John Collier is one of those artists who seems having lost their own momentum when they embraced a particular artistic movement or a specific stylistic way. IF the thematic, the historical background, the social aspiration, the style, a certain image of woman which are elements which characterized the Pre-Raphaelite movement could seem outdated in 1900:
One could really wonder if all the above was proposed by an artist still in the late ‘20s. Well, quite surprisingly, this was definitively the case of John Collier:
In due course, Collier became an integral part of the family of Thomas Henry Huxley PC, sometime President of the Royal Society. Collier married two of Huxley’s daughters and was "on terms of intimate friendship" with his son, the writer Leonard Huxley. – from Wikipedia, voice John Collier (painter)
He became quite famous as portrait painter and, due his strict relationships with the English high society, he was commissioned to portrait several members of the good British cultural and political elite. He was able to effectively apply the portrait technique to historical subjects too:
Collier died in 1934. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography (volume for 1931–40, published 1949) compares his work to that of Frank Hollbecause of its solemnity. This is only true, however, of his many portraits of distinguished old men — his portraits of younger men, women and children, and his so-called "problem pictures", covering scenes of ordinary life, are often very bright and fresh.
His entry in the Dictionary of Art (1996 vol 7, p569), by Geoffrey Ashton, refers to the invisibility of his brush strokes as a "rather unexciting and flat use of paint" but contrasts that with "Collier’s strong and surprising sense of colour" which "created a disconcerting verisimilitude in both mood and appearance".
The Dictionary of Portrait Painters in Britain up to 1920 (1997) describes his portraits as "painterly works with a fresh use of light and colour".
One could think, after having read the above introduction, that we are facing quite a traditional artist, who couldn’t move out from strict stylistic rules and genres (the Pre-Raphaelite way of painting), devoted to the elegant portraits of very traditional society as per in England at the turn of the century and before the First World War.
Definitively, there’s something more with Collier. Let’s go further with his portrait of Lilith.
Here the subject came after the reading of the Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem entitled Eden’s Bower (1868):
It was Lilith the wife of Adam:
(Eden bower’s in flower.)
Not a drop of her blood was human,
But she was made like a soft sweet woman.
Between the two paintings which depicted the poem (the Collier’s own and the Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting after his own verses), could be noticed how the style of Collier significantly differs from the Rossetti Pre-Raphaelite taste. The Lilith of Rossetti was depicted in form of a seductive woman, where the tonal accent resides on the red of the lips, of the hairs and of the flowers. The figure of the woman herself was represented as she was a frivol young lady seeking for a rich entitled gentlemen to be seduced by her beauty and luscious attitude. The frivol temperament of the character is also charged by the detail of the mirror (a typical woman toilette’s accessory) and the face expression, which looks like the one of a concubine who relies just on his fatal body rather than on her fascinating nor intelligent expression.
Luscious, evil, but also with a sinister fascinating light in her eyes: the Collier’s Lilith far beyond the posh puppy depicted by Rossetti. Lilith here is the classical femme fatale: colors are darkened, with evident dark yellow of the flesh (which recalls somewhat late Renaissance nudes). Lilith finally is painted adorned by the Snake, the very symbolic element associated with the Mesopotamia Goddess. She’s enjoying the contact with the morbid skin of the Snake, and she seems to completely rely upon her fascinating attitude, which could bound every man at her fee
t with the same luscious strength of the snake.
Collier’s female figure, then, is far from being a posh baby à là Rossetti: she’s really a Goddess, with elements far from the traditional figure of Mary Mother of God, but which seem much more related to the Femme Fatale iconography of the Symbolist paintings at the turn of the Century. Lilith here looks much more like the same character painted by Franz von Stuck rather than a Pre-Raphaelite nun or Madonna-like weak female. She’s a female who is really in charge, just like Venus in respect of Tannhauser (as in another Collier painting). Again, the theme goes beyond the Reinassance or English mythology of the Pre-Raphaelite, and recalls directly one of the most influencing artist at the turn of the Century, the initiator of the GesamtKunstwerk idea, Richard Wagner.
Woman Goddess, woman with the double aspect of passionate mother and passionate lover, the tenderness of the mother, the seductive evil of the animal passions:
The clothes are red, the sight fierce, the woman is able to relate herself with the under-terrain forces. The woman is a medium, just like a Priestess of Delphi.
This is the strange case of John Collier, himself too suspended between the idyllic sleepy atmosphere à là Burne-Jones & Rossetti, and the New Art which was possible, at the turn of the Century, just having proudly discover and depicted the real complexity of the Eternal Feminine.