Friday in the atelier: "Lilith" by John Maler Collier

John Maler Collier (1850-1934) was a British painter and writer.

Collier was the younger son of Robert Collier, a prominent Oxford educated English judge who became the 1st Baron Monkswell. John inherited his father’s interest in art, and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, based at the University College London. He also studied in Paris, tutored by French Academic artist Jean-Paul Laurens. He was acquainted with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Sir John Everett Millais who both encouraged his art and influenced his style.

John Collier was most successful as a portrait painter in England, and he painted very famous people. He was one of the founders of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and acted as Vice President for that society. The subjects of his portraits included Rudyard Kipling, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Dr. James Prescott Joule.

Collier was friends with Leonard Huxley, son of Thomas Huxley, and married two of Thomas Huxley’s five daughters. His first marriage to Marian ended in tragedy when she died of pneumonia after the birth of their only daughter. Two years later he married Ethel Huxley in a ceremony in Norway – the out of country ceremony was necessary because at that time it was against UK law for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife. He had two children with Ethel, a son and a daughter. His son, Sir Laurence Collier, ironically became the British Ambassador to Norway.

I had a difficult time finding a central collection of Collier’s works online. His works were scattered to many places, and are privately owned by individuals, societies, clubs, and royalty. Since many of these are portraits I guess it makes sense, you keep the portrait of your great-grandfather on the wall to connect you to your past – and you really don’t think that anyone else would be interested. It’s a shame because many of the people Collier painted became or were famous in their own right. The Athenaeum club in London displays his portraits of Darwin and Thomas Huxley – of which I can find only inferior digital images.

The painting I’m showing here is called “Lilith” – and is an interesting painting for an Atheist. The amount of myth and legend attached to Lilith is somewhat overwhelming, but much of the medieval mythos says that Lilith was supposed to be Adam’s first wife, before Eve. However Lilith didn’t like “missionary style” sex – she wanted to be on top – and so she refused to stay with Adam and instead became a demon and flew away to the coast of the Red Sea where she mated with the demon Samael and had countless demon daughters. Her daughters were either succubi or vampire-like, and were supposed to steal or kill male children.

I find Lilith to be very interesting because her name points to some of the flaws of the Bible. Her name is mistranslated in the King James version, and her name is in the suppressed Leptogenesis, also called the ‘Lesser Genesis’ or “Book of Jubilees”. Her name is mentioned in the rich Jewish mythology and lore. Following her name through this mythology really drives home just how much of writing done in the ‘biblical age’ is based on religious mythology, which of course leads to the question of just how much of the Bible itself is myth. This sort of questioning is exactly why Catholics, Protestants and Easter Orthodox Christians tried to suppress the Leptogenesis and conceal the name of Lilith from their congregations.

In this painting you can clearly see the influence of Alma-Tadema in the highlights of Lilith’s hair. Collier painted in such a way that his brushstrokes were faint, if not invisible. This led to criticism of his technique, but Collier was extremely precise in his art – and the lack of brush strokes was part of his attempt to paint reality.

Lilith is shown with the serpent of the Garden of Eden because the mythology of her demon lover Samael is a bit confused – Samael is identified as either Lucifer, or Satan, or a mixture of different aspects of God’s opponents. In this painting, the serpent could represent either Samael or Satan.

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