She that gazes at her being gazed on by him – Guest post by Adrien

By skepticlawyer

[SL: This is the second of Adrien’s occasional posts on matters artistic; his first — on Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi — is available here, with some background. I should also point out that Adrien has been moving bloggy house of late, and that his new home is here.

Oh yes: why should you read his stuff? Because Adrien has forgotten more about art than the rest of us will ever know. Which is a useful skill, to be fair. Enjoy]

Look at artists’ lives and a few recurring patterns appear. Some succeed young and then burn out. They die or their style gets old quickly or they simply become lazy and fat on the fruits of success (or failure), ending their days a gaudy parody. Some have to die first before their work is successful.

Angelica Kauffmann was one of those rare creatures who succeed very young and maintain that success all their lives. Her life was fab but I’ll try to be brief. Born, 1741, in Switzerland. Angelica’s father was, of course, a painter, a mediocre one; first she learned from him. Kauffmann was prodigious, receiving first payment for a Bishop’s portrait, aged 11. A few years later the Duke of Modena commissioned from her a portrait of his wife.

This was not a simple matter. Women were categorically excluded from the art schools. The central component of the curricula was life drawing and no woman could claim to be respectable who had spent time in a room looking at a naked man. Thus Kauffmann had to learn to draw male figures not from live models but from the paintings and sculpture of Italy — to which her family moved specifically for Angelica’s training. Even this was not so easy. Josef Kauffmann had to seek special permission for his daughter to draw in the galleries. Women weren’t even allowed to do that.

However, by the time she was 21 she was a professional working in Italy. Esteemed enough to have been granted membership to the Accademia del Disengo in Florence, she moved to Rome in 1764. There, that year, Cardinal Albani’s librarian Johann Winckelmann had completed the first history of the art of antiquity: The History of Ancient Art Among the Greeks. In this book lay the theoretical foundations of the Neoclassical movement. That year, Kauffmann and he became friends. Philosophically this was the cutting edge of what would be the dominant aesthetic of Western painting thru rest of the century and much of the next: Neoclassicism. She was at its heart. She was twenty-three years old.

By the middle of the 18th century the Baroque era had evolved (devolved?) into the ornate and decorative style known as Rococo. Winkelmann’s writings on art were very much an attack on this style. He reinvoked the Renaissance fascination with the Greek love of physical beauty.  Greek gymnasia, he wrote, were art schools where “beautiful nakedness appeared with such liveliness of expression, such truth and variety of situations, such a noble air of the body as it would be ridiculous to look for in any hired model of our academies.” At the heart of Winkelmann’s aesthetics lay the body. “The most beautiful body of ours,” he lamented was “as much inferior to the most beautiful Greek one as Iphicles was to his brother Hercules”.

This was a blow struck back for the forces that had shaken Christendom into a schism during the Renaissance, thence repressed. Directly challenging the Christian claim to a higher moral plane by treating the body as trouble and shame, Winckelmann reasserted, with unabashed voyeuristic relish, the Greek ideal of the body as the epitome of a higher moral plane. “Art claims liberty” declared Winkelmann, and illustrated this liberty with anecdotes of Greek custom where naked youths danced on the stage, where young Spartan girls appeared nude in ritualistic circumstances before their male peers, where people did not dress in the “modern stiffening habit” and “the artist enjoyed nature without a veil”.

It would have been interesting to know what conversations transpired between this scholar on the brink of pronouncing the Enlightenment’s views on Art and this beautiful young girl who spoke four languages and was categorically prohibited from enjoying nature directly despite it being her job; the young artist who knows well the ‘how’ but not yet the ‘why’ and the elder scholar who has just humbly defined beauty for an era. I wonder what response she made to Winckelmann’s illustrations of ancient Greece with its idealized Apollonian lust. This is unknown. What can be inferred from her work is that Kauffmann adopted the aesthetics of Winkelmann with their emphasis on “noble simplicity and sedate grandeur”, their formula of noble contours and accentuating drapery. Her purpose, as that of other Neoclassical luminaries from Joshua Reynolds to Jacques-Louis David was to affect the Enlightenment’s mission of human improvement by reviving and returning to ancient  perfection. Human beauty was the road to Utopia.

The commonplace criticism of Kauffmann’s work is that her lack of life drawing experience led to flawed depictions, particularly of men. This occurred during her lifetime and outlived her. Doctor Wolcott, supposedly a friend of hers, repeated the criticism in doggerel verse:

My plaudits gains
Her art so sweetly canvas stains
But were she married to such gentle males
As figure in her painted tales
I fear she’d find a stupid wedding night.

Bit of a wanker this Wolcott. But yes, the men in her paintings are, to use the title of Lisa Simpson’s favourite magazine — Non-Threatening Boys. They are pretty. However I think perchance the objections of so many (male) critics to Kauffmann’s depictions might be analogous to the modern objections to the idealised images of women. Amongst the myriad objections to physical ideals will always lie the effect such have on one’s self-esteem, not to mention the discomfort one feels when confronted with the honest perception of one’s own sex by the other.

