“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.”
Alexa Wilding (born Alice), a beautiful young girl with auburn hair captivated Dante Gabriel Rossetti with her elegance and charms ever since he first sat eyes on her in 1865. At the time they met, Alice, approximately twenty years old at the time, was working as a dressmaker but dreamed of becoming an actress. Dante spotted her one evening in the Strand in 1865. and he was immediately struck by her beauty. Naturally, he proposed her to sit for him, which she accepted but failed to arrive at his studio the following day. The reason for her absence may have been the moral dilemma of being a model in the Victorian era.
Rossetti was devastated for he had been looking for a model with distinct looks for so long; the beauty he found in the face of young Alice. Weeks later, he spotted her again and jumped from the cab he was in and convinced her to follow him to his studio the very instant. She finally accepted and Dante began paying her a weekly fee to sit for him as he was so afraid that some other painter might want to hire her as a model. Alice eventually modeled for more of his finished paintings than any other of his models, but still she is less known due to the lack of romantic connection with Rossetti. Nevertheless, the two shared a deep bond and Alice is said to have visited Rossetti’s grave and placed a wreath on it.
Rossetti first painted ‘Lady Lilith‘ in 1866-68. using Fanny Cornforth as a model, but in 1872-73. he altered it to show the beautiful face of Alice Wilding. Alice’s features were considered more refined compared to Fanny’s which were considered too earthy. In addition, Rossetti saw in Alice’s features the ability to express both virtue and vice. Who could be a better model for Lilith, beautiful yet evil woman, than Alice with her lovely face and massive golden auburn hair? Alice was described as having ”a lovely face, beautifully moulded in every feature, full of quiescent, soft, mystical repose that suited some of his conceptions admirably…” Her features are easily recognised in Rossetti’s art; red hair, long neck, Cupid-bow lips and soft, dreamy eyes.
1867. Lady Lilith, watercolour replica, showing the face of Fanny Cornforth.
Lilith was the first wife of Adam, according to Judaic myth, and is a symbol of power, temptation and seduction. Rossetti’s version of Lilith was however a modern interpretation rather than a mythical figure. It represented ‘body’s beauty‘ according to Rossetti’s sonnet. This ‘Modern Lilith‘ contemplates her own beauty in a hand-mirror. Although Rossetti painted many ‘mirror scenes’; a trend which other artists accepted, ‘Lady Lilith‘ stays the epitome of the type.
Even though the focus is the beautiful Lilith, the painting is filled with overt flower symbolism and the cluttered, depth less space. The mirror in the background shows just how unreal and bizarre the space is; it shows the reflection of both the candles in the room and the exterior nature scene. The white roses tending to Lilith, admiring her beauty perhaps, symbolise cold, sensuous love and may reflect tradition that roses first ‘blushed‘ upon meeting Eve. Flowery background was the final part of the painting. White roses were, according to Rossetti’s assistant Dunn, gathered in large baskets from John Ruskin’s garden in Denmark Hill (area of Camberwell, London) from where they were brought to Rossetti’s studio in Chelsea. Red poppy in the lower right corner symbolises sleep and forgetfulness, and may indicate Lilith’s languid nature.
Rossetti also added a feminist dimension to the painting by emphasizing Lilith’s characteristics; her powerful, threatening and seductive attitude and resistance to male domination. She’s beautiful and she’s aware of it. Her massive luxurious red hair, undisguised sensuality and ‘clothes that look as if they’re soon to be removed‘ all make her irresistible to man. The painting represents ‘beauty gazing at itself‘. Lilith is an unobtainable beauty filled with power.