8-4 art

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.



A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

8.4 (Fall 2008)


portrait painting


The Feminine Figure in Painting 

Peter T. Singleton

     An immediate disclaimer: I am not an art historian or a successful (in financially remunerative terms) artist.  I have no contacts at influential galleries and all too few acquaintances in art departments willing to “talk shop”.  What little insight I have into the painter’s craft is owed to an amateur “mucking about” on canvas in oils for years and years (with years of intermission between periods of mucking).  My training and profession are literary.  What follows must therefore be understood as a writer’s  response to paintings.


From left: Le Crepuscule and La Jeune Prêtresse (William Bouguereau)  and A Greek Woman (Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema).  All three images supplied courtesy of the Art Renewal Center at www.arc.org.

     Yet this is a standard inversion in our cultural life, after all.  Most of us don’t comprehend very much of what the artist says when he discusses his medium or his instruments.  What we know is what we see; and about what we see, we talk and write.  Music suffers only slightly less from the same prejudice.  A symphony’s composer will be paraphrased by critics notwithstanding his obvious disdain of words as a means of expression.  The words have the last word.  A score of people will emerge talking from a room filled either with unusual visual effects or with unusual sound effects, whereas the same people (or even an extraordinary group consisting only of painters or musicians) probably will not emerge from a poetry reading with an urge to race to the nearest sketch pad or piano.  Our disposition to logic is preeminent in that regard.  I suppose a very good case could be made for the value of painting and music to the effect that they challenge and stretch our service of verbal communication by drawing it off its familiar terrain—another way of saying that we will end up dragging the non-verbal arts, though they kick and scream, onto verbal terrain.

The specific circumstances of this short essay, furthermore, absolutely force me into a literary posture.  Several art works have lately been posted on the Center for Literate Values website, and a good many of them represent the human body.  More than half of these represent a female body; and as a literary type, I simply cannot escape the conclusion, or imagine anyone’s attempting to evade it, that the artists who produced these female figures meant them to be evocative as well as representative.  That is, I think it beyond dispute that, excepting the case of portrait-painters fulfilling the function of the yet-uninvented camera, most artists in the Western tradition have found the female figure to pulsate with symbolic value.

Now, any student of literature knows that this is bound to lay a mine field in today’s academic setting.  Women are who they are—no more, no less.  For men to foist symbolism upon them (and indeed, most painters have historically been men) steals away their individuality.  It creates stereotypes, whether of angelic innocence or steamy seductiveness, which the female citizen in contemporary life must satisfy or neutralize or defy on her way to being taken seriously and getting a fair shake.  The argument could be made, that is, that Western art has tended to oppress women.

This argument detonated at full force in the early nineties when a Goya painting was forcibly removed from a university classroom on the ground that it made one feminist instructor feel “harassed”.  I shall return to the case.  At the outset, however, I cannot resist displaying (and I hope they will appear in glorious color) three of the works chosen for the website from the Art Renewal Center ’s collection.  Both Bouguereau and Alma-Tadema clearly model a classical regard for the female figure.  It exudes a natural purity whose integration of curves (motion, energy, life) and poise (stasis, concentration, soul) can be breathtakingly beautiful.  A better vehicle for representing abstract virtues is scarcely imaginable—at least to a man!  The Latin word virtus itself, which signifies manly courage, is feminine in gender, as are all the higher virtues that I can recall in that noble tongue.1

Of course, the human figure’s symbolic use in art (or even its precise recreation, as in a portrait) 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.  To the extent that elements of Western culture have bought into this view (and they include groups as distinct as feminism and biblicist Protestant fundamentalism), we must suppose one of two things.  Either the symbolic truth behind the feminine figure has been wholly rejected, or that truth is felt to have been shouted down by stronger messages urging the audience to follow basic sexual impulses.  Neither position can be reconciled to a classical education.

The Greco-Roman world, on the other hand, held Creation to be coherent in abstract and harmonious in action.  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.  A master craftsman does not create a cart each of whose wheels constantly labors to pull the other off the axle.

