Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Nudity a la Grecque and the Female Gaze

Jacques-Louis David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799
(Musee du Louvre)
Museums are full of works of art trying to tell us something vital about a particular period of time if we only stop to listen. Unfortunately a lot can be lost in translation since most discourse depends on the perspective of a particular scholar or a school of thought.  Also, changing sentiments can turn the iconography of a significant masterpiece into disconnected arguments.   I feel Jacques-Louis David's The Intervention of the Sabine Women hanging at the Louvre museum, is one of those paintings that merits further investigation.

Nicolas Poussin,  The Abduction of the Sabine Women,1633-34
(Metropolitan Museum of Art) 
David painted this monumental work while he was imprisoned after the death of Robespierre and the end of the reign of terror.  It  is always described as a reconciliation painting where love prevails over conflict,  David's call to find a way to rebuild after the destruction of the revolution and its aftermath.  Influenced by Nicolas Poussin's Rape of the Sabine Women, David depicts the end of the legendary  story from Roman history. Romans who have no women abduct the females from Sabine and make them their wives; years later the Sabine men come back to claim their female kin but in the midst of battle they are stopped by the intervention of the Sabine women who have become the wives and mothers of Romans, refusing to let their fathers and husbands kill each other.

David exhibited this painting in his studio where a mirror was placed on the opposite wall, giving the viewer the full effect of being in the midst of the battle. David provided a brochure for his audience that explained and defended his motivations and reasoning for the controversial tableau.  He also did something that was unprecedented til this time in France, he charged an admission fee.  It was deemed a box office success and became one of the most talked about paintings of his career.  The reason for the drama was caused mostly because of the state of dress or undress of the protagonists.  Some critics opposed the depiction of Roman soldiers fighting in the nude on the grounds of historical inaccuracy, others were outraged at the idea of the male nude displayed for all the world to see.   David proclaimed his choice as artistic license.

I recently discovered a fascinating article in the Art Bulletin by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, Nudity a la Grecque in 1799, that sheds an intriguing light on this controversial painting.Grisby explains: 

"Scholarship  has for the most  part treated  the novel conjunction of  naked  male  bodies  and  newly central  female  protagonists as separate issues.
While  the  nudes  have been  described in  terms of  David's stylistic  development toward  a greater classical Greek  purism, the  Sabine  women's  prominence  has been 

interpreted as affording a familial  basis for the reconciliation  of  a  divided  and  warring  post-Revolutionary  France.  Aesthetic  priorities  (male  nudity) and  narrative saliency (female  intervention)  have often  been  held  asunder."

As it turns out, the critics redefined David's protagonists in specifically contemporary French terms. For David's severe critics the male nudes were contemplated in terms of the modern man stripped bare humiliated before their valets or his body deformed, bent, branded from his vulgar cultural practices, particularly fashion.   Herosilia, on the other hand, in her Grecian white gown was likened to the real women of post-Revolutionary France parading around in diaphanous gowns.  According to Grisby, David  himself  was responsible for  such  a collapse of high art and ephemeral fashion. The fashionable French woman had been modeling herself on the female protagonists of David's  major  pre-Revolutionary paintings; by 1790's the classical white gown had become everyday attire. 

Louis-Leopold Boilly, No Agreement, 1797
On September 7, 1789, women had donned simple white gowns and donated their ornaments to the state in an attempt to distance themselves from compromising associations of femininity with aristocratic ostentation. 2 However, it is stated that the renunciation of excessive ornamentation turned into excess of exposed flesh.  Wise men of 18th century France tried to dissuade women from this immodest way of displaying themselves by trying to convince them of the hazards to their health as well as severely reprimanding them for not being a model for the impure female.  Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby explains: 

"Ultimately, however, the greatest threat posed by women's new exhibitionism was not their impact on other women but the power they inappropriately wielded over men. Roederer, for one, understood fashion to be the means by which women exercised their"empire."This was not merely a matter of women's seduction of men  but of their substitution of tyranny for republicanism. Ephemeral fashion is by definition antithetical to timeless law. The stakes were self-evident:  as long as women-immoral, fashionable, fickle, and tyrannical-are prominent, there  could  be  no (fraternal)  Republic."

The Intervention of the Sabine Women, brought forth a concept which was completely antithetical to anything that had been seen in art so far -  the female gaze.  We read and write about the male gaze on the female body quite extensively in regards to feminist theory but this is the first time I experienced the exact opposite.  I should mention here that Tatius, Herosilia's father, standing to her left, was posed full frontal, without the modesty of the scabbard he wears in the painting today ( David modified the painting in1808).  The two male protagonists Tatius and Romulus were standing fully nude to an audience of females as well as males.  Girgsby mentions fashionable women standing before the painting in David's studio imagining themselves in place of Herosilia and her cohorts, another annoyance the critics could lay at David's door.  Along with the female viewer observing Tatius in puris naturalibus there are also Herosilia and the old woman in the middle who is about to rip open her gown, both getting a full view of Romulus that is not afforded to anyone else. 

"Here  are  women  in  states  of  undress regarding a displayed  male  nude; indeed, they are the only figures gazing at Romulus's exposed body.  It is difficult, however, to assess precisely where they look and what they see there. They alone enjoy access to Romulus's other  side, that presence or absence lurking behind (or  eclipsed  by?) shield and sheath, buttocks. As viewers by proxy, they heighten the sense of suspense attending Romulus's withheld body. Their oddly uninformative but directed gazes, coupled with Tatius's frontality, compel the question:  Should the viewer project Tatius's anatomy onto the halfgod's front, assembling his body part by part (shoulder, arm, chest, hardened stomach, genitals) in an attempt to reconstruct the man as seen by the women?"

Finally, the painter was blamed for sacrificing the health of women,  promoting 'nudity' for the sake of garnering a greater purity of forms in his painting. Darcy Grigsby states, women were ultimately the malleable materials of the dictatorial artist.  I guess anything was preferable to women having a mind of their own and acting independently.  

These are the elements that places David's painting on a plane which is more than just another neoclassical work to be memorized and recognized for me.  An intriguing peek into the lives, and thoughts of people from 200 years ago, observed through a careful study of a canvas hanging on a museum wall, ours to be had for the price of an admission ticket... this is why I love Art History.

1  Grigsby, Darcy Grimaldo, Nudity a la Grecque in 1799, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 80, No. 2(Jun., 1998), pp 311-335
2  Ibid., 321

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