I’m still looking at her. I lied in the previous post about ambivalence. I know very well that she is informed, not defined, by other people’s abuse. This post is too long for comfort, but if you want to see Artemisia Gentileschi meet Jane Austen, read on.
The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA
“Till this moment I never knew myself”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813
Of all women, why should the Magdalene repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a triumphant victim of patriarchy who earned her own living, became a player in global religion, and a legendary heroine of romance, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not patronize her.
Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account. We are looking at her at the moment she knows herself.
Gentileschi also cast Mary Magdalene, the sinning woman, as the personification of Melancholy, an ambivalent attribute.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Maria Maddalena come la Malinconia 1621 -25.
Oil on canvas. Museo del Soumaya, Mexico City. Image: Wikipedia.
The Renaissance began the modern cultivation of melancholy, or predisposition to depression, as a desirable creative condition, on the dubious premise that the more you suffer, the better your art. This has been proved true only in cases where there is pre-existing talent and a strong technique. Intensity of feeling alone never wrote a good book or painted a great picture. greatest struggle is to transmute personal experience into art
Gentileschi’s interpretation of a passive Temperament is characteristically unromantic: the sensual, dishevelled Magdalene is slumped in her chair, looking like a lethargic and sulky teenager, the opposite of her usually dynamic heroines.
Gentileschi (the daughter, not the father, the overshadowed Orazio, a dutiful father and fine painter in his own right) is a colussus straddling art and gender history. Continue reading
Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders 1610 Oil on canvas Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden.
The first known work of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1653) is a classic study of sexual harassment. Other painters often portrayed Susanna looking coy, sometimes willing, a starlet enjoying the attention of producers at the pool.
This Susanna is unambivalently saying NO
Some male painters visualized Susanna leading her old, fat, powerful voyeurs on to commit a completely consensual act of physical contact.
Alessandro Allori Susanna and The Elders 1561 Oil on canvas, Musée Magnin, Dijon. Image: WGA.
No ambiguity here, jusr a compliant girl and a cute dog in a male abuser’s fantasy.
“I have been bullied by men and women, but the first to bully me were women.” Noelle Mackay #NotMeToo
Hecate or the Three Fates by William Blake, c. 1795. Tate Gallery London.
Image source: WGA
Hecate, sometimes on her own, sometimes three-headed, a triple deity, incarnates the ambivalence of all female power, from witchcraft to motherhood.
Artemisia Gentileschi The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA
Of all women, why should the Magdalen repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a victim of patriarchy who earned her own living and became a player in global religion, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not punish her.
Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account.
In 1611, when she was about 21, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by her art teacher (Tassi). She and her father were not afraid of disclosure. During the trial, as part of checks on her virginity, Artemisia was tortured.
The abused women in her mature paintings are strong, introspective, assertive, independent.
Nothing frivolous intrudes on the monumental composition of her paintings, where a constant battle for light and dark is played out with unforgiving realism.
She painted women in moments of terrifying self-knowledge, finding reserves of violent, sometimes murderous, passion they had never guessed before. Her subjects are not victims or martyrs, projecting self-pity or self-promotion. They take responsibility for their actions and emotions. They are heroines, avengers and fighters for justice; they are autonomous women.
“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Jane Austen Mansfield Park 1814
If you were young, how would you be feeling about your future, decided by your elders in a badly informed opinion poll last year?
Augustus Leopold Egg Past and Present, No 2 1858. Image: Tate
Two orphaned sisters are reduced to poverty and despair because of the actions of their parents. The elder girl is now responsible for both their fates, and neither she nor we see any hope for her as she looks yearningly at the moon.
On Saturday’s Unite For Europe march, the intelligence and passion of three speakers (Ismaeel Yaqoob, Elin Smith, Felix Milbank) representing Students for EU moved the crowd in Parliament Square and along Whitehall as in turn they pleaded eloquently for isolationist, zenophobic Brexit to be reversed so they can have their futures back.
The New Cosette, marching to Unite for Europe on 25 March, 2017 © Martin Hübscher
In 1858, Egg told another tale of an older generation’s betrayal of the young. A whole family, father, mother and two children, are victims of unfair, unnatural social rules designed by patriarchy to benefit itself.
“I made this [letter] very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.”
(Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.)
Blaise Pascal, apologizing to his correspondents in Letter XVI, Provincial Letters, 1656.
Metsu, Man Writing a Letter 1662-65 Oil on panel. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Image: WGA
Surfing the net for versions of this quote, you come across English criticism of Pascal for not making his aphorism shorter. Translators improved on the original, which is spread in stately baroque fashion over two sentences, into variants of:
If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter
This is pithier and therefore sounds wittier to English ears. It omits the rich caress of the word “loisir”and the grace notes of irony and politesse. Maybe the literal translation should only be said with a French shrug to make the rest of us appreciate its élan.
