Rossetti' "Lilith": A Research Paper

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My research paper about Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his influences, and their impact on his renowned painting "Lady Lilith".

Submitted: July 08, 2017

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Submitted: July 08, 2017

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Research Project: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith
Tess Sullivan Knobeloch

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith epitomized a culmination of techniques, subjects, and ideas which reflected the era in which it was created, as well as foreshadowed the developments yet to come in modern art.  Rossetti became a mentor to a group of younger artists including Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement; and his paintings of beautiful women, including Lady Lilith (and many others of the collection of paintings dubbed by his patron, Frederick Richards Leyland, “Stunners”), also helped establish the Aesthetic and Symbolic movements and the principle of “Art for Art’s Sake” in the late Victorian era.  
Dante Gabriel Rossetti belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a founding group of The Aesthetic Movement, which he established with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848.  It was created as a revolt against artists like Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and, of course, Raphael.  These artists had been precursors to the Mannerist Movement, created in the later years of the Italian High Renaissance, who focused on what they called the "anti-classical," or "anti-Renaissance," which was characterized as a more inward-looking and intellectual style, designed to appeal to more sophisticated patrons.  Mannerist painting tended to be more artificial and less naturalistic than Renaissance painting. This exaggerated idiom is typically associated with attributes such as emotionalism, elongated human figures, strained poses, and unusual effects of scale, lighting or perspective with dark, garish colors ("Mannerism Style of Art (c.1520-1600)").  The Pre-Raphaelites alleged that these qualities had been a negative influence on academic art ("Dante Gabriel Rossetti").
Rossetti and his companions believed that, to revive artistic expression, there must be a return to the fine, plethoric detail, rich colors, and intricate compositions of the early Italian Renaissance, which pushed naturalism more than the disproportionation of the Mannerists.  He was greatly influenced by sensuality, medieval revivalism, and an interwoven poetry throughout his work; whether it be biblical, mythological, or simply fantastical.
Although the Italian High Renaissance had always been the main influence on the Pre-Raphaelites, it wasn't until the 1860s that Rossetti began to show a great deal of impact from the Venetian School.
Beginning with Giorgione in the later part of the 15th century, the major artists of the Venetian Renaissance were notables such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese.  Believing the importance of color over line, the Venetians differed from the Mannerists, who were prevalent at this time.  Like Rossetti, the Venetians skillful and sumptuous use of color became their trademark. 
Like fellow contemporary James Whistler, and many artists of this period, Rossetti was also influenced by the wave of Asian style art, or “Japonisme,” that swept through Europe after Japanese ports reopened to trade with the West in 1853 (both he and Frederick Leyland were fervent collectors of Chinese pottery) (Ives “Japonisme”).  This orientalism found its way into Rossetti’s later art, including Lady Lilith. 
With today’s standards in mind, the Pre-Raphaelites may appear less than modern.  However, in their own time, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood accomplished something revolutionary.  They were one of the first groups to value painting out-of-doors for its “truth to nature,” and their concept of banding together to take on the art establishment helped to pave the way for later groups.  The distinctive elements of their paintings, such as the extreme attention to detail, the brilliant colors and the beautiful rendition of literary subjects, set them apart from other Victorian painters.
Rossetti was born in 1828, London (he lived in England all his life), and was given the name Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, the son of an emigrant Italian scholar.  He later would rearrange his name to reflect his admiration of the poet Dante Alighieri, after who he had been named.  He was the second oldest of four children; he had an older sister, Maria, a writer and nun; a younger brother, William, a critic, who had also been the unofficial organizer and bibliographer of the Pre-Raphaelites; and the youngest, Christina, an accomplished poet ("Influences on Dante Gabriel Rossetti").  It is no wonder that Rossetti himself was a great lover of poetry and often wrote accompaniments to his many paintings.  
