|William Blake "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun"|
|Jacques Louis David "The Oath of the Horatii"|
|David "The Oath of the Horatii" detail|
|Portrait of Henry Fuseli|
|Eugene Delacroix "Girl Seated in a Cemetery"|
|Henry Fuseli "The Nightmare"|
|Asher Durand "Kindred Spirits"|
|A Classical Greek sculpture|
|Eugene Delacroix "The Death of Sardanapalus"|
|"The Intervention of the Sabine"|
|Johann Tobias Sergel "Mars and Venus"|
|Caspar David Friedrich "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog"|
|Delacroix "Liberty Leading the People"|
|Johann Tobias Sergel|
The Translation of the Female Figure from Written Word to Visual Dialogue in Romantic Period Art
by Chloe York
November 14, 2011
The Romantic Period in 18th Century Europe brought many changes in visual dialogue from art that had been made previously. Painters such as Henry Fuseli, William Blake, Jacques-Louis David, and Eugene Delacroix as well as the sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel fit into this period of art making in ways of both subject matter and style. Romantics, as the name implies, were interested in themes of lovers, the fantastic, and the marvelous.1.
According to Delacroix, he himself was influenced by “an ‘infinite yearning for the unattainable,’ and an uncontrollable impulse to give expression to it.” Though the Romantic Movement is constructed from a broad range of ideas and themes, the statements above provide a narrow demonstration of the basic elements of Romanticism. What I wish to focus on more is the illustrative practice of visual artists of the Romantic period, particularly the depictions of erotic subjects involving the female figure. Literature, both biblically and fictionally derived, provided Romanticists with several reference points for their visual dialogue, but I would argue that it is the interpretations of the female figure in the pieces themselves that objectify her more than the literary examples from which she originated.
Romantic Origins and Women as Objects
The term, “Romantics,” according to William Vaughn, has no significance which
can be agreed on but has been traced back to the German critics, August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel “who believed the modern world to be spiritually incompatible with that of classical antiquity.” This new way of thinking has been linked to the end of the French Revolution in the early 1800’s after which a slew of writings, dream-like landscapes, and “a return to religious principles and the ideals of the Middle Ages,” began to take hold on the imaginations of the public.
The historicizing renderings of the neoclassic style began to be reviled; “the Greeks and Romans had been imitated far too long.” The Schlegels believed that romantic work sought to display a more “associative side of picture-making,” rather than “dwell on formal values,” as classical work was known to do. However, this opened up an engaging discourse involving the romantic artists’ association with classical pieces and their ‘romantic’ ideal. Classical art was viewed by critics like Johann Joachim Winckelmann as “the embodiment of ideal beauty.” At the same time, scholars and critics argued that in order to display a classical style that reached the ideal of physical perfection, one must negate entirely any emotion or passions, “all of which,” according to the London Royal
Academy president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, “produce distortion and deformity, more or less, in the most beautiful faces.” Romantics were seen then as completely separate from Neo-classicists in that they were free to explore the emotionality of their subjects in a way that was proper and acceptable. These works celebrated sights that “excited the imagination and led to reverie,” and showed the artist’s “determination to avoid the problems of the day.”
Swiss artist, Henry Fuseli, most famous for his painting, “The Nightmare,” was celebrated as a romantic who combined a classical, rendered style with chilling, eroticized, and often frightening subject matter. Artist and poet, William Blake also produced macabre imagery like Fuseli and fits into two categories as both a romantic painter and a romantic writer. Though Blake often represented his poetry visually through his paintings and engravings, he also took from imagery found in works by Dante, the Bible, and other English poets of his time.
Sculptural art was also romanticized during this time. Johan Tobias Sergel was skilled in both drawing and sculpting and traveled to Naples, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, which accounted for his interest in the antique and works of the old masters. This interest translates to his grand and emotive marble sculptures of characters in Greek mythology as well as his expressive drawings that show similar subjects.
Works by painters, Jacques-Louis David and Eugene Delacroix, also fall into the category of emotional neo-classicism turned romanticism. David’s paintings like “The Oath of the Horatii” readily translate into “the portrayal of modern heroes,” another theme around which romantic imagery revolves. Delacroix’s works share similar content and are as staged and classicizing as David’s, though far less structured and more chaotic visually. For example, David’s “The Oath of the Horatii” is mathematically divided and simple, the soldiers standing side by side, arms raised high, while the architectural columns in the background strategically separate the figures in the foreground to provide a comfortable and easy composition. On the other hand, Delacroix’s “The Death of Sardanapalus,” is violent and chaotic, a whirlwind of destruction, nothing like the composition of “The Oath of the Horatii.”
