This is a follow up to a previous post, Woman-worship in Victorian art.
Human experience changes rapidly. It’s not so long since we all smoked in cinemas, young children walked to school, and Women worked in the typing pool until They got married, which most people at the time seemed to think was OK.
Societies will continue to change, and in ways we might now find shocking. This should put us all on our guard; our gains are not carved in stone. But it is also where the Gynarchists among us draw our hope. Just because something hasn’t happened before, that doesn’t mean it can’t.
Equally, i rather enjoy scanning the past for signs of Gynarchic spirit. It can feel like surveying an alien planet for a glimpse of life amidst the rocks. Spotting a fellow creature can be exciting. you feel like giving them a thumbs-up and tossing them a mars bar.
Thumbs-up to frederick soulacroix, who didn’t paint Her by accident.
Victorian painting is where, for me, Gynarchic sensibility begins to emerge clearly from the mists. Of course it has precursors – the courtly love of the Middle Ages for one – but that is almost impossibly distant, and full of a kind of religious sentiment that the modern human can’t access. But the Victorians, you can almost reach out and touch them.
Of course a painting is not only the product of the artist’s imagination. It reflects patrons, audiences, critics, taste-makers… plus the whole cultural milieu. And what 19th-century art demonstrates above all else is the prioritisation of sex as an organising factor. men and Women have never been so thoroughly and consistently portrayed as utterly different, whether in physical appearance:
or in deportment:
OK that’s perhaps a little unfair. The picture above was a failed experiment, and Thetis’ broken arm was mocked then as now. And it’s pre-Victorian. But you get the idea. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were no human figures of indeterminate sex, because la différence seems to have been everything. So a lot of painted Women were picturesque by virtue of appearing barely strong enough to bear their own weight.
As i’ve noted previously, though, by the late Victorian era there are a good few Ladies standing around and being worshippable (left) or even actually worshipped (right).
So there you are in your studio in 1860, failing to suppress your unaccountable urge to paint a Woman in control. How are you going to justify such an act? Like waterhouse’s example above, you’ve probably got to dig back into the distant past.
Here’s one curious little trope; dante and Beatrice. As everyone knows, dante went potty for Beatrice. Not just in stalking Her throughout The Divine Comedy, but in his more youthful and red-blooded La Vita Nuova of 1295. There was a fashion, mid-nineteenth century, of painting the usually red-robed dante in all his awestruck dumbness:
You have to be impressed that She didn’t call the police.