During Rossetti’s lifetime, there was an explosion of urbanization through England because of the growing Industrial Revolution.  Starting in 1801, only twenty percent of the country's population lived in towns, and increased to over half by 1851; in 1881, the percentage rose to over two-thirds (Mugglestone "Nineteenth-Century English—an Overview").  Rossetti died in 1882, in Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, at the age of 53.  He’d suffered from Bright’s disease, which had been aggravated by an addiction to chloral hydrate as well as excessive alcoholism (Marsh "Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Biography").
This spread of industrialization helped to fervor his and his colleague’s efforts to maintain the presence of the artisan and handcrafted, one of their greatest supporters being the critic and philanthropist John Ruskin.  The resulting creation of the Aesthetic Movement, in turn, fueled the soon to come Arts and Crafts Movement (Easby "A Beginner's Guide to the Pre-Raphaelites").  As well as the Industrial Revolution, there was also religious upheaval at this time.  
Rossetti’s work starting in the late 1840s showed distinct homage to the Oxford Movement, which was a revival of Anglo-Catholicism that spread through England in 1833.  He included in paintings of this period elements such as altars, decorated similarly to that of his local church, religious icons, and subjects from the Bible (Mugglestone "Nineteenth-Century English—an Overview"). These remained evident throughout most work in his life.  Both Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites aimed to communicate a message of "moral reform" through the style of their works, starting with their utilization of "truth to nature" ("The Pre-Raphaelites (fl.1848-55)").
Rossetti and his wife, popular Pre-Raphaelite model, artist and writer, Elizabeth Siddal, lived together in Chatham Place, Kent, for nearly 10 years.  After her death in 1862, he leased Tudor House at 16 Cheyne Walk, in Chelsea ("The Life and Work of Elizabeth Siddal").  This is where he painted Lady Lilith, as well as many others which would become a part of a collection of paintings owned by Frederick Leyland, a wealthy shipping magnate and partner at John Bibby, Sons & Co.  These six paintings, which depicted Arthurian heroines, Italian muses, and drowning femme fatales, included Rossetti’s 1867 portrait of Leyland’s first wife, Frances, as the whimsical Monna Rose; his 1872 Veronica Veronese, modeled by the beautiful Alexa Wilding (who would later become his subject for Lady Lilith); Prosperine, 1874, modeled by his on-again, off-again lover, and wife of colleague William Morris, Jane; The Blessed Damozel, 1875-78, also Alexa Wilding; Mnemosyne, 1875-81, his second Stunner featuring Jane Morris, and, of course, his 1872-73 Lady Lilith ("Leyland, Frederick Richards - I17930").  
Rossetti’s original Lady Lilith was painted in 1866-68, using his mistress, Fanny Cornforth as the model.  There were three great muses in Rossetti’s life, the first being Jane Morris, then his wife Lizzie Siddal, and lastly Fanny, who he met in 1858.  The years after his wife’s death, Fanny had moved in with Rossetti and became his live-in housekeeper at Cheyne Walk for several years ("Real Lives of the Pre-Raphaelite ‘Stunners’").  It was four years after he’d painted his original that Leyland commissioned Rossetti to do a reimagining of his Fanny Lilith with the model Alexa, who he found more appealing (Barnes "Rossetti's Lady Lilith: Power and Painting").  The time taken to paint this rendition cut his first in half, being completed in only a year.  Nonetheless, this later execution was far more decadent.  
Begun the same year as his original Lilith, Rossetti also conceived of a sister-painting, in oil, called Sibylla Palmifera, finished in 1870.  The name Palmifera means "palm-bearer," and the model  (who is also Alexa) holds a palm in her hands. The palm, together with the inclusion of butterflies, indicate the spiritual nature of the painting.  In this piece, she is surrounded by symbols of love, death, and fate, such as red roses and a blind cupid, love, poppies and a skull, death, butterflies, the human soul, and a carved sphinx, mystery.  This painting was created to signify the strength and beauty endowed to the human soul through its ability to love.  This was made as a counter for Lilith, who signified shallow beauty and physicality without feeling.  
