The Autonomous Woman

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.

marymagdaleneArtemesiaG 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.

ArtemisiaGentileschiMaryMagdaleneMelancholy

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

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When the joke is over

Brexit Photo: © 2017 MHP

When men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect….like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead. Jonathan Swift.

Mistakes of a Nation

“Mrs May condemns Catalonian nationalists for ‘a reckless act of separatism’ that ‘risks casting their people into a wholly unnecessary calamity‘.”
(BBC website, with thanks to Christopher Oxford for his invaluable FB page which represents the rational resistance to Brexit.)

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” Socrates

“There are few, very few, that will own themselves in a mistake.”  Jonathan Swift

“You should never be ashamed to admit you have been wrong. It only proves you are wiser today than yesterday.”  Jonathan Swift

“It is the right of those of us who voted to remain to continue to speak for what we believe is in our country’s best interest and not allow ourselves to be cowed into silence.” Ian McEwan

Truth Unacknowledged bronze sculpture by Paul Dalou (1838-1902). Image: WGA

 

“Calm down, dear”

NPG D31911; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) in the character of a Roman matron lamenting the lost liberties of Rome by Williams, after  Katharine Read

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) line engraving by Williams, 1770, after a painting by Katharine Read © National Portrait Gallery, London.
A passionate democrat is lamenting the lost liberties of the Republic of Rome.

She was respected and celebrated in Britain, France and America, by politicians as diverse as Pitt the Elder, Mirabeau, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and George Washington, who wanted her to write the history of the American Revolution. As an historian and political theorist she was regarded as the adversary and equal of her male contemporaries David Hume, Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke, and was more progressive, more recognizably modern to us, than any of them.

Now, most of us have never heard of her. I bumped into her for the first time a month ago when I was looking for more 18th century women with “a taste for books”, as she put it.

The process of shunting her out of his-story, started in her lifetime. As she got older, her extreme radicalism, particularly her support of the French Revolution, and unconventional private life shocked a lot of people, who cast her out of their polite society. She didn’t seem to miss it.

Clever middle-aged women who refuse to conform, who continue to innovate and prefer dancing on the precipice to knitting socks for their grandchildren, are still not taken seriously today: audiences love to see them fall.

She was born into recently landed gentry whose wealth had come from banking, typical of early 18th century social and economic mobility. Her political theories were rooted in the ‘Roundhead’ tradition of John Hampden, the true hero of parliamentarianism in her view, not the tyrant Oliver Cromwell, who became crypto-king.

She ranged far left of the Whig ideology in which she had been raised, far outside the accepted lines of class, sex and age. Personal liberty and equality, and the courage of personal conviction, mattered more to her than social approval.

When she was forty-seven, having been a widow for twelve years, she overturned every kind of received idea by marrying a twenty-one year old ‘surgeon’s mate’, the younger brother of a celebrity quack doctor.

She was still a star of liberty in the new American Republic, and was welcomed, accompanied by her husband, to George Washington’s house for a visit which lasted ten days. She was the President’s first choice to write the history of the Revolution; by then in her late fifties, she felt too physically frail for the task; only a terminal illness would have stopped her.

After her death, her husband, William Graham, erected a monument commemorating her wisdom in All Saints’ Church, Binfield, in Berkshire. Most other English people buried her intellectual achievements along with her body, and her radical contribution to political theory and history was forgotten in the next century.

This was partly because monarchical systems of government and opposition to universal suffrage triumphed in post-Napoleonic Europe, partly because she was a woman, a very inconvenient woman, whose intellectual challenge to a man’s world could be dismissed as menopausal hysteria, her rational voice shouted down in a chorus of “Calm down, dear” [the remark made by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in parody of the TV advert featuring Michael Winner, to MP Angela Eagle during a parliamentary debate in 2011].

NPG D17066; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by James Basire, after  Giovanni Battista Cipriani

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) by James Basire, after Giovanni Battista Cipriani,
line engraving, published 1767. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Now, when we see that liberty and equality are as fragile as ever, she is understood and relevant again.