The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
with some specific remarks about the feminine figure in painting
Most of the paintings below appear somewhere on other pages of this site, often without attribution. This page is dedicated to giving their creators proper credit, but also to making a literate, non-specialist case for the value of classic painting. The words below were not written by anyone minutely trained either in art history or in the various techniques of oil painting. They are an appreciation, rather, compiled by avid readers and writers who admire beauty. Historical boundaries and technical details have been downplayed in preference to the works’ obvious perceptual qualities and emotional suggestions: that is, to their common humanity.
Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates Paolo Veronese, Christ in the House of Levi
François Boucher, The Birth of Bacchus and Venus Securing Arms from Vulcan for Aeneas
The four paintings above indicate, among other things, the durability of classical subjects and settings. Even Christ’s feast is framed under Roman arches that could scarcely look anything like the house of Levi. Gestures have meaning in these spaces. Acts resonate far into the wide world. There is moral vigor and purpose here. Only the Boucher canvases are strictly neoclassical in date and style–and, no doubt, they have suffered the most in being so closely wedded to stylistic trend. The classical and Christian confidence in an orderly universe where human endeavor has value, however, captures the viewer in a clearly perceptible “lift”. From earth to heaven: or, as Vergil’s Aeneid has it, per aspera ad astra (“through hard times to the stars”).
Francesco Guardi, Venice Viewed from the Bacino Camille Corot, The Belfry at Douai
As neoclassicism faded, one might say that the frame became less vertical and more horizontal. Painters lowered their “lens” to earth–to the secular, the routine, the quotidian. Neither of the canvases just above possesses anything manifestly heroic about it; and though Corot’s belfry provides an upward thrust to his scene, it is squeezed into the far end of a healthily bustling village street–but one possible destination of many open to the pedestrians. The latter eighteenth century seems here to have discovered not so much the inadequacy of classicism’s higher reality as the freedom and energy which that reality may release into everyday affairs. Now that life is worthwhile, people go about it with gusto. They have things to do. Their striving is far less bitter (Vergils’s asper) and far more adventurous. These are happy, prosperous scenes.
Théodore Rousseau, Oak Trees Caspar David Friedrich, Monastery Graveyard in the Snow
In painting as in all the arts, new movements are both rejections and extensions of previous ones. The greater secularization of painting appears naturally enough to flow from city streets into the countryside as the nineteenth century proceeds. It is true that those streets ran with blood in many places as the French Revolution unfolded and, later, as the revolutionary spirit was cruelly oppressed; and true, as well, that cities were becoming more squalid and congested as peasants were forced off their land and sought work in increasingly industrialized areas. The two landscapes above do not show such horrors… yet we may suppose that they show us the aftershock of a hidden horror. Peaceful as Rousseau’s landscapes surely are, they offer little human presence, if any–and one may say the same of more celebrated landscape painters like Corot and John Constable. The viewer of such scenes seems to be invited to take refuge from the human world. Friedrich’s astonishingly mystical landscapes are yet more clearly in retreat. They often fuse images of sublime, weather-ravaged nature with others of lofty human ambition now in advanced decay. Note that both of these canvases are again dominated by a central upward thrust: not this world, but the other–or another (perhaps anywhere out of this world, as the French poet Baudelaire would long). The search for higher meaning has grown unmistakably disjointed from human activity, its point of departure surrounded by ignorant cattle and forgotten graves.
Montague Dawson, Night Suspect J. M. W. Turner, Glaucus and Scylla–Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Meanwhile, back in the human world, nature continues to trespass upon stately urban landscapes–but its metaphor is quite different from that of the landscape. By the latter nineteenth century, the idea is circulating that nature, far from offering asylum to the wounded human spirit, is responsible for creating that spirit’s ferocity. Man is a lion on two legs–or a jackal. In unleashing storms of destruction round about him, he merely follows natural law, the same as any violent weather event. The “naturalist” movement dominant in literature of the time represented people as beasts without free will, often pitiable in their exposure to devastating pathologies but never heroically capable of rising above instinct or conditioning. In an early canvas, Turner chose a subject from Ovid’s Metamorphoses where a human actually turns into part of the landscape! Montague Dawson’s work is more morally uplifting and naive; yet note how the swirling waves and clouds in his canvas above replicate the motion in Turner’s fiery vortex. For what it’s worth, the foregrounded frigate has her guns run out and is firing a round at her “chase”.