For example, in Kauffmann’s Hector Taking Leave of Andromache, Troy’s champion is not ‘the great warrior’ but a scared boy. And well might he be scared; soon he will be dead. His corpse dragged about by the chariot of the very bad-mannered Achilles. Kauffmann’s portrayal is not about warriors performing their duty but about lovers who will never see each other again; about a father taking one last look at his child; about a lad whose life will be cut short by war. Other takes on the tale at this time portray this scene as very much the man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do type deal.  I don’t think Kauffmann’s work suffered from the absence of life drawing but of masculine sentiments. In 1905, William Shaw Sparrow described her work as “artificial in spirit, with a strong bias toward the the sentimental” but reminds us that it had qualities that won the admiration both of Joshua Reynolds and Johann Goethe, both of whom were personal friends of hers. I think Sparrow nailed it when he continues: “Critics have searched in her pictures for manly qualities and finding the temperament of a sentimental woman, their judgment has failed them.” Most critics are boys and anyone who has been alive long and paid attention knows that boys and girls have different tastes.

And this word ‘sentimental’ is loaded. ‘Emotional’ might do as well. ‘Sentiment’ connotes shallow feeling, but I don’t see anything shallow in her depiction of Hector’s last moments with his wife. It’s simply a woman’s perspective on war, one that is poignant and subtle. Various Hollywood war movies, Rambo for example, are neither poignant nor subtle and are awash with shallow emotion. I’ve yet to see a critic describe such stuff as sentimental.

Kauffmann’s ambition was to be a history painter. This most highly regarded of painting genres was informally barred to women as they couldn’t draw from life, then thought essential. But Kauffmann succeeded and well simply by drawing from art. When Thomas Newton commissioned six biblical scenes for St Paul’s Cathedral (copping accusations of popery for it) he picked the best artists in London. Kauffmann was amongst them. Her own age declared her amongst the very finest. But by posterity she’s been labeled artificial, hence deficient. But wasn’t Picasso also artificial, drawing from Art not Nature? Was he then deficient?

Zeuxis Selecting Models For His Picture of Helen of Troy conveys one of many stories about the ancient Greek painter who is said to’ve had such trouble finding a woman beautiful enough to ‘play’ Helen that he chose five and combined the best ‘bits’ from all of them. It was a popular subject amongst the Neoclassical painters and naturally so. This historical anecdote illustrated Wincklemann’s aesthetics best, wherein the unfettered observation of Nature, that is the unrestricted gazing at naked bodies, lead to the development of a superior ideal “above the reach of mortality”. We are gods, said the Greeks. And the Neoclassicals responded: and will be again. Many others, all men, had depicted this story. In Nicolas-André Monsiau’s version, the models are on a stage and Zeuxis is backed up by other men, like Academicians at a life drawing class.The models are elevated as if on a stage. It seems like a very posh strip joint or a slave market.

Contrawise, Kauffmann’s picture is intimate. The scene is laid in a closed studio. There are five women, corresponding to the five models that Zeuxis used to create his collage ideal. There is only one man. No-one else. The model to whom he is currently directing his attention is very embarrassed, look at the deep blush. But she’s also pleased. It’s nice when people think you’re pretty. Naturally Kauffmann’s Zeuxis is pretty too. Zeuxis is also gentle but he’s obviously assessing her qualities as an object. By his feet lays a compass — no doubt so he can measure her up against the classical proportions set down by Leonardo da Vinci centuries before: the Golden Ratio. But the woman behind him is reaching for a paintbrush. She too is observing the model that Zeuxis is currently concerned with. Is she actually a model? Notice at what she is looking. She see what Zeuxis sees? Does she see how Zeuxis sees? According to the golden ratio? Given the picture’s classical composition, there’s no reason to think otherwise.

In her book on Kauffmann — one of several texts in the feminist revisitation to the lives and work of women who painted — Angela Rosenthal claims this is a feminist iconoclasm. This woman picking up a brush is, she says, “defying patriarchal conventions of representation encoded in the narrative and in Zeuxis’ attentive gaze”. In part, I agree, tho’ I’d use more user-friendly language: she’s playing the boy’s game. It is the woman behind Zeuxis that distinguishes this image from other versions. And it is this painting that, perhaps, best illustrates Kauffmann’s distinctiveness among the Neoclassicals. Like other versions of this story, there are many models but here one stands behind the artist. Her gaze is not demure, directed downward as with her that is being examined. Nor does she look enviously at another like the one seated, next in line. She doesn’t look out of the frame or at us like the next two. No. She looks at the scene itself and her left hand picks up a brush.

