According to Talmudic legend, Lilith was the wife of Adam before the advent of Eve. Rossetti was fascinated by the subject, which is alluded to in Goethe's Faust, one of his earliest and most formative sources of literary inspiration. He treated it in an important painting of the later 1860s (Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington) on which the present drawing is based, and in two poems first published in his Poems of 1870, 'Eden Bower' and the following sonnet:
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 net 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.
The sonnet was later incorporated into Rossetti's House of Life sequence and re-titled 'Body's Beauty'. As this implies, Lilith is associated with the world and the flesh; indeed, according to Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, a book certainly known to Rossetti, 'Adam of her...begat nothing but diuils' (devils). She is thus a prime example of the femme fatale who exercised such a profound influence on the Pre-Raphaelite, and ultimately on the international Symbolist, imagination.
Rossetti's painting of the subject was begun in 1864, his mistress and housekeeper, Fanny Cornforth, being the model. The picture is dated 1868, and it was sold soon after to the Liverpool shipowner Frederick Leyland, one of the artist's most important patrons.
Leyland was currently creating a great 'aesthetic' interior at 23 Queen's Gate, Kensington, with the help of the marchands amateurs Charles Augustus Howell and Murray Marks, both of whom were friends of Rossetti. However, in 1872, at Leyland's request, Rossetti had the painting back and repainted the features from another model, Alexa Wilding. Its original appearance is recorded in an old photograph and it is clear that the repainting was much to its disadvantage. Fanny Cornforth's sensuous and rather course good looks were perfectly attuned to the subject, while her physical involvement with the artist lent its own chemistry in the interpretation. The substitution of the cool, aloof features, of Miss Wilding, a professional model, totally changed the psychology of the picture and resulted in an image of lifeless and numbing vapidity.
The present drawing must have been made before 1872; it clearly represents the composition before the alterations made that year, and the features of the model are much closer to those of Fanny Cornforth than to those of Alexa Wilding. It is not an exact copy; the roses in the background and the drapery covering the chair, for instance, are different in detail, and the 'garland of silver flowers' that Rossetti painted on the sitter's lap is missing. This either suggests that the copyist deliberately altered the composition to suit his own preferences, or that the copy was made before the painting was completed in 1868-9. The latter seems more likely. We know that the garland was a late addition, and also that shortly before the picture was finished Rossetti repainted the lower part (presumably including the chair) as it had been 'so much altered as to be spoilt in execution' (see The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britian 1860-1910, exh.Tate Gallery, 1997-8, cat.p.102).
Technically the drawing is comparable to the large studies in coloured chalks that Rossetti so often made of his half-length female figures. It is clearly by someone with an intimate knowledge of his style, and the most likely candidate is Henry Treffry Dunn. Dunn was born in Truro, Cornwall, where he started his career as a bank clerk. However, he nursed artistic ambitions, and in the mid-1860s he came to London and enrolled at Heatherley's Art School in Newman Street, Bloomsbury. A friend gave him an introduction to Charles Augustus Howell, and in 1867 Howell introduced him to Rossetti, who was looking for a replacement for his first assistant, W.J. Knewstub, who had recently left him to work independantly. Apart from one unhappy period of estrangement, Dunn was to remain with Rossetti until the latter's death in 1882, doing preliminary work on his pictures, making replicas, and acting as a general factotum. He was, Rossetti told him, 'the best of fellows and my guardian angel'.
In his recollections, an important source of information about life in Rossetti's household in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, Dunn twice mentions Lady Lilith. The picture was in progress when he began to work for his employer, and impressed him deeply. 'The dreamy beauty of the woman and the rich colour in which the whole picture was steeped', he wrote, 'excited my admiration and desire to know its meaning.' Having quoted the artist's explanation of 'the Talmudic legend', he added: 'I am sorry to say that Rossetti repainted the face some years later for what reason I never could divine, and to my thinking it was by no means improved by his so doing.' Dunn also recalled how he, Howell, and the artist G.P. Boyce, another close friend of Rossetti, had made an expedition to Ruskin's house on Denmark Hill to pick bunches of white roses for Rossetti to paint into the picture's background. 'Laden with a large basket of fresh cut roses we betook ourselves home again to Chelsea and the next day or two was spent by Rossetti in arranging and painting (them)...to the glorification of the design' (Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Circle, 1984, ed., pp. 15-16, 34-5).
Dunn does not specifically mention making a chalk copy, but the fact that the picture looms so large in his narrative suggests that he was involved with it to an unusual degree. Indeed, a small watercolour replica in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, was attributed partly to Dunn by Charles Fairfax Murray, who was also closely associated with Rossetti's studio (see Virginia Surtees, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1971, vol. 1, p. 117, no. 205 R. 1). The watercolour copy is dated 1867, which seems to be almost exactly the date of our drawing.
Two large chalk studies for the picture are also recorded, one of which is lost (Surtees, 205A). However, the measurements (37 x 33 in.) differ from those of the present drawing, which in any case could not be described as a preparatory study.