Francisco Goya, The Colossus, or Panic and Saturn Devouring One of His Sons
Then we have Goya, as tragically eccentric as any aging, unworldly misfit in a Balzac novel. It is difficult to say what sort of historical or cultural tendency the works of such a creative genius, often at odds both with his time and himself, may illustrate. Every period, no doubt, has its exponents of the grotesque (e.g., Hans Holbein). What seems especially notable about these paintings is their proximity to the common people (in The Colossus, which borrows its matte from folklore) and to a kind of nightmarish primitivism where wild fantasy seems more honest than objective, “dressed-up” reality. The classical confidence in order and reason has vanished. The people who are running from the drowsy giant on the left have no doubt that he might handle them as Saturn does his offspring on the right..
Pierre Renoir, Two Girls Reading in a Garden and The Luncheon of the Boating Party
If there is a kind of dishonesty in Renoir’s delightful, colorful, highly gregarious visions–a willful ignorance, a refusal to believe that Goya’s nightmares might have some truth–then few of us would be inclined to judge him harshly. After all, Renoir’s canvases are really but mere dreams, as well. The uncertainty of the restless figures only hinted at impressionistically by splashes of brightness does not state anything firmly. We would like to think that the young people in the boating party hurt no one and always remain best of friends… but the brush vouches for nothing beyond their “picturesque” perfection at this instant. Even more, we would like to think that these two girls are sharing innocent secrets and have loving families around them; but “childhood innocence” is scarcely more than a pleasant fiction that goes well with spring sunshine, a gilding applied more often by recollection than by experience. In representing such “fictions” so insubstantially, Renoir is honestly capturing a wish common to us all, not arguing that any of that wish will come true. This, too, is non-classical in a way, for it continues to insinuate that we can know little of the reality behind appearances.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Discourse Botticelli, A Lady and Four Allegorical Figures
Regardless of the era and its hopes or doubts, however, painting is always about people: all art is always about people. Human experience is the one constant and inevitable referent in any creative work. Even a piece of music that mimics bird song or a thunderstorm is imposing a human interpretation on such things (i.e., translating them in ways melodious to the human intellect). When a landscape is filled only with mountains and deep crevasses, it suggests a human mood; and when the portrait of a nightmare shows warring colors and shadowy forms, it also speaks from one human comprehension to another. Sometimes, in more abstract art, the creator’s subjectivity is excessive. It denies admittance to the vast majority of well-disposed viewers: it fails to express (despite the grand claims of the movement called expressionism).
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Discourse Botticelli, A Lady and Four Allegorical Figures
Hence even artists who hate the constraints of precedent must tame their bursts of energy into something “interpretable”. We have reproduced several art works on this site, such as those by Alma-Tadema, through the courtesy of the Art Renewal Center (www.artrenewal.org), an organization specifically committed to realism in painting. We at The Center are not as heavily invested in this commitment; yet a literate education does stress the importance of taste–of stirring the imagination with generally identifiable forms which are unlikely to paralyze it with shocking extrinsic associations. This notion of taste returns us to classicism, for it pursues a “sense of things” and challenges art to provoke thought rather than terror, disgust, or any other instinctive response. Alma-Tadema’s Romans above are worlds away from Botticelli’s celestial maidens in style, setting, and cultural assumptions; but all of these forms are individuated and “real”. They draw us in. We can almost hear them. They make us feel that life is important.
the feminine figure in painting
excerpted from Peter Singleton’s essay of this title in Praesidium 8.4
A Greek Woman, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and La Jeune Pretresse and Le Crepuscule, by William Bouguereau. All three images supplied courtesy of the Art Renewal Center at www.arc.org.
The human figure’s representation in art should not be taken for granted. In many Islamic cultures, such portrayal is considered forbidden by an extension of the Koranic prohibition against images of God or the Prophet Mohammed. Muslim women, furthermore, are often expected to appear in public only under heavy veils which disguise their face and figure. The delightful paintings above, therefore, would all three be considered anathematic, and particularly Bouguereau’s scantily clad goddess of the dusk. The Greco-Roman world, on the other hand, held Creation to be coherent and harmonious. One approached divine will more closely to the extent that one lived kata physin, as the Stoics would say (“according to nature”); for that will, supreme both in its intelligent design of things and in its benign plan for those things, would not have “sabotaged” humanity by afflicting its members with pernicious forms suited only to seducing them from the good life. On the contrary, in the human figure is found (it was believed) a microcosm of the wondrous balance and effective collaboration built into the greater cosmos.
This classical view entered the Western tradition through Christianity with a certain amount of friction. The temptations of the flesh were not to be taken lightly. Mainstream doctrine eventually affirmed, however, that sin lies in the will rather than in the eye–that a beholder of Bouguereau’s Dusk, for instance, who might feel lustfully aroused by viewing the canvas will not be morally improved through the canvas’s removal or burning, since the real problem resides in a mind which cannot glimpse hints of nakedness without conceiving concupiscent thoughts. Koranic law has chosen to rid its societies of theft by lopping off the thief’s hand: in the West, the traditional ethos insists that he who longs in his heart to steal but refrains for fear of reprisal remains a thief in God’s eyes.
