The Art Site

Thursday, June 10, 2010

La Belle Femme

They didn't have photoshop back in the days when John Waterhouse - the great painter of women - was around. He didn't need it. He had an eye for beautiful women (in the painterly, as well as the *ahem* more R18 sense) - if he wanted to paint the ideal of feminine beauty, why, he screwed out the paint and dabbed it here and there - hey presto, a beautiful woman.

Even though I admire (and have fallen partially in love with) a lot of what he painted, I hold a strong and abiding grudge against him. He was the key idealizer of women in the 19th Century.
Because that's what he painted, 99.9% of the time - the only times I remember he painted men was the effeminate Narcissus, staring mesmerized at his reflection in a pond, and the Great Ulysses, tied to the mast of his ship - and even then there were female sirens floating around.

And in every painting he did of women, he painted them as impossibly beautiful objects in an idealized setting. Take this painting, for example.

Look at her. Nobody looks like that, and certainly no woman dresses in a flowing, pink-sashed dress with bare feet, to pick flowers by herself in an outrageously beautiful fairyland. No one. Note her hair - even though she's outside, not one single hair is out of place in that smooth, raven coiffure. I conclude that she is not at all real - rather, she's an idealized object designed to attract men and make women envious. They could never be a part of that world. Here's another one of the Great Waterhouse's works:
I don't know the history behind this little masterpiece. It probably ran something like this though: A well known lady-thief, infamous for horse stealing, once managed to steal a horse from a poor knight who fell off the horse when he saw her coming up the road. He jumped to his feet and gazed at her wondrous beauty, but when he saw the full extent of her perfect complexion he flung out his arms, had a mini-heart attack, and died on the spot. The moral of the story is: Beauty is Dangerous.

hmm. Perhaps not - maybe it's something dumb like: a rather stunning female happened to be passing by a rather good-looking knight. They, (ahem) kiss. Or something. He remains in his paralytic shock for the rest of his life because she's so be-yew-tiful.
Right, on to the next one..
Now this one's really annoying. It looks like it's been painted precisely for men to see - her shawl accentuating her figure just so, her face up-turned for the (male) viewer. That is no woman. She is as much a model of femininity as a Barbie doll is - although admittedly, a little more life-like. But in the sense that she's all thoughtful and not all there: there's not enough reality and real, emotional femininity going on.
Okay, last one.
This is a moment in time. A woman, beautiful as the day, drinking in the perfume of a perfect pink rose. I sort of like this, because I sympathise with the feeling that associates snuffing in the delicate scent of a rose. But even if I did get into one of these idealistic moods that this woman's stuck in, I would tell myself off/laugh at myself for doing so. I wouldn't allow myself to continue to live in a ridiculously idealistic world - I hope. The same can be said for most of us.

What do you think about these portrayals of idealized femininity? Are they helpful or harmful to men and women?

- Lydie


Anonymous Anonymous said...

About 'La Belle Dame sans Merci', or the beautiful woman without pity, she is actually an elfin witch which possibly excuses both her beauty and his strange posture? From a poem by John Keats.

3:48 am  
Blogger The Editrix said...

ROFL! I couldn't stop laughing, reading this post. . . :-D

But seriously - it's an interesting question. Personally, I've never been envious of Waterhouse's women - I'm usually happy to just gaze in rapt admiration. :-) They don't make me feel bad about my own appearance - unlike all the images of photoshopped models and celebrities we're bombarded with all the time. So where does the difference lie? I don't really know. . .

10:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't see a problem with the fact that Waterhouse is painting idealised perfection over 'reality'. That is the beauty of art, we can attempt to create the world as it could have been, perfect. In my opinion, when you sacrifice beauty, for being realisitc, or (even worse!) original, you loose the essence of what it is to be an artist.

There is a difference between art and advertising. The purpose of art is to celebrate beauty, to copy the perfection we see in creation. Whereas advertising is there for one reason only, to make us feel dissatisfied with our current condition and to assume that the product in question will remedy our discontent. So it isn't hard to see why paintings such as these don't have the same effect on us as photo shopped models brandishing expensive cosmetics. :p

11:21 am  
Anonymous FR said...

