My Muses: Thalia and the Mona Lisa

As the Greek muse of comedy, Thalia is among my favorite of the fair affecters. She sparks a willingness to smile, and knows that a perfectly timed practical joke is worth a more than a picture and its thousand words. At least, that’s what my muse of comedy, Mona Lisa, could tell you!

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On August 21st, of 1911, Mona Lisa was stolen from the Grand Gallery of the Louvre by an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Perugia. Most people recognized this as a tragic blow to the art-world, but has anyone ever entertained the possibility of Mona Lisa just needing a little holiday?? I mean, just consider the famed “Mona Lisa smile.” I know that look all too well. That expression means give me a damn break! I’ve been entertaining crowds in the Louvre since 1804, and before that I had to hang about in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom in the Tuileries, for da Vinci’s sake! I need to get away!

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Here’s what I believe happened. The winsome Mona presented to Perugia her most beguiling smile, and eventually (through her considerable charms) coerced him to take her away to see the sights. She decided to summer on the Riviera, and after getting quite a sun burn, insisted that she retreat to the Alps for some tranquil reflection. Her much needed respite ended in 1914, but reliable sources claim that she’s planning on another vacation, soon! Oh, Mona Lisa, you little minx!

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The Victorian Bathing Suit of Winslow Homer’s “High Tide”

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Winslow Homer’s Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide), which is exhibited in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, represents a transitional period in American art, clothing and society. Embedded within the appearance of the three young women on the seashore, rendered with lively brush-strokes, is a cultural cocktail of change and modernization. When Homer displayed this particular work at the National Academy of Design in 1870, critics reacted with uncertain, if not hostile remarks about his treatment of his female subjects and his overall painting technique. What Homer captured so aptly in this painting was a cultural undercurrent that was traveling just below the surface of Victorian mainstream ideals of “modesty, moral integrity, self-control, sober earnestness and industriousness.”Under the veneer of Victorian society, a natural world was pulsing.

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Homer was an American-born genre painter, who depicted every-day American life with sensitivity and vigor. Unlike his romantic predecessors who depicted highly polished interior scenes or grandiose landscapes which echoed the sanctity of a holy church, Homer turned his attention to the home-spun American scene, with a “native and personal” naturalism. His illustrations and oil paintings of Americans participating in outdoor leisure sports was a new theme in painting, and for which he produced a prolific number of examples. The fact that he was painting during the height of the Hudson River School Movement was quite influential to his work, since the Hudson River School stressed that artists should go outside of the studio to capture natural light.

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However, Homer’s summary hand, and the “unfinished” look of his antebellum paintings was a departure from the Hudson River School tradition, which subsequently drew much criticism from contemporaries. Harper’s Weekly commented on Winslow Homer’s High Tide exhibited at the 1870 Academy show, stating: “The pictures are not wholly pleasing; perhaps the bathing scene—like another he has in the East Room—is not quite refined. But this picture shows a fresh eye and a wholesome independence of conventions with spirit and vigor…If the critics must gibe, it must not be at such work, however faulty, but at the hopeless, conventional, dead and buried commonplace of many of the pictures, but suggest nothing but that the painter has seen nature only in very namby-pamby engravings. In the works of Homer…you are very sure that the painter has really seen what he paints, and really tries to represent it. When he fails, he is therefore a hopeful failure.” Homer was, in fact, just painting ahead of the curve. He is considered to be one of the forerunners to Impressionism, along with Boudin in France and Fattori in Italy.

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While critics picked apart the “homeliness” of his subject matter and the lack of refinement in his painting surfaces, the American public embraced his work, and the National Academy elected him an Academician when he was a young man. At least one critic had this generous statement to make about Homer’s work, “Mr. Homer goes in, as the phrase is, for perfect realism, and cares not for such fantastic hairsplitting as the distinction between beauty and ugliness. He is a genuine painter; that is to see, and reproduce what he sees.”

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The swimsuits that appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, are the result of a compromise between Victorian social mores, fashion and function. While it was considered immodest to expose the shape of the female leg, even when it was covered with stockings, weighty swathes of material made it physically impossible and dangerous for women to swim. The bathing suits popular from the mid-nineteenth century to around 1870 were a sartorial settlement between modesty and function, and were typically made of serge (a wool fabric) or flannel. The weighty material was fashioned into a paletot dress, which had a cinched bodice and short skirt that stopped at the knee. Underneath the paletot dress were ‘Turkish’ trousers, or bloomer-style pants.

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Around 1848, dress reformers introduced the ‘Turkish trowser’ to lady’s fashion, in an attempt to free the female body up for engaging in more physical activities like popular “water cures”, or, in the case of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, bike riding. Just a few years prior to 1848, bifurcated undergarments had been slowly incorporated into middle-class women’s wardrobe. Such controversial undergarments made headway for bloomers or Turkish trousers.

