Fantasy and Femininity
Another blast from the past. This is a paper I wrote for a 19th-century art class I took as an undergrad, which I particularly liked (both class and paper). A tad purple, the prose, and my syntax could definitely be less labyrinthine, but ah well, juvenile enthusiasm and all that …
Fantasy and Femininity: Delacroix’s ‘Abduction of Rebecca’ and Degas’ The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage’
Painted in 1846, Eugène Delacroix’s depiction of a scene from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe1 (below) presents the viewer with a turbulent, tempestuous moment of high drama: the castle of the Norman knight Reginald Front-de-Boeuf has been set upon by marauding enemies, and with the structure looming in the background as a smoking specter, the Knight Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the primary antagonist of the tale, makes a frenzied getaway with the supine, unconscious person of the Jewess Rebecca, daughter of Isaac of York, long the object of his lustful and unwelcome attentions.
The Abduction of Rebecca (1846), Eugène Delacroix. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
The Abduction of Rebecca, in keeping with the mood and tone of its textual source, is an arrestingly melodramatic work, rendered in agitated, swirling lines, from the billowing clouds of smoke issuing from the castle windows to the wind-roiled movement of the figures’ robes, and the otherwise subdued palette of dark hues, consisting largely of various shades of brown, is brought into stark contrast with the rich jewel tints of the fabrics, and the overcast cerulean of the sky, heightening the already vehement sense of feverish passion that dominates the tableau. More immediately, however, this mood of melodrama confronts the viewer in the main grouping of figures in the foreground, a quartet that consists of Rebecca and her captors, a pair of beturbanned, Saracen slaves, caught in the act, as it were, of unceremoniously hauling her body onto the rearing form of a horse, poised dynamically in mid-motion, its mane and tail whipping violently in the wind, every equine muscle tensed as if ready to break into swift, strident flight at any given instant.
Delacroix was not just a voracious reader—his first exhibited painting, at the Salon of 1822, had its origin in Dante’s Inferno, and throughout his career he would portray themes from Byron, Shakespeare and Goethe, among others—but also a fervent admirer of Gericault (the younger artist apparently modeled for one of the dying figures in The Raft of the Medusa), and the latter’s Charging Chasseur of the Imperial Guard of 1812 suggests itself immediately as one of the visual sources for Rebecca. The similarities are at once obvious and compelling: both horses, pictured from the rear, are caught in poses of active movement, rising up energetically on their hind legs, as are the postures of their riders, turned back perhaps in acknowledgement of another presence (a reading made more explicit in the Delacroix). The settings of both works are likewise remarkably similar, indistinct, smoke-filled battle scenes of carnage, one featuring a fortress set aflame, the other, a burning wreck out of which the wheel of a chariot or carriage is visible; Delacroix seems also to have borrowed the characterization of terrain from the earlier painting, in which the immediate ground nearest in space to the viewer, inhabited by the chasseur and his horse, is marked out by a diagonal line delimiting a raised, narrow ledge of earth. Delacroix employs this division as the first spatial zone in a tripartite composition: the landscape slopes down from where the chief group of figures stands, to a lower middle ground occupied by Guilbert, before rising up again to form the hill on which is perched the castle. Following the visual cues provided by the figures, the viewer’s eye is directed along this line backwards: the Moors turn round to look to their master for instruction; the Templar points towards the procession headed their way, perhaps of enemy soldiers in hot pursuit; the troops snake down the hill from the castle of Front-de-Boeuf, a commanding, towering inferno, a grim silhouette against the murky sky, and the final stop for one’s gaze.
Dissolution of linear clarity is effected with recession; as the space of the painting recedes, so do the outlines and shapes of forms increasingly break down into hazy contours, into loose brushwork and free application of colour, providing the visual orientation of Abduction of Rebecca with an analogue in its subject matter, mined from the mists of history. Its spatial formulation, though running counter to the forward momentum of the chronological narrative of Scott’s novel, highlights the historical dimension of both texts, of the location of moments of discontinuity and flux in the past—Ivanhoe with the rupture between Saxon England and subsequent Norman hegemony, Rebecca with the forceful separation of the heroine from her beloved. Delacroix also engages his source material on another level: both the painting and the book are concerned with the notion of drama and artifice, of history as constructed narrative. Despite its basis in broad historical currents, Ivanhoe’s author was more interested in telling (and selling) a story than he was in observing the integrity of historical fact: “It is extremely probable that I may have confused the manners of two or three centuries, and introduced, during the reign of Richard the First, circumstances appropriate to a period either considerably earlier, or a good deal later than that era.”2 Scott, in the words of one commentator, was “a romantic antiquarian, not a sociologist or an archaeologist.”3
Delacroix was somewhat more scrupulous in the matter of verisimilitude (as evidenced by the accuracy with which he depicts his characters’ costumes), but no less interested in the theatrical aspect of the grand narrative of history, to which the overt melodrama of Rebecca is testament. In his choice of portrayal of a single moment of violence and fissure in the story, the artist also at once subjected the image to a process of stabilization and fixity, by literally foregrounding it, as well as embedding it in a set of dichotomous terms between the inert, defenseless, pale-skinned Rebecca, and the active, swarthy figures of the Moors in possession of her. The terms of the dialectic, however, are less clear-cut than their respective iconographies would suggest, and the differences between Gericault’s and Delacroix’s figures are instructive here, furnishing an example of both the stabilization process and dialectical ambivalence and fluidity. The former’s horse is a creature undeniably horrific and powerful, from the beady, unflinching stare of its single reddened eye, directly confronting the viewer, to the unashamed revelation of the anus, and the outline of its genitals. (Gericault made several drawings of studs where sexual organs were prominently on display, and in which an association between conspicuous, overweening virility and dominance over the feminine was made.4) While retaining the suggestions of movement and vigour, all hints of rude sexual prowess have been eliminated from Delacroix’s horse, its private regions modestly concealed by careful positioning of the tail, just as its head is now averted and its gaze downcast, thus denying the presence of the viewer and rendering the image “safe” for consumption. If an equation between horse and rider can be inferred—what Germer refers to as “powerful fictions of the unity of manliness and animality which invite narcissistic identification”5—then the Moor, who casts his glance away as his horse does, a mimicry of the animal by the human and vice versa, witnessed in the portrait of the chasseur as well, has been rendered impotent, desexualized, a victim of subjugation by the “real”, empowered male. He is, in other words, the Other, as originally the colour of his skin would imply, occupying the same end of the polarity as Rebecca, who is not only female and powerless (her vaunted skill in the healing arts avail her nothing here, serving only to exclude her more firmly from the sphere of the male, Christian warrior), but a Jew at that, reduced to no more than an unconscious figure, the only one in the painting who offers the viewer a full frontal profile but is yet refused the function and power of sight.