Pascal was not writing an Oscar Wilde play; les lettres provinciales are not a bourgeois comedy of manners. Pascal was engaged in intellectual battle with the powerful Jesuits, laying waste to their methods of ethical reasoning with impregnable arguments of his own.
Brevity is the soul of wit, but it is very difficult to be truthful, and fair to your casuistic opponent, in a few words.
No-one likes receiving a letter of complaint, of any length, and finding the time to read it is a chore.
It is easy to write a short love letter, which the recipient would be happy to find leisure to read again and again. Anyone looking at them would think they were wasting time:
Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter 1662-65 Oil on panel. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Image: WGA
Some letters are too personally important to be read in front of witnesses; their content penetrates your mind so deeply that you feel your axis shift. The minutes you spent physically reading a letter like that are preserved in your mind for ever. You will never be quite the same again. Till this moment I never knew myself.
Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter 1663-4. Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Image: WGA
While she reads her letter, time stands still. Vermeer painted the silent gaps in time.
Portrait of a Young Woman, writing a letter, by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1802 -1804. Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I am sorry to have interrupted her; she is rather lovely, rather to be loved and written about than briefly employed as a cover girl.
All roads in this land lead to Pemberley. Jane Austen, the prosaic revolutionary, waits quietly, with gloves and bonnet on, at the crossroads of 18th century and modern novels. The bonnet conceals the expression in her eyes, which isn’t quiet at all.
Pride and Prejudice, which seems so fresh and spontaneous on every reading, took eighteen years to evolve, from the first draft written in 1796-97 to publication in 1813. It had a gestation period almost as long as the heroine’s life at the stage when we first meet Elizabeth Bennet, aged 20. And which of us remembers anything before we are two, anyway?
Poor Clarissa Harlowe was only eighteen when her ordeals, recorded in epistolary form by Samuel Richardson, started.
Clarissa is an articulate, morally courageous young woman, not immature at all, whose fortitude and capacity to forgive her abuser overcomes adversity far more severe than any suffered by an Austen heroine – and yet she has martyr written all over her, which Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Elinor Dashwood, even Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Eliot, do not.
Their creator gave them autonomy. They step off the page. They walk into our minds, and they get transplanted into other times and places. They dress and speak differently in all these reincarnations, their education and professions and leisure pursuits vary, but they are still recognizable, except, perhaps, when attacked by zombies.
They are not social rebels; they don’t demand equal rights. They would have been deterred by the violent excesses of the French Revolution which had just rocked Europe. The only revolutionary changes that take place are in their own heads.
They are not submissive and they refuse to be victims. They are paragons of self-improvement, never blaming other people or fate for their shortcomings.
They are intelligent young women, articulating a life of the mind richer and more independent than offered by ribbons, posies and billets-doux.
The Love Letter by Fragonard, 1770s. Image: WGA.
Arch, erotic and epistolary – the Rococo melted away with the advance of more demanding, independent-minded literary heroines.
Jane Austen began writing novels on the conventional epistolary model, and quickly abandoned it after Lady Susan (c. 1794), and the first draft of Sense and Sensibility (c. 1795). Continue reading
Fragonard The Bolt c. 1777 Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image: WGA
Clarissa’s tribulations – she is treated abominably by her lover and the author – were too much for the gravity of some of Richardson’s worldly-wise contemporaries. Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) is unapologetic fun-loving, lusty fiction; Clarissa is a beguiling mix of comedy of manners, social criticism and erotic tragedy disguised as moral improvement.
The anti-hero, Robert Lovelace, is handsome, sardonic and self-loathing in the great libertine and vampire tradition. We know the type, the complete shit, wearing Whiff of Sulphur Aftershave, whom we secretly fancy more than the nice man next door. Lovelace belongs, or rather wants to belong, to Dark Erotica. “While I, a poor, single, harmless, prowler; at least comparatively harmless; in order to satisfy my hunger, steal but one poor lamb….” (Letter 515)
He is also a rapist who uses an 18th century variant of Rohypnol. Clarissa is as susceptible to his sex-appeal as the reader; she fights her desire with moral intelligence and instinct for self-preservation, but we know, reading between the lines of her letters, how much she is attracted to her abuser.
Our young female reader will need all the heroine’s strength of character to stop herself being seduced by Lovelace, particularly when he reveals, too late, that he really does love and esteem her. There’s no doubt he’s an epistolary bastard; having his cake, eating it, and throwing it up.