Self-promotion of a nakedly political kind

“Context is everything.”
(Peter Drucker, business management consultant, social ecologist and “the man who invented management” in the modern era of complexity, according to Business Week of which I’m not a regular reader.)

This blog advocates frivolity, and revels in images, especially of dead queens, at the same time it sniffs at celebrity photos, selfies and Hello! wedding photos.

So here it presents, in full consciousness of double standards, a stupendous piece of self-advertizing by a grandiose, self-made English politician, and patron of the arts, who hired one of the most gifted court propagandists of any age, Van Dyck, to sell his materially advantageous marriage to a higher-born aristocrat, the daughter of an earl, as a divine union featuring groom and bride half-naked, flaunting everything except their genitalia.

villiers

Anthony van Dyck Sir George Villiers and Lady Katherine Manners as Adonis and Venus c. 1620. Oil on canvas Private collection. Image WGA

The curly-haired hunk was the King’s favourite (a multi-nuanced term in this case because the king, a neurotic intellectual who’d had a seriously dysfunctional childhood, was gay and vulnerable to handsome, unscrupulous young men who played him along in exchange for office and titles), and chief minister, George Villiers, later created Duke of Buckingham.

He was the most powerful man in the kingdom during two reigns until his assassination eight years after this portrait was painted, and was later immortalized as a guest star of The Three Musketeers.

In real life, James’ son, Charles I, was as emotionally and politically dependent on Buckingham as his father had been. Intuitively serving two masters in different ways, Buckingham was their homme fatale, fulfilling their personal needs while alienating the nations they governed, a gorgeous psychological prop and political liability.

Portrayed in Van Dyck’s allegory when he was twenty-eight, he plays his amorous part to perfection, enjoying the adoration of his hound and his blue drapery being wafted by zephyrs while he ogles his prey, but Lady Katherine looks coy, even startled, about her classical role, as if she’d rather be fully dressed at a jolly lunch party than sporting with pagan gods, all for the sake of her husband proving to the world that she wasn’t his beard.

Who’s the monkey now?

Part two of Nothing

When Lord Rochester, the Restoration satirist, poet, libertine, courtier, and acting coach, wanted to make a visual satire on human vanity and transience, he avoided the 17th century’s skull cliché by being portrayed with a monkey offering him a page torn from a book, the descendant of the million virtual monkeys typing out Shakespeare’s plays.

rochester

Jacob Huysmans, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647 – 1680), oil on canvas. Private collection. Image: WGA Rochester, the most glamorous, and lighthearted, of obscene immoralists, collaborated with the Roman Catholic Flemish painter Jacob Huysmans to produce an iconic image mocking the ignorance and pretentiousness of mankind.

He isn’t patronising the monkey; he rated animal instinct higher than human nature, including his own, and his specific targets were the ruling class of which he was a member by birth, and everyone who presumed to exert power over other people, by force or by creed.

Like the other great privileged literary rebel, Byron, he inherited titles, property and a Cavalier heritage without any money, the lifeblood of power in society.

Rochester’s father was a hard-drinking, Anglo-Irish Cavalier officer, of the clubbable “Laughing” kind, committed to upholding monarchy, “his mother a strict Puritan; out of their union, the great disbeliever was born.

Rochester’s portrait also happens to be one of the most seductive images of male beauty, enhanced by androgynous Restoration fashion, which has glamourized the popular perception of libertines and nihilism ever since. We’d all be enrolling in metaphysics classes if the lecherous lecturer looked like that.

We might even dare go into the darkness some of us fear, to read erotic fiction and obscene verse, because Rochester makes sex feel like love.

Like the actor who played the rake-hell Willmore, based on Rochester, in a revival of Aphra Behn’s The Rover in the 1690s, “he made vice so alluring” to even the virtuous Queen Mary II.

Even the most sincere of critics of human nature cannot shake off his own self-consciousness. By showing himself in a portrait as a freethinker crowning, or more likely decrowning, a monkey, he was declaring how much more hip he was than everyone else at court and in the country.

He was right, of course – he’s a sex symbol who still makes hearts throb faster today, a prototype Romantic, by turns lyrical or obscene, depending on his hangover; one of the great tortured, self-destructive, witty, bisexual, substance-abusing, rocking and rolling anti-heroes who lived in the moment because time before and after is a fantasy, a trick of the mind’s eye, a waste of living.

Monkeys were popular pets among 17th century cosmopolitan aristocrats with brains and attitude – Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert, had kept one during the Civil War a generation earlier, “a malignant she-monkey” which the Roundheads made crude allegations about.

When their propagandists alleged she was a witch in disguise with whom the German prince was having sex, they were serving the public an inflammatory potion of minor royalty, xenophobia, superstition, and prurience –

That monkey won’t stop jumping about – it’s run away with the theme of this post – I can’t catch it – where has it gone?

