante Alighieri scholar and a professor of Italian at King's College London, while his wife, Frances, was a governess and teacher. All four of their children also pursued careers in the arts and education, including their son Dante. Today, we'll take a closer look at Dante Rossetti and his 1867 painting, "Lady Lilith."

1. Attached to the original frame of "Lady Lilith" was an identifier, of sorts:

Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks
And when she twines them round a young man's neck
She will not ever set him free again.

The lines are taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley's translation of the Walpurgisnacht scene in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust.

2. Rossetti was actually born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti; he was known to his friends as "Gabriel." In publications and on artwork, though, he used "Dante" in honor of Dante Alighieri. He published several translations of Dante and other Medieval Italian poets, and several of his paintings are Dante-inspired scenes.

3. Friends of Rossetti were sometimes asked to meet him at the "Wombat's Lair" in the London Zoo. He loved exotic animals, especially wombats, and even had two as pets. Top, his first pet wombat, would accompany Rossetti to the dinner table and was even allowed to sleep in the table's large centerpiece during meals.

4. The sonnet "Body's Beauty" was written by Rossetti about "Lady Lilith" in opposition to "Soul's Beauty," which he composed about his painting "Sibylla Palmifera."

Body's Beauty
Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
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.

The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
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.

5. Rossetti was not only a poet and a painter, but also a designer of stained glass, a critic, and a translator. His older sister, Christina, was a poet as well, while his younger siblings Michael and Maria were a critic and an author, respectively. Elizabeth Siddal, his wife, served as a model for Rossetti and other painters, but eventually became a painter herself, at which time she ceased modeling.

6. Both Rossetti and his wife succumbed to the dangers of drugs. The two were married in 1860 and Siddal gave birth to a stillborn child the following year. Within a year, she died of an overdose of laudanum. Rossetti became increasingly depressed after her death, even going so far as to bury his unpublished manuscripts with his wife. (He later exhumed and published them.) In the final years of his life, Rossetti was addicted to chloral and gradually became less mentally stable. He died on Easter Sunday, 1882, just over twenty years after the death of his wife.

A larger version of "Lady Lilith" is available from the Walker Art Gallery. Written works by Dante, Christina, William, and William's wife Lucy are available on Project Gutenberg.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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February 19, 2008 - 10:55am
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