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However, the look of women wearing trousers in the nineteenth-century did not catch on with mainstream fashion, and magazines like Punch often poked fun at women who wore such emancipated attire.  The satirical cartoons in Punch magazine were a more humorous reaction to male fear that women were “appropriating male dress, and, by association, male privilege and power.” Because the trouser for women threatened the foundational gender codes of the Victorian era, bloomers and Turkish trousers were typically only worn when pursuing genteel pursuits of recreation, and were made less threatening to the male sartorial sphere by incorporating current female fashionable silhouettes and details into the overall look of the sportswear.

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Apart from the main body of the bathing dress, oiled linen caps were worn to protects the hair, while straw or sunhats hats were worn to guard the face against sunlight. In addition, lisle gloves were shown in fashion plates of the time to protect the hands from the sun, and gum shoes to protect the feet. While historians and mid-nineteenth century fashion magazines imagined Victorian women in bathing suits which covered them from head to toe, complete with black stockings, gum shoes, a linen cap, sunhats hat, gloves, bloomers or Turkish trousers and a shirt dress over a short dress, an illustration by Winslow Homer, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1858, gives us another glimpse into the world of Victorian sea bathing. Women appear swimming alongside men, and bare feet, naked calves and arms and elbows can be observed bobbing out of the waters in the illustration. Although ladies wear straw hats on the shore, the women swimming in the ocean only wear their linen caps.

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Patricia C. Warner uses this particular illustration by Homer to argue that contrary to some historian’s beliefs about mid-nineteenth-century sea bathing, women did not always wear every article of clothing prescribed by fashion plates from the time.  Homer, with his tradition as a genre painter and his acute eye for detail, captured the actual way in which women wore bathing suits, unencumbered by excessive articles of clothing and material, like gloves, straw hats, shoes and trousers. Furthermore, Homer was hired to record what he saw for the magazine, not reinterpret.  The fashions for bathing suits scarcely changed between the 1858 and 1870, so his illustrations of sea bathers for Harper’s Weekly and oil painting, High Tide, reaffirmed this image of young women swimming at the seaside with their bare legs exposed. Victorian art critics, viewing paintings from terra firma, may have been shocked by Homer’s realist rendering of “exceedingly red-legged and ungainly,” young women, but for enthusiast sea bathers, such opinions about the immodesty of bare skin might not have mattered. While the wearing of black stockings with a bathing suit was popular for American women from the mid-nineteenth-century and into the twentieth-century, it is highly likely that some more forward thinking or active women saw fit to remove their stockings while sea bathing.

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There were two imperatives for preserving the social status of middle-class beach-going women: safeguarding white skin against sun exposure and conserving one’s modesty, by way of concealing the body’s supple contours beneath ample clothing. The breach of these two precepts in High Tide caused negative reactions in critics after he displayed the piece. In this painting, the maintenance the young lady’s lily-white skin is in jeopardy while the two figures in the foreground expose their bare legs and faces to the sun. White skin was a marker a nineteenth-century beauty and class, indicative of a life spent indoors in the domestic sphere, and also of a woman’s delicacy and refinement. Milky-white skin was preferable.  Evidence of this preference for white skin during the Victorian era can be surmised by looking at the cosmetics which were on the market during the mid-nineteenth-century, such as “Rowland’s Kalydor,” which claimed in its advertisement that it had power to “cool and refresh the face and hands of ladies and all exposed to the hot sun. It removes freckles, tan, sunburn, redness and roughness.” This Victorian beauty ideal for white skin, and a subsequent rejection of tan and red skin, explains the negative reaction one critic had to the exposed red skin of the young woman in Homer’s painting, High Tide, calling one of the figures “exceedingly red legged and ungainly.”

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There is one more cultural aspect that can be ascertained from the appearance of the young ladies on the beach: the mid-nineteenth-century development of the idea of leisure time and recreation, in the wake of urbanization and an expanding middle-class. Urbanization and industrialization began to replace agrarian life in America, and thus the way in which time was spent moved away from the rhythms of the natural seasons, and became more in-tune to the rhythms of capitalist industry. The stress from “unnatural” modern life, formed by a shift from an outdoor existence to an indoor existence, created a need for leisure and recreation for the middle-class, and “natural” spaces where the bourgeoisie could retreat to became a necessity.

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By 1840, there was a boom in the creation of mountain and maritime resorts to meet the demand for recreation and leisure. It was also during the mid-nineteenth century that public parks were being constructed to better the lives of urban dwellers, as in the case of Central Park, in New York City, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857. Aside from creating a demand for “green spaces” and retreats to seaside resorts, modernization and industry also made it possible for more Americans to travel and visit remote wilderness areas like mountains and beaches. By 1841, an expanded national railway system enabled the American middle-class to travel to natural havens, like the seaside, in large numbers. These presumably middle-class girls which appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, occupy the space of a beach in Massachusetts because of new middle-class concepts of leisure and recreation, and because of innovative industry and technology which allowed for extensive travel.

