The comfort of dogs

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Maria, from SterneHeartbroken Maria, with her beloved dog, Sylvio, from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) by the great Joseph Wright of Derby.
Ferens Art Gallery. Image source: All Things Georgian an essential online guide to the society and culture of the British 18th century.

“Her goat had been as faithless as her lover; and she had got a little dog in lieu of him, which she had kept tied by a string to her girdle: as I looked at her dog, she drew him towards her with the string.—“Thou shalt not leave me, Sylvio,” said she. I look’d in Maria’s eyes and saw she was thinking more of her father than of her lover, or her little goat; for, as she utter’d them, the tears trickled down her cheeks.” From ‘Maria’, in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne (1768)

Maria is another casualty in the line of emotionally abandoned girls, like Ophelia, driven out of her mind by grief from a lover’s desertion and a father’s death, and Marianne Dashwood, whose excess of 18th century sensibility is the same as a major depressive disorder today, and real-life sisters, Sally and Maria Siddons.

Foreshades of Grey (3)

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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

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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.

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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.