Curiously, the feminist view which has emerged fitfully from academic circles over the past forty years often partakes of Christian Puritanism and Islamic fundamentalism. To be sure, this view is not only inconsistent but patently self-contradictory. Women are not to be represented as “objects” (i.e., as sexually provocative bait)–a stricture quite in accord, by the way, with mainstream Christian doctrine. At the same time, however, women are to be liberated from the repression of their sexuality forced upon them by patriarchal rule. The result is an environment in which an artistic representation of female nudity which someone might find provocative–or which a woman fears might seem provocative to some men–instantly qualifies that work for suppression, yet women may dress and deport themselves in real life after a manner that aggressively provokes sexual arousal in the men around them.
Hence the flap about Goya’s Naked Maja (below). In 1991, a female instructor of Women’s Studies at a rural branch of Pennsylvania State University demanded that a reproduction of this painting be removed from her classroom, arguing that she felt sexually harassed. Her implication seemed to be that Goya had been intent upon reminding all women everywhere of their ultimate meaning and value to men by laying a bare, supine, waiting female on a couch. Certainly the canvas has erotic qualities. (The instructor’s denunciation had been preceded by the United States government’s in 1930, by the way, when Spain minted a stamp featuring the infamous painting.) Goya painted another version of the lovely maja, in fact, which showed her fully clad, though the compromise came too late to save his position as official court painter. The Inquisition’s ire was resuscitated by a Women’s Studies program with similar results on the Penn State campus. Since sexual-harassment dogma teaches that an offense is committed if any member of a protected group feels offended, the instructor’s nervous suspicion that Goya encourages men to undress women imaginatively rendered irrelevant any protest that he does no such thing.
Francisco Goya’s Maja, au naturel and fully clothed
The greater challenge to feminism, however, probably comes from works like Le Crepuscule. Bouguereau was indisputably employing the female body in a symbolic way–and the mere presence of symbolism could be said to antagonize feminist creed far more than a barroom nude. The goddess of dusk is exquisitely beautiful, mysterious, fresh, rather evasive (her face is turned away and her nakedness partially veiled): all of these attributes have conventionally been associated in the male mind with femininity. Dusk is Woman in one of her most feminine moods. To the feminist, however, there can be no truly feminine attributes or moods. These have been thrust upon women, rather, by a male-dominated culture which enjoys having a leisurely repository (i.e., the woman) for qualities obstructive to its daily function—qualities that are soothing, but which make one an easy target in the “real world”. Women become slaves sequestered in a prison of gentleness and mystery because real life (at least in the capitalist free-for-all) demands strength and clarity. The liberation of women, then, requires that they also be allowed to flex their muscle and to reject languid shadows that impede action (and/or that capitalism be destroyed: the doctrine does not prioritize alternatives with great lucidity). Yet feminism has also told us (at different moments or, sometimes, in the same breath) that women are different: e.g., that girls should have their own schools to accommodate their distinctive way of learning.
So the situation appears to be of the proverbial “no win” sort for men. By artistically associating the female figure with various ideals, men force women upon an odious pedestal and prevent them from self-realization; but when a woman’s material cause (an objective of no interest to the artist) is advanced by her being granted special treatment, then the ground for the distinction is considered legitimate. Unfortunately, this double standard leaves visual art in a particularly awkward position. When male painters represent women, they often do so because they feel powerfully driven by an ideal figuratively symbolized. A man who muses distractedly of heavenly sweetness and vivifying charm can scarcely not picture a female figure somewhere in his daydream. If he does so–and if he makes his representation public–must he be indicted for undermining the New Woman’s attempt to carve out a place in the rough-and-tumble man’s world?
To be sure, there is little chance that Goya was meditating upon purity, mercy, honesty, or eternity even when he painted the maja with her clothes on. His motives may well have been more technical than salacious, nonetheless. Naked flesh isn’t easy to represent in oils: artists have long taxed themselves with its challenge in the same spirit of professional exercise as they have toiled over bowls of fruit in dim, homespun lighting. The human figure is also among the most familiar of objects to viewers, and hence further challenges the artist’s drafting skills. The casual onlooker more quickly identifies a misshapen neck or hip in a person than in a horse.