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These three young ladies represent a number of changes occurring in America during the mid-nineteenth-century. Hidden in the contours of their bodies lies a message about the advent of impressionist painting, the introduction of active-wear for women, and the emergence of leisure and travel for a burgeoning middle-class.

 

References

 

Lois W, Banner. American Beauty. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1983.

 

Deitz, Paula. “Parks and Public Places,” Of Gardens. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

 

Downing, Sarah Jayne. Beauty and Cosmetics: 1550-1950. Shire Publications, Oxford, 2016.

 

Fischer, Gayle V. “Pantalets and Turkish Trowsers: Designing Freedom in the mid-nineteenth-century United States.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1. Feminist Studies, Inc. 1997.

 

Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer Essay. George Braziller, Inc., 1959.

 

Goodrich, Lloyd. “Winslow Homer.” Published for the Whitney Museum of Art by MacMillan Co., New York. 1944.

 

Kushner, Marilyn S. and Barbara Dayer Gallati, Linda S. Ferber. Winslow Homer: Illustrating America. Brooklyn Museum of Art, George Braziller Publisher, NY, 2000.

 

Sandiford, Keith A.P. “The Victorians at Play: The Problems in Historiographical Methodology,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 15, No. 2. Oxford University Press, 1981.

 

Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Bloomsbury Publishing, Oxford, 2016.

 

Sloan, John. “The Origin, Growth and Transformation of Maritime Resorts Since 1840,” Built Environment. Vol. 18, No.1. Alexandrine Press, 1992.

 

Patricia Campbell Warner, When Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear. University of Massachusetts Press, Boston, 2006.

 

“Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide),” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

 

“The Hudson River School”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art and History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hurs/hd_hurs.htm)

 

Winslow Homer. “The Bath at Newport,” Harper’s Weekly, September 4, 1858. Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Special Collections and Archive.

 

 

 

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The Portrait of Elizabeth Farren, Painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1789)

 

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I just adore this portrait of Elizabeth Farren! As soon as I enter the gallery where she is housed (in the European wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), I swoon. I hardly notice any other portraits around me. It’s just Elizabeth Farren and I in that room. I’m infatuated. In love.

But what makes this painting so compelling? Is it her smiling Irish eyes? The gossamer white silk satin and cotton muslin of her wardrobe? The languid paint-strokes which make up her body? Perhaps it is a combination of all three. The painting titled Elizabeth Farren, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, is a masterful rendition of the popular Irish actress, who ascended the ranks of both English theater and society. But, her climb up the proverbial social ladder was not just blind luck. Hard work and careful management of her image were essential to Elizabeth Farren’s success as an actress and as a wife to the twelfth earl of Derby. Framed within the confines of this portrait are symbolic and cultural messages, which transmit ideas about reputable social standing and the feminine ideal. The portrait of Elizabeth Farren is a careful composition, which was painted in the manner of aristocratic portraiture, and is the result of a collaboration of ideas between Elizabeth Farren and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Far from being a carefree and fanciful painting, Elizabeth Farren is a work of great integrity and intent, and would have been highly readable to a contemporary audience.

The painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1790,where it was well received and praised for its brilliant technique and composition. The brush strokes are fluid and soft, her body is positioned to face the grasses and trees of the natural background, as if she has suddenly decided to walk in that particular direction, while her head turns back to the viewer, beckoning one to follow her into the painting. Her lustrous white satin cape pops into the space of the viewer, seemingly crossing over from the boundaries of the two dimensional confines of the painting. Central to the composition of the painting is a rather rotund and richly colored brown fur muff, which is offset by the diaphanous material of the cotton muslin dress which she wears.

The composition in its entirety suggests liveliness and natural spontaneity— artistic marks which Lawrence was well known for, and for which he had no contemporary parallel. When Lawrence painted Elizabeth Farren  in the spring of 1790, he was all but twenty-two years old, starting out his career as a child prodigy who would sketch drawings of customers in his father’s hotel, The Black Bear. Just recently departing from pastels to pick up the medium of oil painting, Lawrence’s accomplishments with Elizabeth Farren are impressive.Contemporaries and modern viewers alike can observe in the painting Lawrence’s ability to capture the personality of the sitter, in a way which appears lively. This was achieved by Lawrence’s preliminary sketch techniques, where he spent a few hours studying the natural expressions and gestures of the sitter, drawing with black chalk on canvas.The initial engagement between artist and sitter is preserved in Lawrence’s final painting, therefore making the painting appear more life-like. Contemporaries noted, “We have seen a great variety of pictures of Miss Farren, but we never before saw her mind; arch, careless, spirited elegant and engaging.”Lawrence’s finishing touch, which added to the fluidity and animation of the portrait, was his technique of flicking white highlights across Farren’s hair, fingers, and face

