Friday, November 11, 2011

Artist's Statement III: Male and Female Odalisques Up Against "A Good Fight"

The poet Frank Bidart wrote that "whatever lies still uncarried from the abyss within me as I die, dies with me."  Things must be said, must be remembered, and must be carried on. If we cannot exactly retrieve everything from the vaults of what has gone before us, we can at least look for the fragments we have.

I have always liked the work of Jean-Léon Gérome (1824-1904). His Orientalist work inspired me to look further into the world of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century odalisque. Sometimes his images are quite disconcerting -- the naked backside of a young boy, who is painted as a snake-charmer, or the naked bodies of slaves for sale in the bazaars he imagined -- but the most peculiar, so strange, so smooth, so accomplished and yet, who can tell what it says, is this painting in the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, "The Moorish Bath," from 1890:

The two women's bodies are beautiful, one muscular, one improbably soft; there are no faces here, only skin, water, and tiles from North Africa.  I should like to have asked Gérome about this work, about his models, his intended audience, whether there was a narrative to be discovered here, and how that woman is balanced on that tiny tile shelf ... I have not found any such statement from him. But his legacy included two students, both born in 1844, both dead-serious artists who could not be more different: Thomas Eakins and Mary Cassatt.

Eakins would write that he did not like all the excuses -- perhaps his teacher's among them -- for painting unrealistic nude women, women without pubic hair or wrinkles or flaws, all those "smiling smirking goddesses," he called them.  Eakins said that a naked woman was "the most beautiful thing there is -- except a naked man, but I never saw a study of one exhibited."  His work included portraits, interiors, subjects grouped in outdoor settings with the light of New England or a French city precisely captured; it is believed that he used projected photographs to help him sketch the outlines for some of his paintings. He was after technical mastery. Eakins would work his way around to those nude studies of men, something that had been common in classical statuary but had not commonly been seen in oils. Eakins was commissioned to paint "The Swimming Hole," (1883-5), but on its completion, the client refused it, and it remained unsold until 1925. Eakins wrote that  "I see no impropriety in looking at the most beautiful of Nature's works, the naked figure .... My conscience is clear, and my suffering is past."

He would not say much more (that I could find) about the nature of his work; he did say that "For the public I believe my life is all in my work." The painting of these male odalisques, caught up in their conversations and play and swimming, with a self-portrait of Eakins in the lower right-hand corner, accomplish a strange duality: a realistic idyll.

And then there is Gérome's other famous student, Mary Cassatt. She was born in Allegheny City, now part of Pittsburgh, and she would travel back and forth to Europe until finally settling there in 1874. Cassatt's father despaired of her; he said he would rather "see her dead" than see her be an artist.  During one of her involuntary trips back to Pennsylvania, in 1871, Cassatt wrote to her friend Emily Sartain that "I need to see you and talk about art. I cannot tell you what I suffer for want of seeing a good picture." Degas had seen her work and befriended her.  Cassatt had had some early successes at the Paris Salon, but after a summary rejection there, she would begin to exhibit with the impressionists, the only American to do so.  Degas had said that "it is essential to do the same subject over and over again, ten times, a hundred times," and Cassatt, like Jane Austen, painted and re-painted women in the world she knew.  Unlike Eakins, Cassatt would not undress her subjects; she drew the faces in the light. Here is her "Five O'Clock Tea," from 1880:

The bodies are crowded onto what looks like a small armchair -- I should like to ask about that! -- but the faces are the faces of real people.  The woman in profile, buttoned up as she is, has far more in common with Eakins's young men than with Gérome's odalisques. There is a striving for realism here, even down to the flourishes of the tea service, which seem to counter-balance the women, to weigh them down by possessions.  Despite giving up any idea of family, Cassatt sometimes found herself balancing "house-keeping, painting and oyster-frying," saying late in life that "I work and that is the whole secret of anything like content in life in life, when everything else is gone."

She would say that "I have not done what I wanted to, but I have tried to make a good fight." And we can ask only that ...

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