Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 50, 105, 131
WMR, DGR Designer and Writer, 37
Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 173-174
Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, 77-78 (no. 124).
The picture illustrates one of DGR's favorite uses of the mirror in his
paintings and drawings. Lucrezia Borgia's gaze is directed at the viewer,
who occupies the position figurately occupied by Lucrezia's husband, whom
she has just poisoned. DGR's terse description of the drama notes the key
iconic elements: “The subject is the poisoning of her first
husband Duke Alfonso of Bisceglia. You see him in the mirror, going on
crutches, and walked up and down the room by Pope Alexander VI, to settle
the dose of poison well into his system. Behind these figures is the bed, as
they walk the room, and Lucrezia looks calmly towards them, washing her
hands after mixing the poisoned wine and smiling to herself” (see
Fredeman, Correspondence, 71.20
DGR took up this subject under the influence of Swinburne, who was at the
time writing his remarkable (and unfinished) book about Lucrezia Borgia,
The Chronicle of Tebaldeo Tebaldei.
Swinburne's treatment of this notorious lady is very different from DGR's,
however. Where Swinburne celebrates Lucrezia Borgia as an heroic pagan
survival, DGR represents her as a Lilith figure, cruel and dangerous. DGR's
recurrent treatment of this fatal woman is, of course, fundamentally a
comment on a gender system that has been corrupted by male power. Indeed,
the painting's composition clearly argues that this corruption is as much a
present Victorian condition as a feature of Italian Renaissance culture of
the late fifteenth-century.
The picture was first executed in 1860-1861—a drawing of “a dark-haired, purposeful Lucrezia, attired in heavy robes, her large black eyes directed to the front” (
Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné
sepia reproduction of this first version of the watercolour is reproduced in Marillier. At some point, perhaps in 1867, the original picture was repainted by DGR and the study for the repainting is at Birmingham. DGR probably retouched the repainted original in 1874 when it passed to George Rae from Leyand, who acquired it in 1868 from the collection of B. W. Windus.
In 1871 DGR made a larger watercolour replica. Marillier states that “Rossetti painted two or three replicas of it, all larger than Mr. Rae's version, of which one, dated 1871, is in the possession of Mr. J. Beausire (who had it from Mr. Coltart), another (undated) is in the possession of Mr. Fairfax Murray” (see
Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 106
). One of these is the known replica, now in the Fogg Museum, the others (if in existence) are not traced.
DGR's late (1875) oil painting of La Bella Mano makes a benevolent reprise on this early watercolour. The latter
stands in relation to the early picture precisely as Sibylla Palmifera stands to Lady Lilith.