Beyond Lawrence’s personal touches of painterly panache, he did largely work within the aesthetic framework of his contemporaries. It has been noted that he gleaned much of his compositional form from fellow painter, Thomas Gainsborough. Before beginning his painting on Elizabeth Farren, Lawrence had visited Gainsborough’s studio, where it is noted on the back of a drawing by Gainsborough that Lawrence had spent “several successive days [studying] when Lord Derby employed him to paint Miss Farren.” The particular work which Lawrence was studying was Gainsborough’s drawing of an anonymous young woman who wears white, walks into a natural landscape and looks back over her shoulder at the viewer. Both Lawrence’s painting and Gainsborough’s drawing share these particular details. (Figure 1)

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figure 1

The open air setting of grass, trees and sky was quite popular in British portraiture of the last half of the eighteenth-century. Portraits were largely commissioned by the landed aristocracy, or the aspiring—in which case displaying one’s permanency as landed Gentry was expressed through idyllic natural backgrounds. “The landed aristocracy had of course always seen itself , and has been seen by everyone else, as representing permanence….[There was no] clearer expression of continuity through time than the park landscapes, the wide lakes and ancient trees….which are featured in so many portraits.”Some examples of portraits which include landscapes of English countryside include Sir William Beechey’s Portrait of a Young Girl (circa 1790) in fig. 2, and George Romney’s portrait of Lady Anne de la Pole (1786) in fig. 3.

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figure 2                                                                                    figure 3

English portraiture during the late eighteenth century showed “a keen fondness for pastoral settings and costume,” and was centered on “rural pastimes.”Lawrence’s artistic oeuvre reveals that much, of his late-eighteenth century portraiture feature backdrops with grassy lawns, bordered by trees and foliage. To observe the lithe figure of Elizabeth Farren walking into a field of grasses and trees was not unique to Lawrence’s work. “The outdoor setting also serves artist and sitter well. It allowed Lawrence to display his skill in painting landscapes and encouraged honorific association to his female sitter with nature, thus assuaging a moral question attached to her career as an actress.” Because Elizabeth Farren was so careful about her chaste appearance, the natural setting would have distanced her image from the general association of the time of actresses with prostitution and overt sexuality.

Lawrence did encounter some criticism for his decision to portray Farren in a fur trimmed cape and muff, against a summer landscape.However, the incongruous pairing of winter accessories and a summer back-drop allowed for Lawrence to demonstrate his ability to juxtapose the textures of the lustrous white satin cape against the filmy white muslin, and the supple kid glove against the sensual fur muff.Most importantly, he was displaying fashionable clothing which would have identified Farren with the social elite, including the large fur muff, and the satin white cape with fur trim. The portrait of Melanie de Forbin-Gardanne, painted by Jean-Louis Le Barbier Le Jeune, in 1789, is another striking example of the fashion for white satin, trimmed with fur, during the time. (figure 4)

 

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figure 4

 

Generally, Lawrence’s mis-matched seasonal cues in Elizabeth Farren were ignored by contemporaries, in favor of its praise-worthy rendition of flesh and fabric. Most likely, Lawrence was amused and relieved by a poem which appeared in a prose book, by Thomas Bellamy:

On a Celebrated Picture

Of

Miss Farren

Incas’d in fur; as shrinking from the blast;

Midst scenes that glow with all that summer yields.

Where not a cloud the sky has overcast,

Where blooms the garden, smiles the distant fields

We know the Farren, by thy lovely face:

But sure the artist ought to shrew some cause

Why thus he sins against all truth and grace

Why thus he turns his back on nature’s laws.

Why thus, pale, shiv’ring on a summer’s day,

He paints Thalia’s child, all sportive fair and gay.

 

Moreover, the outdoor backdrops in Lawrence’s painting linked him to a larger aesthetic movement grounded in Neoclassicism, which extolled the Republican virtues of ancient Rome and the reign of Augustus, and was witnessed in late eighteenth century art, architecture and fashion. Neoclassicism allowed for English “to identify with the antique, with political liberty and civic virtue…What justified ‘civic’ classicism was its success in anchoring the principals of political liberty deep within in the nation’s culture, by way of the plastic arts in giving civic values visible form.”

Neoclassicism was further reinforced by the architecture and fashion of the by the discovery of the Greek ruins of Pompeii in 1748. The columnar white muslin dress which Elizabeth Farren wears in Lawrence’s painting is very much occupying popular fashion of 1790.

Beginning in the mid 1780s, the robe en chemise became favorable, after the fashion forward Queen Marie Antoinette was immortalized in a portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Le Brun, (painted in 1783), wearing the underwear-like garment (figure 5). Although the robe en chemise’s debut amongst privileged circles was shocking, it was quickly embraced by the fashionable elite. Soon, European royalty, like the Prussian princesses Friederike and Luise, and aristocrats, like Juliette de Recamier, were wearing simple white dresses made of muslin fabric. Furthermore, the simple white dress of the 1790s symbolically encapsulated the political climate of a post-Revolutionary France, along with the ideals of democracy and the Republic.