Eroticism in Romantic Works
Henry Fuseli derived much of his subject matter from works like the plays of William Shakespeare, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Dante’s Inferno and it is hard to deny that the scenes he chose to depict from these writings were for the most part, some of the most erotic ones. His famous series of illustrations depict such things as the infatuation of the fairy queen, Titania with the man-turned-donkey Nick Bottom in the comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the writhing and twisted bodies of thieves as they are punished in Dante’s Inferno, and the unwilling daughter of King Tarchetios who is commanded by a prophecy to touch the phallic, swan-like bird apparition in the Plutarchian tale of the birth of Romulus and Remus. It has been speculated that Fuseli strove to produce erotic work, that the subject fascinated him. This may be reaching in some ways; not all of his work runs rampant with undertones of sexuality. However, it is apparent that the topic was of interest to him in that the scenes I reference above were the ones he chose out of all the action taking place in his literary references. In this way, we cannot help but question his artistic intent on this matter.
Many of Fuseli’s works not derivative of particular stories also fall under such erotic visions. For example, his interpretation of sexual demons like the incubus, which takes shape in one of his best known work, “The Nightmare” shows a white clad (and therefore virginal) woman being haunted by the ghastly apparition of an impish, demonic figure while a horse, often associated with “rampant masculinity” and “rape,” lingers menacingly in the background.
The demon in “The Nightmare” crouches atop the chest of a submissive, reclined woman and stares maliciously out at the viewer, boasting his power over us as well as the figure he mounts. From a crimson curtain in the background pops the head of a ghostly white stallion with glowing eyes, arguably a phallic symbol as it literally protrudes into the space and disrupts the solid, red drapery. Critics have noted the sexual imagery and its linkage to themes of sleep disorders, which is the most popular interpretation of this piece. In this way, Fuseli’s intentionality again comes into play. Had he been merely illustrating the horror of sleeping disorders and nightmares, he could have easily included a male figure in place of the victimized woman.
Another artist known for his over-eroticized works involving “themes of the heroic male nude and submissive or seductive female,” was the sculptor Johann Tobias Sergel. His depictions come mostly from examples found in Greek mythology. His terracotta statue of Mars and Venus is sexually charged and explicit, a loose interpretation of the moment in “The Illiad” when Venus is wounded and taken to the god Mars for aid. The image of Mars tending to Venus was not described by Homer and had never been depicted by any artist before Sergel. Many drawings exist of his planned execution of the sculpture, all exploring the poses shared by the two figures.
The result is the kneeling, but erect and watchful, Mars supporting the unconscious Venus as she hangs limply and bare breasted in his arms, “succumbing to the pain and humiliation of her injury.”
Two other examples of Sergel’s sexually charged imagery that I would discuss here are the drawings, A Passionate Embrace and An Abduction. The first image depicts two lovers, a cloaked man and a nude woman, as they hold each other close and share what appears to be a mutually passionate kiss. His cloak, the only garment he wears, slightly envelops the woman, mimicking the closing of the woman’s thighs around the man’s leg. Here the eroticism more than speaks for itself. On the other hand, the subject matter in “An Abduction” is very different and makes for an interesting juxtaposition of Sergel’s exploration of the theme of the two lovers. The piece is a scene of “forcible abduction,” a muscular, nearly nude male carrying off a struggling, clothed female figure. The energy of Sergel’s line work here is much more frenzied and chaotic than it is in “A Passionate Embrace,” creating a fine tension which mimics the subject matter, the abduction of the woman and the implied rape to follow, being portrayed.
The Damsel or Woman as Victim
“An Abduction” fits neatly into the first category of woman’s portrayal in
Romantic art I wish to discuss: that of the damsel in distress. Women played an obvious role as the victim and the possessed object to more masculine, even monstrous figures in Romantic visual works.
One of William Blake’s most famous paintings, “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun,” was an illustration from the Biblical passage Revelations involving a ‘great red dragon’ as he waits to devour the child that the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ is about to give birth to. In Blake’s painting, the dragon, which faces away from the viewer, takes up the majority of the space. His anthropomorphic figure, complete with snake-like tail, enormous wings, and curled horns, stands over a lovely fair-haired woman. The man/dragon’s tail wraps around her legs and she appears to be caught in the moment of falling while her hands meet in a peak above her head, suggestive perhaps of praying. Either way, she does not use her hands to catch herself as she falls, nor does she attempt to fight off the beast that holds her. Her frightful gaze points skyward, at a space beyond the frame that we cannot see. Because she does not gaze at us, it is easier for her to be gazed at, thus objectifying her as much as the red dragon literally does. Moreover, the viewer shares the space with the red dragon figure and its unusual back-turned-to-the-viewer position forces a unique interaction. We the viewer may take the role of the monster and also possess the woman clothed with the sun. Another interesting choice Blake makes in this piece is to shield the woman’s pregnant belly from view, thereby negating one of the more important aspects of the story that he is depicting and significantly heightening the sexual tension of the scene.
