As some of you know, I’m a pianist. Not a very good one, you understand, but good enough to accompany choirs and soloists and occasionally play in amateur orchestras and ensembles. Plus, armed with a piano teaching diploma (a licenciate, no less!) from the Royal Academy of Music, I taught piano for several years.
So it was that I was drawn to a painting — yet another in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery — entitled The Pianist. Painted around 1900 by Eugène Carrière (1849–1906), a noted symbolist artist, it practically dared me to throw my professional musician’s and arty amateur’s eye over it.
For good measure, I want to also discuss it in conjunction with a couple of other paintings in this gallery, partly to include some thoughts in the perennial debate about what’s known as the male gaze.
Despite being titled The Pianist this actually appears to be about a piano lesson. A young woman, clearly the subject of the painting, has her hands on the keys of an upright piano and, from the angle of the fingers on the left (on one of which flashes a gold ring), is in the process of playing a passage. To her right stands a dominant figure, no doubt the teacher, who appears to have risen from her neoclassical seat to cast her eyes on her pupil’s technique — and to doubtless deliver a critique.
I’m guessing the teacher is a visitor to this middle class home, but (as this site suggests) the two figures may actually be members of the artist’s family, rendered as universal figures. I approve of the teacher being on the right hand side of the piano because this allows the pupil access to bass notes and to especially manage octave passages more easily; standing up also allows the teacher in this instance to see the pupil’s left hand technique more clearly.
I do like the impressionistic technique and muted sepia tones of this work because sharp details and vivid colours can often distract, even detract, from the subject matter, textures and composition. Yet, though the daylight from the right creates suitable contrasts, the teacher’s position does manage to avoid throwing shadows over the music. The perspective and relatively plain foreground puts viewers’ eyelines at the level of the keyboard, encouraging them — both literally and metaphorically — to look up to the teacher, the figures thereby forming a triangle with madame’s head at the apex. In all respects I find this a deeply satisfying image.
What it doesn’t do, as far as I can see, is suggest any overt sexuality, unless one is determined to see the teacher as some sort of dominatrix. The demure clothing and beanpole figures conform to late Victorian sensibilities and Carrière (according to the 1970 gallery catalogue) is said here to have “tried to symthesize the form and its spirit in an art of suggestion,” with “strong chiaroscura and little dependence on line”.
This is quite far from confirming the theory of the male gaze — usually defined as the act of depicting women and objects from the heterosexual male’s perspective, with women being merely sexual objects to titillate the male viewer. Is this the case with the other two portraits I’ve chosen, each painted by a male artist?
The first is titled by the art gallery as Portrait of an Unknown Lady, 1615, and attributed to the studio of William Larkin (d 1619). A Jacobean lady, eyes slightly lowered, looks out towards the viewer. Her light red, wavy hair spreads out behind her shoulders, and the plain background allows us to appreciate the fine embroidery on her low-cut jacket. We see a variety of flowers and fruit prominent — heartsease or wild pansies, red roses, thistles, grapes and what could be strawberries — all completed in careful detail.
The male gaze is of course drawn — as it’s meant to be by the fashion of the times — by her décolletage, but the effect is somewhat lessened not only by the paleness of her skin tone but also by the indistinct rendering of her cleavage. As if to compensate for this a cord is painted going from around her neck down to inside her bodice, presumably indicating where she keeps a soft leather purse safe.
A blog post by Sophie Ploeg draws attention to a contemporary portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger of Frances Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, dated to 1621 and now in Compton Verney Art Gallery.
Sophie Ploeg considers Geeraerts’ portrait as more accomplished than the Bristol painting (I personally find the depiction of the Duchess more bland and less characterful, however) but both share a less than skilful handling of the lace trim, through which it’s simply not possible to see the underlying material as one should.
Ploeg also cites a 1617 painting known to be by Larkin, a three-quarter length portrait of Lady Thornhaugh in an embroidered bodice with a pale yellow lace collar, which closely resembles the design in the Bristol painting: she notes “the pansies, the red fruit (is it a 17th century strawberry?) and the blue borage (strawberries and borage were often combined in embroidery as well as in gardening at the time). There are grapes and a clear dominant motif of a red rose” but in addition it also includes a bird (a hen or cockerel) and a caterpillar.
What the exact relationship between the three Jacobean images, one by Gheeraerts, another by Larkin and a third by an unknown hand? Ploeg doesn’t reach a final judgement, but for me I have to say I prefer the Bristol example — well I would, wouldn’t I? — mainly because I’m fascinated by the depiction of the face: the cautious look, the fashionably high hairline, the strongly delineated bone structure — and the suggestion of a mysterious bump, bruise or growth, benign or otherwise, on her left temple.
Before I leave our unknown lady I’d like to compare her to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1861 painting of Fair Rosamund, now in the art gallery of Cardiff’s National Museum. The model, Fanny Cornforth, was red-haired like our anonymous Jacobean, and appears décolletée wearing a garment covered in red flowers. There are many differences, however, chief among them the facts that the subject here is the mistress of Henry II and the sitter the mistress of Rossetti; each woman, the semi-legendary and the historical, was of course subjected to a particular male’s gaze in her time, something I can’t comment about with the Jacobean women depicted because I simply don’t know.
The final Bristol portrait I want to consider is by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, his 1796 Portrait of Madame Bruyère (or, rather, Bruguière): this was painted in Genoa, where Catherine Bruguière’s husband François was a ship owner and président of the French Chamber of Commerce. It was in fact a companion piece to Monsieur Bruguière’s portrait — now on loan to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille from the Louvre in Paris.
Reportedly “ruined” by the French Revolution Antoine-Jean Gros left France in 1793 for Italy, where he stayed painting until 1800, returning to France after coming under the patronage of Joséphine and of Napoleon himself. The portraits of Catherine Bruguière and François are said to show classical restraint, which becomes very evident from a closer look.
We see Mme Bruguière dressed demurely in black and seated on a leather-backed chair at a table covered in a plain green cloth. Her dark hair escapes from under her jauntily placed hat, its design reminscent of a revolutionary cap though it has a raised string bows and sports a blue flower. Her jewellery — earrings hung with diamonds, plus filigree gold necklaces and finger rings, three in all — is both ostentatious and yet understated, a difficult juggling act to bring off. Yes, she’s a republican (she seems to be saying) but she’s not penniless either, oh no, she’s a woman with status.
So my first impression was that this presented as a sensitive portrait of an unassuming woman from a Mediterranean country, Spain or Italy perhaps. But the more I looked the more I saw that, despite the averted gaze, this was a woman sure of herself and of her position, a smile playing around the eyes and mouth; though not in the first flush of youth (the neck gives it away, as do the folds by the crooks of her elbows) she is confident, coquettish even. I got the further impression that she definitely did simplicity with a degree of artfulness; I suspect she was a good match for her husband, and for anybody who crossed her path.
* * * * *
There we are then: three canvasses of women all subjected to one male’s gaze. Do I see them as titillating? No, I do not: I instead find these to be people with fascinating back stories to tell, tales which I want to hear. A liking for music, perhaps, motivates them; they aspire to play a role within the society they find themselves in; a desire to please might even be detected, or an anxiety underlying an ostentatious display.
As for their relationships with the male artists they sat for, I find that harder to guess at.
Another post (this is the sixth) in a series about selected artworks from Bristol Museum and Art Gallery: https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/tag/bristol-museum-and-art-gallery/
Catalogue of Oil Paintings. City Art Gallery. Bristol. 1970.
Websites (accessed 22.01.2020)