Pre Raphaelites

The Awakening Conscience

Although my mom was never really into art (she said that nude figures made her “embarrassed”), there are a couple of 19th century artists and artistic movements that she liked. It was my mom who first introduced me to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood when I was in high school (or perhaps a freshman in college?). She excitedly pulled me aside, held out a reproduction of The Awakening Conscience (1853, see left) and asked, “Have you heard of the artist William Holman Hunt?”

Mom liked Hunt’s art because it was highly religious and moralistic. She liked The Awakening Conscience because it explored the theme of redemption. This painting depicts a prostitute or mistress who is sitting on the lap of her lover. They are playing the piano together, and it appears the lyrics of the song have pricked the conscience of the young woman. The painting captures this woman’s precise moment of enlightenment and realization. I especially like looking at her expression and knowing that she is staring out an open window (which you can see reflected behind her in a mirror).

There are many moralizing references that are included in the painting. Here is a list of some objects which give clues to the story and moralistic tone of the painting:

- Music on the piano: “Oft in the Stilly Night” is a nostalgic song in which a the singer reflects upon childhood innocence and missed opportunities. (On a side note, this song is mentioned in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce – you can listen to the song by going here.)
- Music on the floor: “Tears, Idle Tears” is Edward Lear’s musical adaption of Tennyson’s poem. The sad poem seems to express sorrow over the woman’s predicament. (You can read the poem here).
- Rings: The woman wears rings on all of her fingers except her “wedding finger.”
- Hat and glove: The clothing objects are hastily cast aside, which indicates an abandonment of decorum. Because the hat is placed on the table, it shows that this man is a visitor and not a permanent resident in the house.
- Unraveled threads: A reference to the woman’s wasted life.
- Cat and bird: The cat is chasing a small bird underneath the table. This vignette is a reference to the woman’s predicament (the man = the cat, the woman = the bird).
- Light on the floor: Suggests enlightenment and potential redemption for the woman.

I especially like the inclusion of the cat and bird. Is there any specific object that you like?

The Awakening Conscience will forever remind me of my mother. Did a friend or relative ever introduce you to a work of art? Do you remember the experience?



I recently read George MacDonald’s novel Lilith, which caused me to think about the Jewish legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. Legend holds that Lilith was God’s first, unsuccessful attempt at creating a female companion for Adam. This dreadful attempt resulted in a female demon who attempts to corrupt the human race through lust.

One of the best sources for the Lilith story is a medieval text called Alphabet of Ben-Sira (c. 10th century AD). According to this text, Lilith was made from the earth at the same time as Adam. Lilith was an independent woman. Since she and Adam were created the same way, Lilith refused to acknowledge Adam’s superiority (was she the first feminist? ha!). Eventually she left Eden to consort with demons that live in the Red Sea. When making a second female companion for Adam, God made Eve out of Adam’s rib so there would be no question of superiority.1 Some sources also refer to Lilith as a half-woman, half-serpent. Filled with jealousy for Eve, Lilith reportedly took on the form of a serpent in order to provoke the Fall of Man (as recorded in Genesis).2 You can read a little more about the Lilith legend and history here.

The story of Lilith has inspired artists for many centuries. In the Middle Ages, many artists included a half-female serpent in depictions of the Temptation of Adam and Eve.3 One Renaissance example of the half-serpent Lilith is by Michelangelo, found on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the late 19th century, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a poem about Lilith and also painted a scene of the seductress combing her golden hair (Lady Lilith, painted 1868-69, shown to the left). Scholars agree that this painting was inspired by the description of Lilith in Goethe’s Faust (Walpurgisnacht scene).2

The most interesting article I’ve read about Lilith is by Virginia Tuttle. She argues that Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1505-1510, left panel of altarpiece shown below) actually includes a depiction of Adam and Lilith, not Adam and Eve. I have always wondered why there are demonic beasts in the foreground of this Garden of Eden scene (it doesn’t seem too paradisaical, does it? Although, one can’t take Bosch too seriously; this whole altarpiece is a little absurd.). However, if one considers this woman to be Lilith instead of Eve, the presence of demonic beasts makes sense.

Tuttle also convincingly argues that this left panel scene does not conform to the iconography of traditional Creation of Eve scenes. Traditionally, Adam is shown asleep or lying on his side, so that Eve easily can be created out of his rib. In other triptychs, Bosch follows this traditional iconographic format (see details in his Last Judgment triptych and Haywain triptych). However, in the Garden of Earthly Delights, Tuttle argues that it appears Lilith has been “raised up from the earth, as if she were created independently and immediately following Adam’s creation.”2 I think this is a convincing argument and I recommend that people read Tuttle’s article (it can be found in JSTOR). My only reservation about this argument is that it doesn’t seem to be widely accepted. This article was written almost twenty years ago, but recent art history texts continue to label this panel as Creation of Eve. Does anyone know of (or have) criticisms for this argument?

What do other people think?

1 To read a synopsis Lilith story in the Alphabet of Ben-Sira, see Virginia Tuttle, “Lilith in Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights,” Simiolus 15, no. 2 (1985): 123.-24.

2 Jeffrey M. Hoffeld, “Adam’s Two Wives,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series 26, no. 10 (June 1968): 434.

3 For Medieval examples, see Ibid., 430-40.
4 Virginia M. Allen, “‘One Strangling Golden Hair': Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith,” The Art Bulletin 66, no. 2 (June 1984): 286.

5 Tuttle, 123.


Elizabeth Siddal

I’ve been feeling rather out of my element lately (what a surprise, after having moved across the country!), and I realized today that it is partially because I haven’t been able to read any art history articles. So, today I read up on Elizabeth Siddal, the infamous model for several Pre-Raphaelite painters. Elizabeth Siddal has fascinated art historians and writers for a long time, particularly due to her relationship with the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Probably the most famous story regarding Siddal is when she modeled for Millais’ painting of Ophelia; she lay for hours in a bathtub, fully clothed, and later became sick due to the prolonged exposure to cold water.

Siddal modeled for this painting, A Pet, by Deverell (exhibited 1853). The painting depicts pet birds surrounding Siddal in a garden setting. In an interesting article that uses this painting as a starting ground, Elaine Shefer explores the idea of birds and pets in comparison with the relationship between Siddal and Rossetti.1 Shefer analyzes different Pre-Raphaelite paintings, as well as poetry by Siddal and Rossetti, to show how the model was like a “bird in a cage” in her relationship with the painter. Undoubtedly, Siddal had a very sad life (which ended in a purported suicide). Some really fascinating aspects of Shefer’s argument comes at the end of the article. For example, she includes discussion of how Rossetti was haunted by the voices of birds after Siddal’s death; on at least two occasions the birds “spoke to him accusingly, once with the voice of Lizzie.”2

This is a really interesting psychological analysis of the relationship between two well-known figures from 19th century art. I haven’t found a plethora of scholarly analysis on the Pre-Raphaelites (with the exception of a few writings, like those done by Griselda Pollock). However, this article by Shefer is a nice psychological study that is well-supported with social-historical evidence.

1 Elaine Shefer, “Deverell, Rossetti, Siddal, and ‘The Bird in the Cage’,” The Art Bulletin 67, no. 3 (September, 1985): 437-48.

2 Ibid., 446.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.