David’s The Oath of the Horatii also follows the theme of woman as victim, though in a less obvious manner. The tale David depicts here is of brothers who have taken an oath to defend Rome and they are about to murder one of their sisters for mourning her fiancé who happened to be an enemy of Rome. To one side of the space, the men stand tall and erect, their bodies strong and muscular while the women, who are forced to the far right of the piece, lay against each other in a pathetic, crumpled heap. The arms of the female figures hang limply with not a trace of musculature as they submissively accept the fate of the girl who is about to be killed. In this case, “woman is shown to be Other and is thus devalued.”
Going back to my initial discussion of Delacroix’s painting, “The Death of Sardanapalus,” the depiction of victimized women here is far more blatant, if not shocking. Here Delacroix presents a moment from Byron’s story of Sardanapalus, the ruler of Nineveh, who after losing his city to foreign invaders, commands his guards to destroy all of his worldly possessions and then himself. These “possessions,” as the painting illustrates, include the king’s gold, livestock, furniture, and lastly, his concubines. All of these objects, animals, and women are brought into his chambers by the male guards, who proceed to destroy them all while Sardanopolus watches from his bed and waits to be consumed in the fires spreading across the background of the scene. The painting is sexual, violent, and above all, it places women as objects in a most literal sense.
The Femme Fatale or The Castrating Woman
The conflicting side of women’s depictions as weak, submissive creatures is the femme fatale, the dangerous harbinger of man’s downfall and the sexualized corruptor of decent men. An obvious example of this woman that comes to mind is Fuseli’s “Succubus.” A succubus, like the masculine incubus is a female demon that preys upon innocent and virtuous souls through the act of seduction and coitus. Fuseli’s depiction of this demon is rather unorthodox; typically, the succubus preys on men. In his piece, the succubus is shown victimizing a woman instead.
The bare-breasted succubus reclines suggestively on a bed in the foreground, head cocked to one side, her frightening gaze directed at the viewer. A young, fully clothed woman holds the demon close and seems to sob into her shoulder. Like in “The Nightmare,” Fuseli includes a stallion, but this one is exiting the space from an open window rather than entering it and there is a possible presence of a small dark figure on the horse’s back. The horse’s presence in “The Nightmare” as previously mentioned, is a symbol for rape, but I do not believe that Fuseli meant to imply that the succubus had engaged in intercourse with the young woman. Because the horse and its rider, who is most likely a man, have just exited, this to me implies that the woman had been deflowered, whether it be consensual or forced on her, and the succubus symbolizes the girl’s subsequent loss of innocence, that perhaps this girl is going to become the succubus.
Either way, the dichotomy of the woman as submissive damsel and the woman as corrupting demon is illustrated very nicely in this piece.
Another such piece, also by Fuseli, is a sketch entitled, “Woman with a Stiletto, Man’s Head with a Startled Expression.” The title expresses the subject of the piece well: a woman holding in one hand a small blade and a strange phallic animal leg in the other while the floating head of a man gazes fearfully towards her. This sketch is believed to be inspired by the murder of an infirm older woman by her daughter Mary Anne Lamb on September 22nd, 1796. Lamb was not tried for her crime on the belief that insanity had overcome her and she was placed in the care of her brother Charles. An inscription on Fuseli’s piece reads “Mary Anne,” providing some evidence that he was thinking of Lamb while he sketched it. Another interesting factor is the movement implied by the multiple knife-wielding arms. This woman is dangerous and powerful while the male figure is denied a body; he has no hands to fight her off or even legs with which to escape from her.
The number of visual and literary art works that objectify women are countless,
spanning across several movements in the art world. By focusing on one of these artistic movements, on the writings, thoughts, and histories surrounding a certain time, we can clearly see how these attitudes affected the gendered Other. Even more telling is the translation of this Other from how she appears in literature to a more visual language. The manner in which artists decide to display their subjects, the specific moments they choose to capture, the physical interpretation of certain characters and situations, all of these decisions are useful resources in the exploration of the dichotomies between male and female, masculine and feminine, man and woman.
Boymel Kampen, Natalie. “The Muted Other: Gender and Morality in Augusten Rome and Eighteenth-Century France.” The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, eds. Norma Broude and Mary Garrard. Boulder, CO: Westview Press (1992): 160-169.
Courthion, Pierre. trans. Stuart Gilbert. Romanticism. Editions d’Art Albert Skira, 1961.
Craciun, Adriana. Fatal Women of Romanticism. Cambridge University Press. http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam033/2002067366.pdf.
L. Pressly, Nancy. The Fuseli Circle in Rome: Early Romantic Art of the 1770s. Connecticut: Yale Center for British Art, 1979.
Vaughn, William. Romanticism and Art. New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Vaughn, William. William Blake. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1977.