To be sure, this classical view may be naïve, and its passage into subsequent Western tradition through Christianity excited a certain amount of friction.  Yet the wheels stayed on, their tholepins reinforced.  The temptations of the flesh were not to be taken quite lightly as antiquity had done.  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.  This is not to say that some young men may not succeed better at curbing their appetite in direct proportion to how much clothing the women around them wear.  It is to say, rather, that good habits based in dull or muted thoughts do not enjoy the same pedigree as genuine will power.

As noted above, the feminist view which has emerged fitfully from academic circles over the past forty years often bears a curious kinship to 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, and even lagging somewhat behind it in a coherent grounding of moral law.  At the same time, however, women are to be liberated from the repression of their sexuality forced upon them by patriarchal rule (enter the incoherence).  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 (lesbian titillation being entirely sanitary)—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.2  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

     Charging the painting’s censors, both Victorian and contemporary, both pious and nihilist, with grossièreté is shooting fish in a barrel: it’s altogether too easy, and the easy is too often the carelessly examined.  I’m afraid that there really is something in the unclothed maja that leans across a sacred palisade.  If we simply pass everything in this genre as enjoying the special privileges of art, then we end up with Leysi Suarez on the front of our newspaper—attractively naked, with hands deployed in a screening position of no interest at all to Goya’s nymph, but grinding her vulva into our national flag.  At this writing, Miss Suarez has already been arraigned for desecration by Peru ’s attorney general.  She may end up serving several years in prison, which would be a shame for mere vulgarity; for to claim pride, as this comely barbarian does, in her “patriotic nudity” (“I love Peru and I show it with my body and soul”) is, after all, mere vulgarity, though advanced and disturbing vulgarity.3  It is a matter of taste rather than of national security.  If young men were to lower their pants rather than their hats at the singing of the National Anthem, then their expression of “love” might be sincere, but of so debased a sort that one would be tempted to machine-gun them during their salute and spare society’s streets and homes.

Is the unclothed maja offering sex?  Goya expert Bernard Myers opines that, like his predecessor Velasquez (who once risked painting a nude female Cupid), Goya intended the maja paintings “to be a study and not an act of homage”.  Stressing besides that Goya had none of the earlier painter’s familiarity with classicism, Myers concludes: “The unvarnished truthful appearance of the model gives her a brazen look because we are not used to nude studies that are also portraits.  Nude studies are generally essays in pure form, not character.  Confronted with a woman to paint, nude or draped, Goya could only paint what he saw….”  Hence, Myers finely observes, Goya’s citing Rembrandt as his influence.4  Even when painting his nightmares, Goya never mollified a vision to suit mainstream taste.

Personally, I find this explanation acceptable at a certain level.  Goya’s motives must have been infinitely more technical than salacious.  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.

But the model does have a “brazen look”—and not just because we aren’t used to seeing nude models in this kind of pose (unless we have grown used to brazen women).  She does project a character—and it is, precisely, brazen, and is so because of “realism”, if you will.  A woman who sprawls luxuriously in full nudity before an artist who intends to show all and stares him right in the face with a coy smile is a brazen woman.  Any other kind of woman would not, in “real life”, do such a thing with such a look on her face.  The uninitiated observer knows nothing about studies in flesh tone and lighting.  He (or she) inevitably imports to the painting a social and moral context which trumps the technical context, every time.  There simply seems to be no chance that Goya was meditating upon purity, mercy, honesty, or eternity even when he painted the maja with her clothes on.  As Myers suggests, his young woman is nothing more than a young woman—the type who lolls nude before a man’s gaze and smiles at him without a hint of embarrassment.

I think the smile has everything to do with it.  Even absent a classical setting of graces and cupids, and even with a look right at the painter, a model might yet come across as virginally innocent in the nude if her look were of surprise.  Imagine that Vermeer’s girl in a scarf wore nothing but the scarf and that the painter (who was every bit as much a realist as Rembrandt) represented her fully down to her plump pink toes.  The exquisite look of surprise on her face—not shocked surprise, but the response to a husband’s interruption, perhaps, while toweling off after a bath—would be the very essence of chaste intimacy.


Because faces do project character, a smile in the wrong setting may project “bad character”.  This much in itself is generalization, if not idealization—and it is exactly the sort of thing that irritates feminists.  Why do men build so much into a woman’s smile?  I have seen essays in the readers often used for freshman composition classes which rail at male presumption in such matters.  Yet can we look at any human image—any of us, male or female, at any human image, painted or photographic—without instinctively making certain assumptions about the represented figure?  Is this the reflex of cultural brainwashing, or is it the ordinary operation of a brain?