Let us concede, however, that whatever Goya might have wished to symbolize through his Maja paintings could not have been terribly Platonic. (As Goya’s two canvasses farther above suggest, his inspirations were less classical than darkly Freudian.) If the female body could have no culturally unconditioned tropological value except as a sexual enticement–that is, if the only alternative to patriarchal brainwashing were pure biology–the feminist would still have to deal with the basic sex drive, which would not go away simply because pictures were removed or male adolescents massively medicated for ADD. The woman’s ultimate war would then be with nature at its most fundamental level, and she would surely lose. Hence the classical painter, far from stifling women in straight-laced stereotypes of virtue and idealism, is providing them–and his own sex, too (for most painters have historically been male)–with an escape from raw nature. No doubt, few people enjoy life on a pedestal for long. Yet to be burdened with lofty expectations not formed by any estimate of one’s individuality is rather less insensitive to one’s humanity, at last, than to be reflexively measured for a mattress. If Goya’s Naked Maja is not a barroom Madonna, she is yet disturbingly close to one: the frenetic feminist instructor at Penn State was to that degree correct. The decline of the classical has scarcely anointed the individual by shattering paradigms left and right.
Consider the two portraits below: which is the more flattering of womanhood?
Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Self-Portrait Frederic Leighton, Miss May Sartoris
Neither could be called unflattering, of course–but the difference indicates the split between proto- and neo-feminism in our own time, and the change in our moral outlook could certainly be called disastrous. Mme. Vigée-Lebrun does not appear to have approached her self-portrait with any of that intent to symbolize abstractions through femininity which may be noted often in male painters, yet her simple, good-natured candor speaks for itself. There is little of the naive girl in her placid brown eyes and slightly parted lips, but much of the honesty and willful innocence that breeds virtue in any human being. If she is distinctly feminine (as she certainly is) in particular qualities, then perhaps it is only to expose the tragedy of maleness, whose characteristic tight jaw and narrowed eyes are less a response to reality that a succumbing to worldly ambition. This delightful young person seems less exposed to aggression than superior to it.
Leighton’s Miss Sartoris, on the other hand, is clearly a femme fatale. A huge tree has been symbolically felled just behind her. The blood-red lips emphasized in the luminous half-oval of her lower face are sealed shut. Her eyes, far from drawn into a cruel squint, are in fact fully open, like Mme. Vigée-Lebrun’s–but they are also partly concealed in her hat’s heavy shadow rather than exposed in a broadly illuminated forehead. Her sash is a deeper shade of red than Marie’s, and it hangs at a sweeping angle suggestive of a sword’s baldric. Today’s fraternity lad would surely rather have a date with May, who would probably slash him to figurative ribbons with her figurative fencing. Her sexual enticements have something of the lurid, the dangerous–which makes them all the more enticing to the tantalized male.
Miss Sartoris, in short, implies today’s feminist, exploiting her “sexuality” maximally to achieve her personal objectives. Whereas the Vigée-Lebrun self-portrait emanates a humane, open geniality under whose steady light selfish motives are unlikely to thrive, the Leighton portrait shows a warrior girded for battle, unwilling to negotiate or even to betray an inkling of the purposes within her veiled, lovely cranium. The latter painting, of course, was the creation of a man.
It is a truth which the ancients–and the Church Fathers–would well have understood that we become what our enemy is when we cease to fight for an ideal and only fight an enemy. Those who fight a certain race rather than racism become racists themselves. Likewise, feminists who, rather than fighting for a transcendent platform of common humanity, fight only against what they identify as maleness–ruthless aggression, egotistical sexual appetite, stentorian vainglory–are doomed to become just such desperate characters. An art which is not free to “confine” age or gender or physical attributes to occasional symbolic functions is an art which, at last, must fall back upon rude nature–not the Stoic nature of instinct mastered by reason, but the debased nature of humanity reduced to just another primate species. We have a choice. We can opt for “offensive” art forms which present certain figures in certain poses as emblems of that which has no image… or we can ban the symbolizing tendency in all specific expressions. This will lead us a) to an Islamist poverty of imaginative existence wherein only the act matters, not the intent–only conformity, not intensity; b) or it will release us into the West’s present abyss of ungovernable pornographic outlawry, wherein the intimidated imagination yields entirely to barbaric urges.
Jan Vermeer, The Lacemaker Pierre Renoir, Young Girl Combing Her Hair
Surely no sensible adult could protest with conviction against Vermeer’s female figures, absorbed in labors which, though domestic, require creativity, concentration, and intelligence; or against Renoir’s child-like girls, also often caught in some internally absorbing act such as reading or playing an instrument. The man’s world of action, to reiterate, has no meaning if his endeavor is unguided by principle: he can only fight like an animal rather than sacrifice himself for a cause if there is not, in some forever serene recess of his soul, a vision of accomplished harmony. Without his principles, he resigns his humanity and need not protest that he occupies a higher place in the cosmos than a toad. Yet when he does recall higher purposes (as he must, for he is not a toad), he will probably feminize them, picturing a quiet, insular, invulnerable place where delicate hands finish an intricate project. There can be nothing so very wrong in this; or if there is, then human civilization will probably have to pay for the sin by annihilating itself.
El Greco, Saint Mary Magdalene