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Neoclassicism was the prevailing aesthetic during the time in which Lawrence painted Elizabeth Farren, and the fashion for resembling Greek marble sculpture was in-line with aristocratic taste.  It was the gossamer sheerness and the soft drape-ability of cotton muslin which made it best-suited to these Greek-goddess-inspired fashions  Having the simple and elegant cotton muslin dress immortalized in portraiture would have been a constructive way of visually linking herself to the fashionably elite in society. Below are two fashion plates which illustrate the fashion for white dresses, coupled with the “hedge-hog” hair-do; Figure 6 is a fashion plate from Journal des Luxus und der Modern, July 1789, and Figure 7 is a fashion plate from the Magazine de Modes Nouvelles 1789.

 

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Of course, the correspondence between the Greek-inspired white muslin dress in the 1790s, and the rejection of the ostentation and sexual excess of French court style was integral to Farren’s lifetime effort of maintaining her respectable and chaste image. “These neoclassical white, muslin dresses—worn by young and old, single and married women alike—signified English moral purity and industry (English cotton, not French silk).”The idea of moral purity was central to Farren’s daily conduct. She was well known for having her beloved mother as a constant chaperone, especially in the presence of her admirer and suitor, the twelfth earl of Derby. An acquaintance of Elizabeth was Joseph Farrington, who noted in his diary: “Lord Derby’s attachment to Elizabeth Farren is extraordinary. He sees her daily and always attends the plays when she performs….her mother is always with her….so careful is she of appearances.”

And Farren had good reason to keep up such appearances. She was involved in a painfully long engagement with the twelfth Earl of Derby, where she had to bide her time and wait for Derby’s estranged wife, Lady Elizabeth Hamilton— who was ill— to die. And, although it sounds heartless of Elizabeth to wait for Derby’s wife to perish, it was common knowledge that Derby’s wife had run off to live with another lover, the third Duke of Dorset, and that Derby had refused to divorce her. It wasn’t until 1797 that Elizabeth could unite with Derby in marriage.

Aside from associating herself with virginal, pure images, Farren swathed herself in volumes of white muslin, which draped from her body, as a means of shrouding what was widely considered to be her only shortcoming. During the eighteenth century, it was ideal to have a bit of plumpness to the body. Because of this ideal, her critics had this to say of her:

“Miss Farren was in the perfection of her charms; her figure was

 above the middle height, graceful and suited to the disposition

 of drapery which served to conceal her lack of plumpness which

was her only defect; her eyes were blue, she had a lovely mouth

 and a winning smile, her voice was sweet,” wrote one critic and

 another, “Her figure is of that slight texture which allows and

 requires the use of full and flowing drapery—an advantage of

which she knows well how to avail herself.”

 

Elizabeth was very sensitive about her body’s thin appearance, and in her attempt to maintain her public image, requested that Thomas Lawrence add some volume to her figure in his painting of her. Proof of this is found in a letter which Elizabeth wrote to Lawrence in 1792, in which she begs Lawrence to rework her portrait, given the embarrassment of having her friends tease her for her appearance in the painting, where she was ‘so thin….that you might blow it away.’Despite her attempts to alter her “only imperfection,” it has been revealed through modern X-rays and infra-red reflectography that the painting has never been altered. (figure 8)

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figure 8

Despite her inability to control every aspect of her public image, Elizabeth Farren was held in high regard amongst the upper crust of society. Her rise to fame and acceptance in high society attracted a few jealous gossips, but they had little fuel to run their rumor mill. With her respectability and gentility, Farren was able to override her profession’s dubious the connections to brothels and loose living, and model herself after the aristocracy. It was also helpful that during the late-nineteenth century there was a vogue for plays about high society, decency, and delicacy—plays in which she excelled in as women of noble breeding. She was so adept at playing ladies of high birth on the stage, that, soon, the boundaries between her image on the stage and her image off the stage became confused and obscured. When Elizabeth played Lady Emily Grayville, in Burgoyne’s play, The Heiress, in 1787, the critic Adolphus noted of her performance in the Morning Chronicle:

“[Farren] absolutely identified herself with this model of fashionable

excellence. In the female characters, every actress shone…but above

all, and to such a degree as to attract the separate thanks of the author,

Miss Farren displayed her characteristic excellencies in Lady Emily

Grayville. Where high and honorable sentiments, burning virtuous

sensibilities, sincere and uncontrollable affection, animated through

sportive reprehension, elegant persiflage, or arch pointed satire, were

 the aim of the author, Miss Farren amply filled out his thought and by

her exquisite representation made it, even when faint and feeble in itself,

 striking ad forcible. And these irresistible graces of her address and

manner, the polished beauties of action and gait, and all the indescribable

 little charms which give fascination to the woman of birth and fashion,

the power and inspiration of Miss Farren’s performance may in some

degree be appreciated. She had the feeling, judgement, grace and

discretion.”