In this respect, perhaps an even greater challenge to feminism 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 (where the cues are specifically social and narrowly concentrated on the body itself, scarcely shared at all by its setting).  The goddess of dusk is consummately beautiful, mysterious, fresh, and 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 demands strength and clarity.  The liberation of women, then, requires that they also be allowed to flex their muscle and to reject shadows that impede action.  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.  Even when the bella donna is posing for a portrait rather than modeling on a pedestal—even when she poses in naughty nudity rather than in her tiara—her smile or scowl will still be generalized to fit a set of stereotypes in the male’s unwritten manual of gender expectations; yet how is she to access that all-important activity for the liberated individual, self-expression, if a smile or a scowl means one thing to her and another to everyone else?

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.  Even Vermeer’s girl in a scarf is  beautifully girlish, not canvas wasted on a nameless face.  A man who muses distractedly on 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?

Let us concede that whatever Goya might have wished to symbolize through his Maja paintings could not have been terribly Platonic.  (Goya’s work, often darkly Freudian, could be called the antithesis of the classical.)  We must concede, too, however grudgingly, that most viewers will never grasp Naked Maja as technical dressage.  This brings us back to the offended Women’s Studies instructor: a woman is just a woman, and if she’s flopped out on a couch smiling at you, then she wants to have sex.  (I honestly cannot speak to what alternate or additional clues the lesbian recognizes.)  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 A.D.D.  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—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.  The decline of the classical has scarcely anointed the individual by shattering paradigms left and right.

Which of these two portraits is more flattering of womanhood?

art_ga17 art_ga18

Marie L. E. 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 (rather like Leysi Suarez borrowing lessons from porn shoots to publicize herself and create her own idiom of patriotism).  Whereas the Vigée-Lebrun self-portrait radiates 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.  The same is true of “mere portraiture”, with its clues about the character behind the face: if we view these clues as shackles forged by the patriarchy, then no face can tell us anything, and we must await a caress or a clubbing with utter suspension of judgment.  Why, indeed, would any painter want to paint the surly, battle-ready face which feminist author Amy Cunningham recommends to women?5  Would you want to have Marie Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait hanging over your mantle if she looked ready to stick a knife to your throat?  Or if such insecurity is merely the male’s fear of losing his dominance… then what of beauty?  Is there really no difference between a smile and a scowl?  Cunningham airily argues from a smattering of science that smiles are a relic of our primate days in the trees, when we showed our teeth to signal submission.  With the end of submission, then, comes the end of smiling.  With the end of smiling, I say, comes the end childhood, innocence, simple pleasure, honest joy, virtuous achievement, and a host of other things which not only make life worth living, but for which the visible code in human gestures has been conventional for time out of mind.  I may as well add that to degrade the smile in this way—as an ape’s show of surrender—seems to me a slap in the face of beauty and humanity at least as gross as Leysi Suarez’s Lady Godiva impersonation on the Peruvian flag.  I would be filled with contempt and indignation for Ms. Cunningham’s thesis if its basic insanity did not inspire pity.

We have a choice, those of us who remain imbued with something that may intelligibly be called Western culture.  We can opt for “offensive” art forms (by the Politically Correct crowd’s definition) 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 post-cultural 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


1 We forget how celebrated were classical themes in the latter nineteenth century (cf. Bulwar-Lytton in literature).  Bouguereau was born in 1825, Alma-Tadema in 1836.  Modernism has disparaged the work of both.      return

2 My understanding is that a maja was the feminine version of a majo, “a dandy of the lower classes” (according to the OED).  This would make the young woman in question probably just what she appears to be.      return

3 Citations drawn from the July 25, 2008, edition of www.  postchronicle.com/news.      return

4 All citations and references drawn from Bernard L. Myers, Goya (Verona: Paul Hamlyn, 1968), 19.      return

5 Amy Cunningham’s “Why Women Smile” was first published in Lear’s Magazine in 1993, and is one of those much-anthologized essays for undergraduates to which I referred earlier.      return

Peter Singleton teaches writing part-time in the north Texas area and does frequent freelance work, as well.