The journey into Nothing will be continued….

Foreshades of Grey (8)

or, Perversion of Innocence

toilet of venus

Boucher, The Toilet of Venus 1751 Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
“commissioned by Madame de Pompadour as part of the decoration for her cabinet de toilette at the Château de Bellevue, one of the residences she shared with Louis XV”. Text and image source: Web Gallery of Art

Whipping up salacious fantasies of royal sexual perversion became a key part of revolutionary propaganda, but the worst accusations of depravity were always reserved for women.

Even the rumour that Louis XV had fathered a child on one of his own daughters, Marie-Adelaide, seems to have been aimed more at crushing her limited influence at court than attacking the king’s depravity.

The chief victim of misogyny was the king’s granddaughter-in-law, Marie Antoinette, who was accused at her trial of sexually abusing her own son.

AdolfUlrikWertmüllerAdolf Ulrik Wertmüller, Marie Antoinette and her two eldest children walking in the park of Trianon (1785) oil on canvas, Nationalmuseum Sweden. Image source: Wikipedia.
Like any conscientious mother trapped in a rigid class system, the queen was doing her best to bring up her children with enlightened modern values, in this case the Rousseauian ideals of lots of fresh air and simple clothes.

The new ideas about upper-class women being allowed free expression of maternal emotion were extolled in fashionable portraiture, and were then perverted by Marie Antoinette’s political opponents in the most inhumane way conceivable to discredit her, the mother turned into whore, the ultimate degradation of the “Austrian bitch”.

vigee lebrun daughterVigée-Lebrun, Self-portrait with her daughter Julie, c. 1789 oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: WGA.
Marie Antoinette promoted the careers of many women artists through her patronage. She used Vigée-Lebrun frequently to try and improve her public image as an enlightened, not spoilt and despotic, queen, whose sensibility was the same as any other devoted mother’s of her time.

For years before the Revolution, Marie Antoinette had featured in pornographic prints of lesbianism, a subject of fascination and confusion to 18th century erotic sub-culture for men and Romantic idealism of both sexes. The Ladies of Llangollen were admired for living virtuously together in rural retreat because of their refusal to submit to marriages of convenience; Queen Charlotte’s intercession to get them a pension wasn’t based on the possibility that women might be happier having physical relationships with one another rather than with men.

diana resting after her bath

Boucher, Diana Resting after her Bath 1742 Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: WGA
Here, in the most intimate picture of a podiatrist and her client ever presented, Boucher celebrates feminine sensuality with more subtlety than in the flagrant eroticism of his odalisques.

The playful sensuality of Rococo imagery, of Venus tenderly embracing her son Eros, of happy cherubs dive-bombing naked nymphs, the suggestiveness of Boucher’s pastoral idylls, of nymphs and goddesses delighting in their own and each other’s nakedness, his version of the Rousseauian ideal of female sensibility which had inspired so many fashionable women to be candid about their feelings for one another, all this varnished innocence was inverted and made dirty.

georgianadevonshireandelizabethfosterGuérin Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, with Lady Elizabeth Foster c. 1791
Miniature on ivory, Wallace Collection, London. Image source: WGA.
Female friendship and the benign influence of feminine sensitivity and refinement on culture and society as a whole was valued and celebrated.

Foreshades of Grey (6)

or, The Royal Stag

The king’s promiscuity was an affair of state. It made government vulnerable to abuse from the wrong kind of woman pushed on him by a court faction, with domestic or foreign policy agendas, a scenario as familiar to modern republics as autocracies of any time. He was very lucky to find the rational, loyal and responsible Madame de Pompadour, or rather, that she introduced herself to him.

louis XV

Nattier, Portrait of Louis XV of France, 1745. Oil on canvas The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
He was known as the handsomest man at Versailles; he was also the most libidinous and depressed. Here, portrayed in the year he moved his new mistress Madame d’Étioles, into Versailles, he looks disconcertingly like a chubby Dan Stevens, but Ryan Gosling would be better casting to convey his enigmatic emotional isolation.

Details of his sexual proclivities, especially his liking for young girls, later provided propaganda for the Revolutionaries in his grandson’s reign. He needed but was not obsessed with sex; he spent far more time gambling and hunting, anything to distract him from l’acédie. Unlike a lot of world leaders in the modern era, and the Marquis de Sade in Louis XV’s own time, there was no open suggestion during his reign even from his greatest enemies that the king abused or assaulted women, or that his tastes were perverted or paedophiliac; but there’s no doubt that he slept with a lot of young teenage girls.

How young is still disputed; the ones history is sure about were aged about fifteen or sixteen. This was considered just old enough for aristocratic and wealthy virgins to start sexual activity in arranged marriages with often much older men, but very early by the contemporary standards of poorer, working class girls, unless they were already prostitutes. The average age of marriage among peasant or working class women in the mid 18th century was as surprisingly, and sensibly, late as 26, suggesting they had much more power of choice than their more pampered upper class counterparts, pawns in mummies and daddies’ powergames.