There were composed by Rossetti two sonnets to narrate both paintings, each inscribed around the frame of the pictures.  The first was Soul’s Beauty, written to accompany Sibylla, and then Body’s Beauty to accompany Lilith.  Rossetti calls his creation a “Picture-sonnet,” suggesting that one cannot be read without the other and they are one creative entity.  
Where Soul’s Beauty is a shrine to the beauty of the soul: “Under the arch of Life, where love and death, terror and mystery, guard her shrine, I saw Beauty enthroned… This is that Lady Beauty, in whose praise thy voice and hand shake still” (the phrase “Thy voice and hand shake still” distinctly recalls Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso XIII, again looping back to Rossetti’s esteem for the poet) (“Soul’s Beauty Introduction”).  Body’s Beauty is a blatant warning against the desire of the body, more specifically, that of Lilith’s: “Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told (The witch he loved before the gift of Eve) that, ere the snakes, her sweet tongue could deceive, and her enchanted hair was the first gold… Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave, till heart and body and life are in its hold… 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.”  This also ties in with Lilith’s role as a femme fatale and seductress, now supported with an eloquently prosed testament (Barnes "Rossetti's Lady Lilith: Power and Painting").  Given Rossetti’s insistence of the wholeness of the painting and sonnet together, that the marriage of both picture and word are crucial to completely understand the image, I found it necessary to provide Lilith’s 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, who 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 elements of Rossetti’s 1872-73 Lady Lilith, one of his three major “mirror-paintings” (where a woman is featured with a mirror), painted with oil on canvas, feature very deep, rich colors, some of which being; lush, creamy white, romantic, coppery-red and bright, cool chartreuse, that have an intensity and complexity that is truly intoxicating and pops right off the canvas of dusky, midnight black.  His texture is soft and warm, giving his subject the illusion of living and breathing, but intrepid in its purpose and definition, being unmistakably a work of art given its soft, but fine, rippling brushstrokes and exaggeratedly flattering shading. 
The composition is ridden with detail, every corner a feast for the eyes and imagination.  Rossetti's Lady Lilith herself is positioned in the very center of the canvas, making her the star exhibit of the piece, which is no less than she deserves, with extraordinarily detailed hair, face and hands.  Assembled around her are elements as equally superb and narrative, one being the decadent gold mirror which reflects the surroundings of an elaborate forest, or Eden, in its image; as well as the inclusion of the delicate and lovely white roses, gently flushing pink, in abundance around her.  The mere frailty of these sweet, virgin-like flowers accentuate the opposing provocative and bold qualities of the scene.
There is a curiosity hidden within the painting, though this is far more obvious than initially realized.  As it is quite apparent that Lilith is sitting in what would be a dressing room, equipped with mirror and brush, it is strange that it is amongst a garden-like environment, complete with flowers and foliage. This makes one question whether the scene is indoors or not; especially given, as mentioned above, the reflection of what can be assumed to be Eden.  This sur-realism reflects the approach of the fantastical that Rossetti was aiming for, making one question the integrity of the subject for reasons besides her appearance (Barnes "Rossetti's Lady Lilith: Power and Painting").
The mood of the work is primitively passionate, with an air of danger and unease which can be effectively explained through the story of the original Lilith in the Bible.  The detailed, lifelike execution and primitive, sexual passion which is displayed in the luscious and thick length of Lilith’s hair and the erotic exposal of her voluptuous, fleshy form rings true to her engrossing nature.  
Despite her alluring appearance, Lilith is haunted by the shadow of detachment in her exquisitely painted face, the expression allowing us a glimpse at the harsh nature of a selfish and perilous creature.  She is shown vainly regarding her own beauty in a simple hand-held mirror, as to not outshine or distract from herself, while she brushes her incredible hair with the narcissism and self-assurance of a Goddess or siren; this represents her role as a temptress and the original femme fatale. 