 

The celebrity status and high visibility that the late eighteenth century actress had achieved meant that their personas would forever be linked to their costumes and characters. It is interesting to observe that Miss Farren’s highly regarded portrayals of refined ladies on the stage crossed-over into real life. (figure 9)Even amongst her many friends of high social standing, her grace, charm and respectability were notable. She regularly mixed and mingled with the “ton” at Richmond House, where she was praised for her joie de vivre. One of her acquaintances, Mrs. Matthews, said of her, “[She was] a fascinating woman….ladies of rank and character received and visited her on the most familiar terms of friendship and daily extended the circle of her distinguished friends.” Because she rubbed elbows with high society, it was even more important for her—a woman coming from a middle class background—to maintain her image as a fashionable lady of high status. The rather large fox fur muff in the portrait by Lawrence would have certainly sent a visual message to her contemporaries, outlining her ability to buy luxury goods and to display them.

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figure 9

If one observes the muff in the painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence, the bulbous shape, large size and appearance of softness is notable in the accoutrement. But, overly large muffs—like the one which appears in the painting— were at the height of fashion during the 1780s and 1790s, so it is not unusual to see Elizabeth Farren toting a muff of this size. There are several humorous satirical illustrations which appear around the time that Sir Thomas Lawrence painted Elizabeth Farren, in 1790, which confirm the rather ridiculous size of fur muffs in the last half of the eighteenth-century.

 

 

In 1787, Samuel William Fores published his satirical cartoon of a fashionable lady whose entire body has been engulfed by a gigantic fur muff (Figure 10.) Despite the fun which was poked at the large muff, it was readily used in late-eighteenth century portraiture to convey ideas about the fashionability or the sensuality of the sitter. Whether the fur muff was perceived as libidinous or proper in a portrait had much to do with the perceived respectability of the sitter, as Laura Engel explains through her comparison of two British actresses who were contemporaries of Elizabeth Farren: Sarah Siddons and Mary Robinson. Mary Robinson’s personal character was connected to her affairs with Charles Fox and Prime Minister North, as well as her bouts of erratic behavior.  Unlike Mary Robinson, Sarah Siddons had a reputation as a respectable woman, and her theatrical roles were often connected to mother or Queen figures. When Sarah Siddons posed for Thomas Gainsborough for a painting in 1785, her use of the muff in portraiture was perceived as a “stylish and elegant accessory designed to promote Siddons’ image as a woman of quality and grace, a celebrity worthy of admiration by respectable women.”

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figure 10

Like Siddons, Elizabeth Farren had a long-held reputation as a respectable woman, thus, the muff in the painting by Lawrence is used as a signifier for Farren’s role as a consumer and connects her to the fashionable elite of society. The social boundaries between the aristocracy and popular actress was further blurred by the fact that famous artists were painting both nobility and actresses, using the same techniques and iconography.  The work of Lawrence is no exception. One of the most telling indicators of a sitter’s status is her ability to consume and display luxury goods, like the luxurious fur trimmed, silk satin cape, or the voluminous fox fur muff which Lawrence makes central to his painting. “Lawrence aspired to fame as a portraitist within fashionable society, so a large percentage of his clients were women. In the late eighteenth century women in the upper and middle classes were charged with the burden and pleasure of consuming luxury goods such as high fashion and jewelry, and portraiture was a means for them to convey their fashionable taste.”

For Elizabeth Farren, having her portrait painted by a renowned artist, and displaying her ability to consume luxury items like furs was akin to an advertisement which transmitted ideas about her respectability as a lady and her inherent fashionable taste. Especially during the time of Elizabeth Farren’s career, which began in 1777 and ended in 1797, British actresses witnessed an “unprecedented conspicuousness in the public eye.” Elizabeth Farren had to carefully construct her public image because like luxury goods, her image was a highly consumable item. The diaphanous white muslin fabric of her gown, the silvery white satin of her cape and the richness of her fox fir trim and muff all act as visual signifiers of her status as a respectable lady of high social standing.

 

 

Bibliography and Further reading:

 

Agres, Philip. Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010.

Albinson, Cassandra, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz. Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010.

Berg, Maxine. Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988.

Bradford, Isabella. “Big and Bigger Muffs: Reality Versus Caricature c. 1790,” Two Nerdy History Girls, (April 21, 2013) http://twonwrdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/2013/04/big-bigger-muffs-reality-vs-caricature,html.

Brooks, Helen E.M. “Negotiating Marriage and Professional Autonomy in the Careers of Eighteenth-century Actresses.” In Eighteenth-century Life, 39-76. Kent: University of Kent Press, 2011.

Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy of Seduction in Regency Fashion.” Jane Austen Society of North America, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2012.

