The Victorian aesthetic does not appeal to me. On matters of style, give me Jane Austen’s empire-lines any day, or the eighteenth-century, once the powdered wig had fallen out of fashion, or even the twentieth (setting aside politics and genocide and disease and pollution and war), but not the stuffy and stilted closeted religiosity of the Victorians, or the gaudy sentimentality of their painting. And yet…
Victorian art produced a host of simply magnificent Women. Whereas paintings of the earlier nineteenth-century tended to reflect the traditional domestic or devout submission seen as suitable to the Female sex, by the mid-century the Pre-Raphaelites and others were producing Goddesses, worthy of worship by the male viewer, if not the male figures on the canvas. edward burne-jones’ sea nymphs (left) are just one particularly well-known example.
And what is the male viewer being invited to think before john william godward’s The Priestess of 1894 (below)? i am pretty sure it is more about bowing before Her than possessing Her:
There was surely something in the air, for we have moved a long way from the shepherdesses of the 18th-century. Across the nations and genres, Women with a new nobility are springing up on canvas:
The Women of the British-Italian painter charles edward perugini (1838-1918) were both graceful and amazonian, and often painted from a slightly lowered viewpoint, so that the viewer looks up at Them. perugini seemed to have a thing for Goddesses gazing down inscrutably on inferior creatures – see the lizard (above left) or the world’s luckiest snail (right – but perhaps too small to see – click on the picture and you find him sliming along the wall). Hmm.
What perugini’s Women share is a deep serenity and a sense of high intelligence. There is not a shade of dullness or frivolity in any one of these faces. Perhaps it is that this was the era when the rising appreciation of the intellect of Woman caught the tail-end of that medieval notion of the Female purity of spirit. Whatever the reason, these pictures give a powerful sense of what was going on behind the late nineteenth-century male eye.
Now here’s emigre American painter julius leblanc stewart (1855-1919), who has an eye for the female form in an active and leading role:
It’s characteristic of him that the men here are sitting at the back, seemingly shut out of the conversation (though they’d clearly like to be involved). The light falls on the Women, just as the conversation flows from Them. This might seem like a tiny nuance, but when every detail of a painting was minutely calculated by a mind that was attuned to the spirit of the time, it is telling. Of course i am cherry-picking examples, but stewart seemed to have a thing for it. You can search other artists in vain for Women taking – or being permitted – any sort of lead.
If the Bechdel test applied in the visual arts, stewart would most certainly pass. You know the Bechdel test? It usually applies to literature or film, and the question to be asked is does it at any point feature at least two Women who talk to each other about something other than a man? Sometimes an additional requirement is added, that They must be named. A surprisingly large number of very good books and films fail.
Of course this is true of much painting, because two Women don’t have to be engaged in any constructive or cerebral conversation, They just have to look decorative. The equivalent in visual art might be are there two Women doing something active, rather than just lounging around languorously? And, one might add, do They have Their clothes on?
stewart passes the Bechdel test with flying colours:
You didn’t paint two Women driving a car at that period if you weren’t trying to make a statement. Here he is upsetting the apple-cart again:
And as for this:
This is stewart’s imagination in a rather different world. Of course you didn’t need an excuse in those days to paint the naked Female form, but with spears? What (or whom) are They hunting?
(And isn’t that the same dog as the one in the car?)
Even with painters whose attention was still focussed on the high-society circles who could afford to pay for portraits, and where you might expect frivolity to the fore, the late nineteenth-century Women seem more intelligent than half a century earlier. They become less objects of decoration, more objects of worship. Here, for example, are Lady Campbell, Madame Josephina Alvear de Arrazuriz, and the Countess de Rasty, paid homage by the brush of giovanni boldoni:
Which brings me on to john everett millais and john singer sargent. Are we being invited to inspect any of these Women as objects of domestic decoration, or even to look Them in the eye as Their equal? i think not.
[above] Elizabeth Winlop Chanler (1893, sargent), Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1893, sargent) and [left] Louise Jopling (1879, millais).
For anyone interested in the history of Woman-in-Her-splendour in Western Art, i recommend slave domnei’s impressively comprehensive (and far more authoritative) blog, he stoops to worship (http://devotedsub.tumblr.com)