Poetry has been used as inspiration for painting for centuries, whether the subject be nature, love, beauty, or a combination, artists tend to like drawing from poetic stories for their subjects. But Michael Field does the opposite, “they” reverse the process by writing a poem about a piece of art work. Interestingly enough too, many of the paintings already have been taken from poems or myths so therefore the process seems to be story, painting, and back to story. I am interested in seeing how the two stories (before and after) differ or are similar to each other.
I took a look at Spring which is written about La Primavera (1482) by Botticelli. Botticelli created this piece as a favola, a concept Botticelli created which refers to a new invention using fictions established in ancient poetry. In La Primavera Botticelli combines multiple sources about the springtime deities and the Roman Rustic Calendar. But what makes the painting interesting is the fact that it is a vernacular, contemporary painting with ancient subjects. The dress and style of the figures responded to Florentine popular culture and therefore would’ve been engaging for the viewer.
Looking at Michael Field’ poem in Sight and Song provide a feminine reading of the image that is actually very sad. The painting was suppose to be seen as a celebrate of spring and the new year, however, Field creates a depressing narrative from the perspective of Venus. Field give emotion to the painting by creating a story that describes the loneliness of Venus as the central figure. The other figures are here for a fleeting moment but will soon move on with their lives and have experiences before dying. Venus is isolated and cannot do anything but watch the Graces as they dance. Field gives emotion to the painting, more specifically to Venus, something that allows her to become more than just an object to look at by humanizing her.
The painting depicts a celebratory narrative while the poem conveys a sad portrayal of loneliness. Field creates the new narrative as a way to give a voice to the female character who is constantly objectified in art. Considering, I believe, all of the paintings are by male artist, Field gives the female figures emotions, thoughts, and freedom in a space that was not available beforehand.
Andromache in Captivity depicts Hector’s wife at the public well in shame to be seen after her husband’s death and her capture. The Neoclassical composition and style creates drama in the scene as well as the drapery displayed on the figures. She is singled out in the middle, with most of the figures looking at her. Additionally even the orthogonal lines direct straight towards her. Andromache is dressed in all black and covered head to toe while the other figures show more skin and appear to be in lighter colored robes. These details draw the viewer’s attention to her and make it impossible for her to hide.
Her role as a captive mirrors the fear Victorians had of foreign invasion on their women. There are many examples of this in our readings. For example in the Woman in White Laura is captured by Fosco, the main foreign character in the novel. Laura is helpless and eventually ends up in the Asylum, shamed and afraid, similarly to how Andromache felt.
Andromache in Captivity therefore conveys the fear and threat that foreigners represented to European men and their women. Therefore there is a shift to colonize and conquer their lands. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland could be a commentary on this. Alice falls down the rabbit hole into a strange land, however, she has no issues making herself comfortable and inserting herself into whatever situation or conversation she wishes.
The push and pull between fear and desire to conquer the foreign lands appears in many different examples whether it be in literature or art. Nevertheless, it exposes the Victorians and how they viewed society and the world around them.
Andromache in Captivity
Salammbo, by Gabrial Joseph Marie Augustin Ferrier depicts an exotic scene of a woman with a snake wrapped around her body as a man plays an instrument in the background. The viewer can assume the man is controlling the snake with his music, a common foreign trope, as a way to manipulate and control the woman.
Similarly, Count Fosco likes to manipulate women and control them, whether it be by using force or deceiving them with his gentleness towards his pet mice and other animals. Marian, becomes less trusting of Fosco and his ability to manipulate her and other people. He dictates large parts of the narrative and even intrudes on Marian’s diary. By ambushing her private diary it proves the lengths he will go to control women.
The etching and the novel are both examples of how one can examine the relationship between Great Britain and the world around it. While things like the Crystal Palace were enjoyed and looked at as a spectacle, they also created fear of the foreign invading British land. Count Fosco serves as an example of the stereotypes that were given to foreigners and the atmosphere created around them.
Salammbo, Gabrial Ferrier
The Woman in White includes countless characters who are not as they seem. For example “Sir” Percival Glyde reveals many layers of his identity throughout the story. First the reader is led to believe that he wants to marry Laura and that his intentions are in the right place. However, very quickly it becomes obvious that he is not in it for the right reasons, aka only for the money. Furthermore, the reason why Glyde is so desperate to marry Laura and obtain her money is because he does not have any. He is a fraud, an illegitimate child who created a fake identity in order to appear better than he actually was in society’s standings. Percival’s desire to keep his identity a secret reveals how dependent he is on his reputation and social status.
Who could wonder now at the brute-restlessness of the wretch’s life; at his desperate alternations between abject duplicity and reckless violence at the madness of guilty district which had made him imprison Anne Catherick in the Asylum, and had given him over to the vile conspiracy against his wife, on the bare suspicion that the one and the other knew his terrible secret? (pg. 510)
Hartright had no idea that this would be the reason for Percival’s paranoia. His desperation to keep his identity a secret destroyed the lives of two women solely based on suspicion. Percival looked and acted like a member of the nobility and therefore no one asked questions. His performance is so strong that he fools everyone until Hartright starts digging for answers. Perhaps the novel is suggesting that status does not necessarily mean all that it is built up to be but is rather all an act in order to compete in society.
Looking at how class was so closely tied to one’s life during the Victorian Era can be found in the Victorian Web readings as scandal and gossip were integral parts of society. ” Inthe Victorian period, scandals of all sorts proliferated in the popular press. In part as a result of the repeal of the stamp tax in 1855 and the paper duty in 1860, the number of newspapers in Great Britain multiplied, and they became cheaper, more widely available, and more national in scope.” Anything exposed from one’s private life was immediately absorbed into the public sphere. Therefore Percival did all that he could to keep his secret, even if it meant destroying the lives of two women.
One day before dinner Hartright comments on how Miss Fairlie is dressed compared to Miss Halcombe and Mrs. Vesey. She wore a simple white dress which was a complete turn off for Hartright as he states “It was spotlessly pure: it was beautifully put on: but still it was the sort of dress which the wife or daughter of a poor man might have worn; and it made her, so far as externals went, look less affluent in circumstances than her own governess” (pg. 56). While the color emphasizes her purity and cleanliness both literally and figuratively, he is upset that she does not show off her status as a rich woman through her clothes. In fact he insults her by saying that her governess is dressed better than she is. Furthermore the passage supports the notion that Hartright is very materialistic and cares primarily about class and the presentation of one’s status. By wearing a white muslin dress Hartright feels that she is not presenting herself in alignment with her class status. I think he wants her to dress up because he finds it more attractive while also visually proving to anyone that sees her that she is rich.
I find it ironic that he says “as far as externals went” considering he judges Miss Fairlie solely based off of her external features and looks. When he finds out more about her character he does not agree with her opinions and seems to swat them away as if they do not exist. Hartright is so in love with the idea of Miss Fairlie because of the way she looks, her class rank, and her dainty mannerisms that he chooses to ignore the parts of her that he opposes.
All of these characteristics that Hartright acknowledges and becomes obsessed with align with Victorian ideals of beauty among women. He believes that looks and status are more important than character and personality. While this looks shallow to the modern viewer, no one would have blinked during the Victorian Era at this behavior.