Conway, Alison. “Private Interests: The Portrait and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England.” In Eighteenth-Century Life, 1-15. Kent: University of Kent, 1997.

Engel, Laura. Fashioning Celebrity: 18th-Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making. Ohio State University Press, 2011.

Engel, Laura. “The Muff Affair: Fashioning Celebrity in the Portraits of Late Eighteenth-Century British Actresses.” In Fashion Theory, Volume 13, Issue 3, 279-298. Berg: 2009.

Garlick, Kenneth. Sir Thomas Lawrence: A complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings. New York: New York University Press, 1989.

Johnson, James William. “What was Neo-Classicism?” Journal of British Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015.

Maeder, Edward. An Elegant Art: Fashion and Fantasy in the Eighteenth Century. The Los Angeles Museum of Art, 1983.

Mannings, David. The British Face: A View of Portraiture, 1625-1850. London: P & D Colnaghi & Co., Ltd., 1986.

Oestreich, Kate Faber. “Fashioning Chastity: British Marriage Plots and the Tailoring of Desire, 1789-1928.” Dissertation. Ohio State University Press, 2008.

Perry, Gill and Michael Rossington. Femininity and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century Art and Culture. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Ribeiro, Aileen. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1995.

Ribeiro, Aileen. “Thoughts on Changing Attitudes to British Portraiture.” The British Face: A View of Portraiture 1625-1850. P & D Colnaghi & Co. Ltd., 1986.

Wahrman, Dror. The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.

Ylivuori, Soile. “Rethinking Female Chastity and Gentlewoman’s Honour in Eighteenth-Century England.” In The Historical Journal, 71-97. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

 

Adolphus, Morning Chronicle, January 11, 1786.

Bellamy, Thomas. Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, Vil.ii. 1795.

Hayes, John. “Gainsborough’s “Richmond Water –Walk.’” Burlington Magazine. January 1969.

Journal des Luxus und der Moden, July 1789.

Jeune , Jean-Louis Le Barbier Le. Melanie de Forbin-Gardanne. Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, NC, 1789.

Magazine de Modes Nouvelles, 1789.

Romney, George.  Lady Anne de la Pole. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1786

“The Muff,” published by SW Fores, London, 1787. Copyright: the Trustees of the British Museum.

Vigee-Le Brun, Elisabeth-Louise Marie Antoinette. Private Collection of Heissische Hausstiftung. Germany, 1783.

[1] Elizabeth Farren, by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1790). Heilbrunn Timeline of Art and History, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[2] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 35.

[3] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 32.

[4] Garlick, Kenneth. Sir Thomas Lawrence: A complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings. New York: New York University Press, 1989, 11.

[5] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010,35.

[6] Ibid. 31.

[7] Public Advisor, 30 April 1790.

[8] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 35.

[9] Hayes, John. “Gainsborough’s “Richmond Water –Walk.’” Burlington Magazine. January 1969.31.

 

[10]Mannings, David. The British Face: A View of Portraiture, 1625-1850. London: P & D Colnaghi & Co., Ltd., 1986, 17.

[11] Ibid. 20.

[12] Garlick, Kenneth. Sir Thomas Lawrence: A complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings. New York: New York University Press, 1989.

[13] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 35.

[14] Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 119.

[15] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 98.

[16] Aileen Ribeiro, The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1995. 78-9

[17] Bellamy, Thomas. Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, Vil.ii. 1795. Cited in Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 119-120.

[18] Johnson, James William. “What was Neo-Classicism?” Journal of British Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 52.

[19] Agres, Philip. Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press, 1999, XIV.

[20] Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012. 3.

[21] Ibid. 4.

[22] Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015. 273.

[23] Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012. 4.

[24] Oestreich, Kate Faber. “Fashioning Chastity: British Marriage Plots and the Tailoring of Desire, 1789-1928.” Dissertation. Ohio State University Press, 2008, 57.

[25] Farrington, Joseph. Farington Diaries, Vol. 13. Royal Libraries, Windsor Castle, 803.

[26] Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 67.

[27] Ibid., 61.

[28] Albinson, Cassandra, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz. Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010, 101.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 112.

[31]Ibid., 68.

[32] Ibid., 50.

[33] Adolphus, Morning Chronicle, January 11, 1786. Cited in Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 76.

[34] Engel, Laura. Fashioning Celebrity: 18th-Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making. Ohio State University Press, 2011, 20.

[35] Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 73.

[36] Engel, Laura. “The Muff Affair: Fashioning Celebrity in the Portraits of Late Eighteenth-Century British Actresses.” In Fashion Theory, Volume 13, Issue 3, 279-298. Berg: 2009, 279.

[37] Bradford, Isabella. “Big and Bigger Muffs: Reality Versus Caricature c. 1790,” Two Nerdy History Girls, (April 21, 2013) http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/2013/04/big-bigger-muffs-reality-vs-caricature.html

[38] “The Muff,” published by SW Fores, London, 1787. Copyright: the Trustees of the British Museum.