The subject of the femme fatale was one that was greatly popularized during the Victorian era, especially through the creation of Symbolism and Aestheticism in art and literature, where the representation of women changed from idealization to vilification.  Both in history and religion, women were always portrayed as having the potential to ruin men, and, during the nineteenth century, with the spread of women’s suffrage (due to the Industrial Revolution), women over thirty earned the right to vote by the early 1900s (Albin "Woman at the Fin De Siècle — the Creation of the Femme Fatale").  This instilled fear, alienation and mystery of what would become the femme fatale in the artistic community.
Lilith also held significant meaning for the later Feminist Movement in the twentieth century.  In myth, Lilith is a powerful, threatening and sexual woman who resists domination by men, thus, she has been considered a symbol of the movement. In Rossetti’s painting, she concentrates on her own beauty, indulges in her free, sensual hair, and lacks the usual Victorian corset, representing her independence from social conventions and restrictions.  These are not the modest qualities of the typical Victorian woman, who were determined by their virtue and meekness (Scerba "Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Painting "Lady Lilith"(1863: Watercolor, 1864-1868?: Oil”).  
Elizabeth G. Gitter made a connection between Lilith’s hair and castration, using Rossetti’s own line “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” (Scerba "Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Painting "Lady Lilith" (1863: Watercolor, 1864-1868?: Oil”).  This theme of castration and anxiety of women will make a reappearance in art via the Surrealist Movement in the twentieth century, whose Freudian influence made the alienation of women and the fear of the “Vagina Dentata” (which is the part metaphorical, part literal fear that a woman's vagina is said to contain teeth, with the associated implication that sexual intercourse might result in injury, emasculation, or castration for the man involved), became an established condition (Angel "Pulling Teeth: Ovarian Teratomas & the Myth of Vagina Dentata").
Rossetti’s choice of flowers in this piece has more to it than meets the eye.  His subject, the seductress Lilith, had challenged Adam, disobeyed God, and heartlessly sacrificed the lives of her own children, which resulted in her expulsion from the utopian Garden of Eden (choosing to shamelessly mate with demons, spawning a hoard of succubus-like offspring) (Graves, Robert, and Patai 65-69). 
To illustrate this, Rossetti used each of the flowers featured to not simply be decorative, but to play a part in the telling of this story: the delicate white roses are symbolic of cold, sensuous love and reflect the myth that rose's first “blushed” red when they saw Adam’s second wife, Eve.  There lies in her lap a crown, or wreath, made of daisies, perhaps a gift from a doting admirer or her latest lover.  Although daisies are usually associated with innocence and purity, in this context it is more likely that these flowers suggest eternal youth, fertility, or enchantment.  The crimson poppy in the bottom corner of the foreground represents callousness (a symptom of the drug, Opium, which is made of the flowers bud, highly popular in England at this time) and death (Mugglestone "Nineteenth-Century English—an Overview").  
This flower has a history tied to a previous painting of Rossetti’s.  Beata Beatrix, started in 1864 and finished in 1870, also featured a poppy.  Beata Beatrix was painted as a tribute to his late wife, Lizzie, depicting her as the literary heroine of none other than Dante Alighieri’s writings.  She had died of an overdose from Laudanum, a drug also made from the poppy, therefore, endowing the flower with great symbolism for him personally (Watt "Flaming Libertines: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and His Muses").  This was an example of a kind of practice and style which would become a contributor to Symbolism and the Art Nouveau.
The foxgloves laying at the foot of the mirror are nearly universally known to signify insincerity and manipulation throughout art as well as literature ("The Victorian Language of Flowers").  Besides the foxgloves beneath the golden mirror there is also a conspicuous vial, which can assumedly be poison, or perhaps some form of love potion.  The red cord tied around Lilith’s wrist is assumed to be a symbol for genitalia, since this was a common theme throughout Venetian paintings which he had been employing in his work at this time.  She is wearing her sexuality on her sleeve, or more rightly put, her wrist, for all to see (Monteiro "Rossetti and the Art World").  