Madame de Pompadour was essential to the king’s happiness, and she lived to make him happy. After their relationship became platonic, neither she nor the king, let alone his wife and daughters who preferred the Marquise as his official mistress to anyone else, wanted their harmonious ménage disrupted by some arrogant aristocrat or pushy parvenue whose abuse of patronage and mindless extravagance would cause national scandal. Flash-forward to the sad years after La Pompadour’s death, and cue slutty Madame du Barry moving in to Versailles.

Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey (3)

LiaisonsDangereuses2

Illustration by Fragonard of Letter 10 ‘O mon ami, lui dis-je… Pardonne-moi mes torts, je veux les expier à force d’amour’, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1796 edition) Image source: Wikipedia

LiaisonsDangereuses fragonardXLIV

Illustration by Fragonard of Letter 44 ‘Je ne lui permis de changer ni de situation ni de parure’
for 1796 edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Image source: Wikipedia

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Illustration by Marguerite Gérard, who was the sister-in-law and pupil of Fragonard, of Letter 96 ‘Valmont entrant dans la chambre de Cécile endormie’ for 1796 edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Image source: Wikipedia

The greatest novel about erotic power, gender politics and psychological manipulation was written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and first published in 1782. It became famous again towards the end of the 20th century when it was adapted into a play (1985) and subsequently a screenplay (1988) by Christopher Hampton. There have been several other adaptations, in period and modern dress, including the 1959 French film directed by Roger Vadim, starring Jeanne Moreau, the TV mini-series starring Catherine Deneuve (2003) and the Hollywood teenage treatment in three films.

Its influence extends far beyond officially credited versions; Merteuil and Valmont have reappeared in different incarnations ever since, as sexual, social or political schemers, because Laclos demonstrated psychopathological prototypes in their characters.

The original epistolary book is unsurpassed, both for the shock at the amorality and cruelty inherent in civilized society, and the subtlety of Laclos’ understanding of human nature, including his recognition of sexual equality far ahead of his time.

boltfragonard

Fragonard The Bolt c. 1777 Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Fragonard painted many voyeuristic, sexually suggestive scenes, far more blatantly erotic than the insouciance of The Swing – naked young girls rolling about with fluffy dogs, that sort of thing – with his characteristic joyful lightness of touch, but this painting, as noted on WGA, shows signs of a serious moral involvement on the artist’s part. There’s none of Boucher’s artificial pastoral sauciness; there’s real violence in the strong diagonals, the turbulent swirl of her skirts, the closest to a condemnation of forced seduction as rape we will find in Rococo art. “No” means no, here. The woman could be the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, struggling with her conscience as she succumbs to Valmont.

Foreshades of Grey

or The Moral Dangers to Young Women of Reading

readingheloise

Depending on what you want from a book, you might say “I’ll have what she’s having” and sales of the book would exceed Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Potter combined.
Bernard d’Agesci Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abélard
c.1780 Oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA

In the age of Enlightenment and Sensibility, women were encouraged to read moral novels for self-improvement, and discouraged to read anything politically or sexually exciting, so of course they did, with an all-consuming passion.

There was a real fear that if women’s imaginations were stirred too much, or if they lost themselves completely in a book, erotic or not, their weak feminine minds would be depraved.

The very private nature of the pastime was suspect; unsupervised reading of a novel might lead to masturbation.

So, as is the way of the world, portraits of girls reading became a popular soft-porn genre for men, sometimes unconvincingly disguised as moral warnings.

Moralists and misogynists could berate as much as they liked, but it was in no-one’s interests to stop women reading novels, either for instruction or diversion.

For all sorts of reasons, many people of both sexes were afraid of independent thinking, erudite women, like the Bluestockings, so they laughed at them, the premise of the jokes being that having more sex or children would set them right.

There were exceptions, women whose learning and writing was of so high a quality or relevance that it transcended gender prejudice. No sensible man could deny that these female authors were rational creatures.

NPG 5856; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by Robert Edge Pine

Catharine Macaulay, by Robert Edge Pine, oil on canvas, circa 1775 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Historian, political writer and activist, republican supporter of American Independence, opponent of inequalities in wealth, and proponent of co-education, linked to the ‘Bluestocking’ group of intellectuals, she explained she had been “a thoughtless girl till she was twenty, at which time she contracted a taste for books and knowledge…” She lost the respect of her contemporaries not for any flaw in her intellectual system, but because when she was forty-seven she married a man twenty-six years younger than her.

At the same time as women declared their intellectual and moral equality there was a huge increase in light literature. In the new enlightened culture, men and women both believed in the importance of educating girls, if only for the amelioration of the male condition, and this could be best achieved through presenting complex or lofty ideas in an entertainingly accessible way. Continue reading