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
The case that Charles II, the most priapic and charming of English kings, only practised consensual sex with women is supported by his treatment of the teenage Frances Stewart, later Duchess of Richmond, a tall, slim, blue-eyed dark blonde, who turned him down repeatedly, except for kissing in corners, in full view of non-paying voyeurs like Samuel Pepys.
Frances Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond, by Sir Peter Lely, before 1662. Royal Collection. Image: Wikipedia
La Belle Stuart is portrayed in the character of the virginal huntress, Diana.
She looks like a golden sugared plum, a dainty dish to set before the king,
which is how she was treated in reality.
The royal chase lasted four years. Charles II wanted this splendid specimen in his harem. She preferred to elope with a duke than be the king’s whore. Rather than sulk or threaten to destroy her career, as a lesser man or misogynist might have done, the king, once he got over his resentment and was back in his usual good humour, made her famous for ever by using her as the model for Britannia on the national coinage, with her consent.
That is the story, anyway – Pepys’ story, of course. The influence that one man’s gossip has had over English history is unfathomably pernicious. Why trust a diary, anyway? It is not a reliable testament, any more than the average blog; a diary is for re-writing history before anyone else can, score-settling, wish-fulfillment, slavering over sex fantasies with the royal mistresses, confessions of groping women in church, a whitewashing of days to make the diarist sleep better at night.
Whether the Britannia anecdote is true or not, Pepys helped make Frances famous for centuries after her death, and the figure on the coin sexier.
The 1672 copper farthing, showing Britannia, supposedly based on a likeness of Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond (1674 – 1702), seated on a rock, holding a spear and an olive branch in either hand. The figure and pose were inspired by Roman coins. Frances was celebrated for her Roman profile, and tall, graceful figure,
so it is plausible that she was the model.
And how do we know who slept with whom? Who cares? What moral lesson do we learn? What archetype are we recognizing or longing for?
Whether or not Frances ever had sex with the King, it suited both of them to perpetuate the charming myth of her virginal resistance. Charles, according to the letters he wrote to his sister Minette, had genuinely deep feelings – “tenderness” – for Frances and was hurt by her behaviour – “as bad as breach of friendship and faith can make it”. Whether their relationship was sexually consummated or not, she was supposed to be his trophy, part of his collection.
After her husband the Duke of Richmond died, in 1672, the King granted the widow an annuity of £1000. He was generous to all his mistresses, even the one that said no. He stayed friends with them. It seems that the “easiest King and best-bred man alive” during cared about women as people, not objects.
Rochester in his Satyr on King Charles II also described the “merry monarch” as so “Restless he rolls about from whore to whore”. We – I mean me – are still charmed by King Charles, contemptuous of Mr Pepys.
They were both predators, in an era of unmitigated sexual harassment, and if either of them touched me, in controlled holographic conditions, I’d tell them to stop – but I’d flirt with one and slap a Court order on the other #metoo. Frances Stewart must have felt the same.
They seem to be the same couple as before, the male with the wings, long golden hair, soft feminine face and swirling red cloak, and the female who wears blue and white, the Virgin Mary’s colours.
He looks as if he might be delivering the same message as usual, only this time he’s found her fast asleep outdoors, a gorgeous part of the landscape, lying on her silk drapery, the thin border between luxury and destitution, and clutching an open box, not the little prayer book she used to have.
Cupid and Psyche by Van Dyck, 1639 -40, Oil on canvas. Royal Collection. Image:
She has been drugged.
She looks vulnerable in her nakedness, as if she’s been thrown on to a casting couch, but she is not about to be raped, like so many other beautiful girls in classical myths, by a predatory god.
Though they look the same as Gabriel the Annunciate Angel and Mary, the Virgin Mother, their names are now officially changed to Cupid and Psyche.
Their relationship is still sacred. They love each other, they are married, and have been separated by the jealous conspiracies of other people, including her sisters and mother-in-law. She has been through hell to find her husband.
When Psyche was returned from hell, to the light of the world, she was ravished with great desire, saying, “am not I a fool that, knowing I carry here the divine beauty, I will not take a little thereof to garnish my face, to please my lover withal?”
Immediately she opened the box, but she could perceive no beauty nor anything else save only an infernal and deadly sleep, which immediately invaded all her members as soon as the box was uncovered, in such sort that she fell down on the ground, and lay there as a sleeping corpse.
But Cupid, being now healed of his wound and malady, not able to endure the absence of Psyche, got him secretly out at a window of the chamber where he was enclosed, and (receiving his wings) took his flight towards his loving wife. When he had found her, he wiped away the sleep from her face, and put it again into the box, and awaked her with the tip of one of his arrows…. (extract from Book VI of The Golden Ass by Apuleius, an African platonist philosopher of the 2nd century AD, translated from Latin in 1566)
Psyche has been on a torturous journey of self-discovery and now lives happily ever after, body and soul, physical desires and instinctual feelings at last united with thoughts, reason and conscience.
There was no market for Annunciations in England, or Wales and Scotland, after the Protestant Reformation. The conventions and motifs of religious painting were incorporated into secular courtly art. The cult of the Virgin Mary, harder to eradicate than respect for papal authority, had been adopted by the newly crowned Elizabeth I. Charles I, by taste and temperament drawn to the Roman Catholic symbolism of European Baroque, commissioned Rubens to depict his father, James I, as an Old Testament patriarch looking down from the ceiling of the Banqueting House. Van Dyck transformed Charles I himself into a Christ-like figure, prefiguring the king’s martyrdom on the scaffold.
The Virgin continued to appear, sometimes in surprising incarnations….