 The red cord, as well as having to do with Venetian influence, also has a connection to Chinese culture.  The Chinese have been known to say that "you are thousands of miles apart but you come together because you have Yuan between you," Yuan being a Buddhist word to imply an invisible thread.  Also, in Chinese culture, the thread is described in this proverb as "an invisible red thread (that) connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break." (Monteiro "Rossetti and the Art World").  This is perhaps some tie in to the fact that Rossetti prophesized Lilith to be his "best picture hitherto,” concreting the significance as what he may have believed to be the painting he had been destined to create (despite the fact that it was merely referred to as the “Toilette picture” in his letters to his mother because of its boudoir-like setting) (Scerba "Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Painting "Lady Lilith" (1863: Watercolor, 1864-1868?: Oil)").
“We are looking at an image that is looking at an image of itself,” this is what Barnes observes in her essay "Rossetti's Lady Lilith: Power and Painting."  Though noting this illusion, it is also pointed out the conundrum of whether or not Lilith is aware of the viewer.  In Rossetti’s Aurelia (Fazio’s Mistress), painted in 1879, and modeled by Fanny, it is clear that the subject, Aurelia, is absorbed in braiding her hair and shows no awareness of the viewer, apparently lacking any self-consciousness. 
However, there are three factors that make the question of Lilith acting in response to an audience credible; the first being that she is quite noticeably and ostensibly displaying her hair for the gaze of the viewer, fanning it out for the best possible coverage, and the angle of her face, which leads the eye into the painting towards it.  The second is her expression, which has a coolness and self-possession that doesn’t reflect the relaxed demeanor of a woman alone in her boudoir.  This is the opposite of the attitude attributed to his Aurelia, who is so absorbed in her task that she isn’t concerned about the double chin which appears bulging slightly from beneath her soft chin.  The third and final point is the fact that Lilith is posed as to provide the maximum visual advantage to the viewer-- cleavage gaping and dress slipping down her shoulder.
Rossetti did not supply much insight to this dilemma in a letter to his friend, Dr. Thomas Hake, about the painting;
“You ask me about Lilith — I suppose referring to the Picture-sonnet. The picture is called ‘Lady Lilith’ by rights (only I thought this would present a difficulty in print without paint to explain it) and represents a ‘Modern Lilith’ combing out her abundant golden hair and gazing on herself in the glass with that complete self-absorption by whose fascination such natures draw others within her circle. The idea which you indicate (viz: of the perilous principle in the world being female from the first) is about the most essential meaning of the sonnet.”
He both asserts her “self-absorption,” making one believe that she is not addressing the gaze of a viewer, but then adds that she “draw others within her circle,” implying that she is intended to draw an audience in intentionally.  The reading is truly up to the individual viewer as to whether Lilith is aware of them or not, though the unquestionable manifestation of tension makes one partial to the intentional (Barnes "Rossetti's Lady Lilith: Power and Painting").
The colors of Fanny’s Lilith, watercolor and gouache on paper, were much more mild and muted; even her pallor being a more realistic, peachy tone, opposed to the luminous porcelain of the latter.  Her face is much less fine, rounder and more earthen, as well as the line being cruder and rustic compared with Alexa’s.  Fanny’s dress is looser, reflecting the fact that she was also much heavier than Rossetti’s later model ("Real Lives of the Pre-Raphaelite ‘Stunners’").  Although this was more personally pleasing for Rossetti, the exchange of Fanny for Alexa in his second painting made for a much more elegant, vibrantly composed, picture, more in tune with Leyland’s Stunners.
Rossetti would continue to influence and inspire a whole new generation of artists, writers and poets throughout the 1900s.  His rich, decadent style, and elaborate, organic depictions, would also find their way into some of the more innovative Art Nouveau-period architecture.  His contributions to establishing Aestheticism would sow the seeds of what would become Symbolism, “Art for Art’s Sake,” and the Arts and Crafts Movement; groups which went on to influence such movements as the Impressionists, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus and the Surrealism, who would continue influencing art even today.


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