Hehe, I love the story about the fine lady on the horse and the permanently paralysed knight! I think you should do a whole story around a picture - I feel like I need to know more of what's happening inside that frozen world;)
Seriously though, even though these pictures are an unrealistic view of women's beauty, it reflects a certain amount of truth. We still find it beautiful. As humans, we intrinsically seek beauty; we love looking at beautiful things, being in beautiful places etc. It’s just that there needs to be a balance between admiring beauty and worshipping beauty. So much of today's society is so consumed and obsessed with beauty that the essence of true beauty is missed. I think that these paintings capture something of true beauty but there is also the touch of perfection to them, which to me makes them a bit unrealistic and unbelievable. Ha, like I wake up looking like that! But still, lovely to look at and the skill of the artist is definately something to be appreciated:)

11:31 pm  
Blogger Lydz said...

Anonymous - hmm.. John Keats. The most I remember of his poems is his To Autumn *I think* which we had to learn when we were kids. It's stiflingly beautiful, but it's very descriptive.

The other Anonymous - I agree that one of the *great* things about art is that you can create what you want; you can certainly paint something perfect if you must.

But I disagree emphatically that if you stop painting pure beauty you are not a true artist. Paintings can express so much: they *can* capture something of what the artist wishes their world/subject to be, but they can also express what they see around them, and how they feel about what they see.

A painting or photoshopped picture of a perfectly beautiful woman always dissatisfies me: the picture dehumanizes women. The idealized beauty is frustrating because it takes away from the interesting reality of the subject. It's interesting, what you said about artists painting to capture the 'perfection' of nature. But nature isn't perfect - almost always there are defects, somewhere. An artist usually has an eye for the defects and highlights them in their work.

I'm not convinced that painters do paint just to capture perfection. And I don't think that by painting something realistically you lose beauty! What a lot to disagree on. Sorry.. :)

8:52 pm  
Blogger Lydz said...

Editrix - *grins* I love making people laugh! :D

I think Anonymous is right about the difference..
yes, I can't say I feel bad about myself when looking at Waterhouse's work either!

FR - yes! I agree with you. We *do* admire that kind of beauty, and it's just the excess of it that gets to us (or me at least) sometimes.
I reckon his paintings are one-dimensional in that they *just* portray one aspect of women: their externals. There's pretty much nothing else there of who they are. They don't have to be real people since they're only admired for their beauty.

By 'true beauty' do you mean the ideal of classical beauty?

- Lydie :)

9:07 pm  
Anonymous FR said...

No, I meant all of what makes women beautiful. It encompasses so much more than just outward appearance.
Yes, the excess importance placed on outer beauty gets to me too sometimes. What makes a woman beautiful is not determined solely by looks. It's sad that society puts such an emphasis on 'ideal beauty'. Perfection is almost completely unattainable yet that is the form of beauty that is strived for by many.

8:42 pm  
Anonymous Govinda said...

Interesting post! I like Waterhouse's paintings, and I don't think he was intending to paint earthly women but rather goddesses, in heavenly places, therefore I don't mind at all that they are so beautiful - they are in a different league altogether. I would love to be as beautiful as they are, but in this world that is rare. I particularly like the way he paints their hands, they have such fine bones!

2:04 am  
Blogger Jen Hilton said...

I know this is an old post, but I thought you might want to know that the "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" you show here is not a Waterhouse. It's by Sir Frank Dicksee. Waterhouse did do a version of La Belle around 1893, based on the Keats poem of 1819. This Dicksee painting was about 10 years later.

6:10 pm  
Blogger sewsweet said...

I feel the complete opposite. What I see in these paintings is how I feel when I am in tune with body, with nature, with soul. To see something so literal as "body image" and "idealization of women" is to lose one's whimsy and imagination. As a woman, I see myself in every one of these paintings. How I feel in a field of flowers: whether I look like a literal Waterhouse woman or not, the important thing is that I *feel* EXACTLY as she looks in this painting.

6:07 am  

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