Male gaze

The Pianist (c 1900) by Eugène Carrière

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?

Portrait of an Unknown Lady (c 1615) attributed to the workshop of William Larkin

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.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Portrait of Frances Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, 1621. 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.

William Larkin: Portrait of a Young Lady, possibly Jane, Lady Thornhaugh, Yale Center for British Art

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.

Fair Rosamund (1861) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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.

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Portrait of Madame Bruyère (1796)

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:

Catalogue of Oil Paintings. City Art Gallery. Bristol. 1970.

Websites (accessed 22.01.2020)

Birds & Bees & Embroidery

21 thoughts on “Male gaze

  1. I’ll start by saying that I do love the walks through art and painting you share. It’s like visiting a museum with you, better, it’s a handpicked collection, and your story behind, the right combination of factual information and your delightful speculations.

    On to this post. First, thanks for bringing up that ‘male’s gaze’, I’m not a man, obviously, LOL, but I don’t see that intention to titillate and I’m glad you don’t either. I see more a fascination for the women painted, and we can never know their relationship with the painters.

    I keep trying to see if I can meet the woman behind the fashion, if I can find out, as you say, something about her persona through how the artist rendered her. I’m also intrigued by seeing how much fashion has changed, and has not. What a confidence, to wear those uncomfortable to me decolletees.

    I too love the first of the women’s portraits with those decolletees best, because of the facial features. Her face draw you to look at her.

    The last woman, despise of her beautiful black hair, her features don’t scream to me Mediterranean. There’s something in her roundness and her skin. Take Julio Romero de Torres Spanish women, look at this blond girl,

    Although on second thoughts, yes, some Italian, Spanish, even French women, look like this beautiful lady.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for introducing me to the work of Julio Romero de Torres, Silvia. His La Niña is classy and stylish, and I like the rose peeping over the balustrade and the detail of the cross around her neck (though she does look a little anxious, doesn’t she?). La Salud, shown on the same web page, also feel laden with symbolism in the background details, though the treatment of the woman to me suggests she is possibly more lascivious than la niña.

      Thank you too for your kind comments: I love to share thoughts on things that please me and initiate conversations about them, and if that aids others’ appreciation so much the better!

      I don’t know where in France Catherine Bruguière originated from but her maiden name was Sardon, which I believe may even be a Spanish surname — as Sardón — concentrated on Galicia. I don’t comment too much on fashion as I know too little about it, a specialism for which I’d never know where to start!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think you downplay your musical talents! Two unrelated comments; maybe my eyes are going but the music teacher in the first image looks like a slender young man with a moustache to me. And I am always disturbed by the extreme youth of the ‘models’ of pre Raphael artists.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m inclined to suggest an optician’s visit, Gert, that impression of a moustache is just that, I think! I’d prefer to use the bun piled high on the back of the head as a clinching indicator that this is a woman. Of the four teachers I had for piano two were women, and their teaching had the greatest impact on me for being very exacting!

      As for the PRB artists, yes they were definitely very predatory where young women were concerned: I think it was Rossetti and Morris who went scouting for ‘stunners’ around London to both paint and seduce. At least they married some of the stunners, Rossetti wedded Lizzie Siddall and Morris was with Jane (though that didn’t stop Rossetti indulging in an Arthurian love triangle with Jane).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. And poor Lizzie Siddall died of a drug overdose in her thirties. On piano teachers my best was a man, i.e kindest, most encouraging and innovative. The scariest was a nun whom I hear is still alive in her nineties. I thought she was ancient at the time.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I find Lizzie’s self-portrait very sad and almost revealing. That both she and Jane tried hard to achieve something beyond merely being artists’ models and Muses was laudable and inspiring but I think the males they were attached to were dinosaurs in many of their attitudes.

          My last teacher, Ian Brown, was still active musically last I heard, as was his violinist sister, Iona Brown — I ought to look them up online.


            1. I can do demonic energy in short spurts, but it’s exhausting. Now I just help out with the local school choir and their rehearsals for ‘We Will Rock You’ — more than an hour or two and the charge has gone out of my batteries…

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Another great post, Chris. You make me want to visit the museum again every time I read one of these.

    I agree with you – the sitter in that first Larkin portrait has such a strong face, is a distinctive woman with her own personality. She looks as if she could give any man a run for his money. Great post and some very interesting comparisons

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Lynn, though I’m sure one never needs an excuse to visit an art gallery! Whenever we visit London we often make a beeline for the National Gallery and, especially if not exclusively, the NPG next door.

      What I find interesting is how truthful the artist has been in portraying his unknown lady. He hasn’t tried to prettify her but has given an honest rendition of her hollow eyes (almost like a death’s head) and blemish on her left temple. Even if the head was awkwardly added to a generic body, as was common at the time and as Ploeg seems to imply happened in this case, there is no doubt that the artist was pulling no punches here in depicting his subject.

      I wonder if she was in fact suffering from some pathology at this time. A study of the various Shakespeare portraits (which I discussed in a couple of posts, here 1 and here pointed to the likelihood that they indicated the onset of a couple of diseases, including symptoms of Mikulicz syndrome: he had a swelling on his left temple just like our young lady here. Whether or not this is the case with her the portrait is certainly a characterful one.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m another fan of your art posts!

    Like you, I prefer the first of the Jacobean portraits, it does seem less idealised, but I do think – of course it’s hard to tell viewing them on a computer and not in real life – also I am not a man! – the second and third do have an element of titilation in them, there seems more care taken over the flesh which in the first is more of a flat, pale plane. I am particularly worried by the decollete of Lady Thornhaugh, though presumably she did not dress like this every day, in some draughty manor she would surely catch a cold.

    Love the portrait of Madam Bruyere, who definitely looks as if she could tell a few tales but is keeping them to herself for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Helen, I’m really chuffed there’s been a favourable response to this series on the visual arts, a change from my core reviewing of literary works.

      As for the 17th-century portraits, apparently it was common for unmarried women in the Tudor and Stuart periods to wear very low-cut bodices, while married women could wear a partlet (a short sleeveless garment) under or over the jacket to cover the bosom. Where court masques were concerned female participants, whatever their status, seemed often to to be bare-breasted, sometimes as far as their waists, or else preserved some semblance of modesty with a thin gauze material.

      So was Lady Thornhaugh dressed as if for a masque? I don’t really know, but as Britain was gripped in a mini Ice Age at the time it scarcely bears thinking about!


    1. I’m afraid, Karen, I got inured to the sight of embroidery by my mother who for a long time insisted on placing everything on top of doilies — I soon ceased to notice patterns let alone begin to appreciate them, nor to think how much time, effort, skill and design went into producing lacework. Women in northern climes must have ruined their eyes producing intricate embroidery in the early hours with only candlelight to work by. Wasn’t Flanders a centre for the craft in this period?


      1. Flanders was indeed a leading centre for tapestry work – its the setting for Tracy Chevalier’s novel The lion and the unicorn. Haven taken six years on one piece of cross stitch (keep having to unpick it) I’m impressed by anyone who can produce such works of beauty . But yes, the eyesight must have suffered

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for another super post about art. I do enjoy these!

    The painting I really like is the portrait of Mme Bruguière. It’s just beautiful! It feels to me like the artist found the beauty inside her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mme Bruguière definitely has a look about her — thoughtful, intriguing, interesting to know, but exactly that inner beauty which you mention, Jo. I’m glad you’re enjoying these posts!

      Liked by 1 person

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