[39] Engel, Laura. Fashioning Celebrity: 18th-Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making. Ohio State University Press, 2011, 72.

[40] Engel, Laura. “The Muff Affair: Fashioning Celebrity in the Portraits of Late Eighteenth-Century British Actresses.” In Fashion Theory, Volume 13, Issue 3, 279-298. Berg: 2009, 288-28.

[41] Engel, Laura. Fashioning Celebrity: 18th-Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making. Ohio State University Press, 2011, 27.

[42]Ibid., 17.

[43] Albinson, Cassandra, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz. Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 30.

[44] Asleson, Robyn. Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture, 1776-1812. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2003, 1.

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Colette…Fantasy into flesh

On January 28th, 1873 Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born. Who would have imagined that in twenty years time she would start a revolution with her bare breast, provoke the minds of Europe with her pen and wake up the conscience of society with a kiss?

colette

Colette was a writer, a dancer, a stage-performer and a woman. Defining herself as all of these elements in the transient haze between the Victorian era and the Roaring Twenties could prove a daunting task for any gal. It would have been easy for her to slip into calm waters of social propriety, but Colette chose to raise a storm in the Belle Epoch and sail right through the middle of civil turbulence. Desire was her compass as she plotted her course.

Her Odyssey began when she was just a child. Under the influence of her unconventional mother, Sidonie-Gabrielle shed her identity as an innocent school girl by adopting a custom usually embraced by school boys; she had her school chums refer to her by her last name, Colette. This seems innocent enough, but Colette was already testing the waters of assigned gender roles. The corset and the smelling salts seemed like an ill fit for “Sido”, so she did what any self-respecting malcontent might do…she practiced the art of provocation.

colette 2

She sharpened her skills as a provoker while appearing in Parisian drawing rooms, dressed as a salty sailor (an act that was punishable under law….cross dressing was strictly prohibited, apart from the stage) But upsetting the order of things with androgynous outfits was just the start for Colette. She would explore the uncharted limits of sexuality with her writing. Her first book, Claudine at School (1900), was penned under the name of her rakish first husband, Gauthier-Villars. The book chronicled the account of a young school girl’s lust for the alluring assistant mistress, Aimée. The story of lesbian love was a sensation, and Gauthier-Villars would exploit his wife’s desirous imagination for his own financial gain, until they divorced in 1904. Thereafter, Colette published books under her own name; her most famous work being Gigi (which was made into a fantastic feature length film in 1958.)

Writing about the taboo was just a one dimensional approach to provoking consciences… Colette was just warming up! She became a master of titillation while performing on stage in pre-World War Paris, 1906; a time when it was scandalous to flash a bit of ankle in public. Colette, being her sensible self, decided it was too easy to incense the audience with a peek of cheek or a glimpse of gam. She went for the big guns and revealed her breast to the crowd while she was on stage. Later, she immortalized this pose by modeling her bare, left breast for the camera. This rocked the conventions of turn-of-the-century-Europe. Hearing the news, matrons would undoubtedly hold their gloved hands over their satin swathed hearts and gentlemen’s monocles would pop away from their shocked eyes.

colette 3

Breasts had existed for ages, but in the twentieth-century they had been tucked away, and they certainly were not up for discussion. Colette inadvertently questioned society’s tendency to hide, augment and contort the female form and she would fight to uphold women’s honor. Instead of throwing down the gauntlet, Colette had cast down her breast. It was a challenge to European society and it need only accept.

There were those traditionalists who attacked Colette’s attempt at loosening the societal shackles which defined womanhood, at the turn of the nineteenth-century, but there were also those who admired her for her scandalous bravery. Colette offered the world, and particularly women of the world, the fantasy of living out ones heart’s desire. In her most shocking embodiment of fantasy, Colette appeared on the stage of the Moulin Rouge with her lover (and financial backer), daughter of the Duc de Morny, Mathilde. Mathilde, who went by the name of Missy, dressed as a male archeologist, and Colette had herself bound in gauze to resemble a mummy. In a fifteen minute scene, which was later censored by authorities, Missy discovers a mummy, unwraps the bandages and reveals the ravishing Colette underneath. In an act which caused a riot, Missy kisses the mummy and brings Colette to life.

If the deeper symbolism of this scene was lost on the audience, they were certainly roused by the forbidden kiss.Colette had worked very hard to get under the skins of any moral champion, and her lesbian lip-lock forced them to look at that kiss for what it was; a token of love. Now, that Colette had tested the limits of love, was it up to theological debate to decide where the boundaries of love might lie, or if there were really any boundaries to love, after all?

One thing is certain. Sidonie-Gabrielle had agitated the hearts and minds of Europe and beyond, and this would be her legacy. She was a writer, dancer and an actress too, but Colette’s true talent lie in dissolving fantasy into flesh.

cloette 4

Colette…Fantasy dissolves into flesh

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