Kauffmann was a member of the Blue Stocking Society, but I’m skeptical of any retrospective applications of modern polemics to the meaning of her work. Still, this woman on the right  is playing the boy’s game — as Kauffmann did in her life. Nevertheless I must also disagree with Rosenthal. These patriarchal conventions of which she speaks are not being challenged by Kauffmann. Indeed, she was central to their further development. There is nothing stylistically radical about this or any of Kauffmann’s paintings. What distinguishes them are subtleties: the scene’s privacy, the blend of embarrassment and pleasure on the central figure’s face, the absence of a pedestal, the absence of any other onlooking males and the woman on the right hand side of the frame. The difference lies not in radically different mode of visual depiction but in what the individual responsible, herself, saw.

When looking at Kauffmann’s painting — seeing Zeuxis examining his model’s elbow — I was reminded of the photographs David Bailey took in the 70s of his then wife Marie Helvin. She had beautiful elbows and he knew it. He was conscious of this when he snapped her. Beautiful elbows? It’d never occurred to me that elbows could be beautiful. Perhaps such minute examinations of what is essentially the body of a female mammal, and slightly more than one-half the human species, underlie the sense of oppression that pervades the laments of modern women. Has this Apollonian freeze-framing gone too far? Camille Paglia, contemplating the birth of beauty, insists that in Nature there is nothing beautiful. “Beauty is our weapon against nature; by it we make objects”, she writes. ‘We’ meaning Westerners. Beauty is a masculine business, she proceeds, it originates in Egypt which “made a mystique out of one-man rule. And in that mystique was the birth of the Western eye.” The eye that makes ‘things’. Among these things, nay central to them, is the feminine ideal first manifest in the bust of Nefertiti and then realized fully by the Greeks.

For Johann Wincklemann ancient Greece was an ideal world for artists because the religious and social rituals demanded constant display of beautiful, youthful bodies. From this Greek artists formed “general ideas of beauty” and from thence the Ideal “beyond mortality”. Fine phrase, that, and telling: beyond mortality. The Neoclassical artists, particularly Jacques-Louis David, that propagandist of Robespierre and Napoleon (one-man, mystique?), celebrated and recreated this ideal human body, making gods from monkeys. Here in the 21st century those few left interested in Art forget that the offspring of painting and drawing — photography, cinema — carry on Winckelmann’s dreams of human perfection just as commercial firms carry on with Adam Smith’s. Neoclassicism persists in its dominance of the Eye. An eye that is no longer merely Western but global.

So who was this Zeuxis? And what? Here is a man who cannot find any woman to match a physical ideal he has in his head, so he’s cutting and pasting women. According to what ideal? A mathematical formula using the tools of an architect, an engineer, an astronomer? Or, to paraphrase Winckelmann in a base tone, is this the surfeit of hundreds of years of Greek perving? Whatever it is, it, the painting implies, has been going on a long time. It has a vast history. Zeuxis lived in Athens’ golden age; Kauffmann died over 200 years ago. Here we are, we moderns, surrounded by perfected images of ourselves which eschew the modesty of Kauffmann’s era but are still manufactured according to this Ideal by an explosion of visual tools. But considering that body image, the media tells us, is the #1 issue for women in the modern world. Considering that this ideal of the body — finally re-articulated in the 18th century — is now perceived widely as a torment, what else can we make of this painting by an early feminist role model? An irony? a truth? Or perhaps both?


  1. Posted September 30, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Agreed, fascinating. As for how she painted men, if I hadn’t known I was looking at the work of a female painter, I would have said that the painter was as queer as a three pound note 🙂

  2. Posted September 30, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Adrien: Thanks for the heads up on her… Makes me wish my phone had a much bigger screen! Although, in that modelling scene, I’m guessing the woman with the paintbrush could be seen by some as the closest to modern ideas of attractiveness of all the models. Was the real painter making even stronger points than you suggest? Dunno… as I said… Small screen, and the old glasses prescription, touch of glaucoma and partial seizures right now make it hard.

  3. su
    Posted October 1, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m really enjoying these, I hope you have a couple more in the works.

    It might be a bit of a cliche but I think there is something in the idea that an artists’ model is often another form of medium rather than a subject and this is even more true of models in the kind of images you mention at the end, images where the models’ features and attributes are smoothed, cut, cropped and thoroughly reworked as a matter of course. I wonder whether this sense of person as medium is one of the bases for anxiety over those images rather than merely the idealized representations they offer us and the possible effects this may have on young women.

  4. Posted October 4, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I wonder whether this sense of person as medium is one of the bases for anxiety over those images rather than merely the idealized representations they offer us and the possible effects this may have on young women.

    Yes, I think so. Neo-classical sculpture in partiuclar brings into high relief this standardization. All the women have the same faces, the same hairstyles, the same bodies. In the modern era with photography and a much larger labour market for models added to the fashion industry ideal (a boy with breasts) you’ve got a standard that is actually kind’ve freaky.

    The thing is women persist in buying it!

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