Edgar Degas, active some three decades later, was also taken with the themes of artifice and sexual difference in his work. The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage (below), an oil canvas with traces of watercolour and pastel, probably dating to 1874, portrays an intimate moment backstage, behind the curtains: a group of young ballerinas are busy (and not quite so busy) practicing their steps under the keen eye of their master. The figures are aligned along the sides of the stage: to the left is a group of stationary girls, packed tightly together in a frieze-like arrangement, as well as three other dancers absorbed in various personal distractions. One bends over to tie her slipper; another has her face turned upwards in a yawning, Munch-like expression; the third sits on the floor, engaged in what seems to be an attempt to adjust a ribbon around her neck. The figures on this side of the stage include also the dance master, as well as the handles of two musical instruments (violins perhaps, or cellos) that jut abruptly up into the frame of the painting, and by which size connotes extreme proximity to the viewer. On the other side the dancers, divided into two clusters, are all in motion, and one trio of girls, pirouetting in a straight formation, are idly watched by two unidentified men lounging in chairs, by a pillar.
The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage (c. 1874), Edgar Degas. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
Broken up as they are into disparate groupings along two ends, the human figures mark out an empty central space in the composition, a corridor which proceeds from an uninhabited area in what would be the front of the stage, past the ballerinas towards the back, where the stage sets have been pulled aside to reveal the scaffolding, the nuts and bolts, of the mechanism by which the illusion of reality would later be simulated for an audience. Degas’ painting, as such, is chiefly concerned with the disruption of the ideas of theatricality and glamour, and the worlds of drama and the theatre. Ballet in late 19th century Paris was almost without exception an accompaniment to opera6, and “Garnier’s Palace”, as the Opéra was dubbed, was a grand, ostentatious structure, boasting an interior in which “putti, angels, gods, and muses rolled across ceilings and walls”, and “plush burgundy velvet draped the stage and cushioned the seats”; “foyers, staircases, loggias, and boxes provided endless locations in which to be seen, emphasizing that display was a raison d’être of the building’s existence … So too were the enormous gold-encrusted grand foyer and the more private but still penetrable boxes in the auditorium …”7 While the Opéra might not necessarily have been the precise setting of The Rehearsal, it was certainly the milieu in which ballet dancers of the period moved most frequently, and Degas’ removal of the figures in his painting from that gilded, glittering environment to a far more intimate, personal sphere, a private performance in an arena cut through down the middle by a swathe of empty space, speaks perhaps to the artist’s notion of the hollowness at the core of the world of professional dance. The effect is also one of layering: the painted backdrops are arranged in vertical tiers that recede towards the uncovered triangular space in which the scaffolding is framed, and a dancer’s hand rests on the edge of a piece of the outermost layer on the left side almost in a gesture of peeling back, a signifier surely of the motif of exposure, and revelation.
The scene that Degas portrays is, despite, or perhaps because of, its markedly private nature, one where sexual availability seems to be indicated. While male and female figures are subject to clear colour and sartorial codification—men are dressed in black suits, and the ballerinas in white tutus—the mere fact of the presence of the two men by the pillar, looking for all the world as if they unquestionably belong in what is essentially an overwhelmingly feminine environment, raises issues of propriety and possession. The meeting of male and female is also expressed by the figures of the ballet master and the dancer on the right, one half of the duo nearest to the interior, wearing a red ornament in her hair: her arms are outstretched in a posture of embrace, as are his, and across the gulf that separates them his right hand, by dint of an optical illusion, looks to be touching hers. Degas seems to implicate the viewer as well in his realm of sexual freedom: the immediacy of the musical instruments and the arbitrary cropping of the picture (the leftmost figure is cut in half) implies the natural processes of human vision, and the inclusion of the viewer in the scene being witnessed, an act of male voyeurism that might be explained by the viewer’s inhabitation of the musician’s space, an occupation then equally gender-biased as that of the ballet.
Both Delacroix and Degas, in their respective paintings, are explicitly concerned with the trope of artifice, and, by extension, painting as performance. Delacroix was inspired by literary themes to depict moments of furious drama, and Degas by the rarefied world of the ballerina. Their fictive realms are, at the centre, essentially feminine ones, and problems of gender issues, of the relations between men and women, are encoded in their representations, and one is reminded of Henry James’ comment on the writing of The Bostonians: “… I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life. The answer was: the situation of women, the decline of sentiment of sex, the agitation in their behalf.”8
1 All references to Ivanhoe are taken from Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (New York: Collier Books, 1962).
2 Quoted by Delancey Ferguson in his foreword to the Collier edition; see Scott, Ivanhoe, p. 10.
3 See Scott, Ivanhoe, p. 11.
4 See Philippe Grunchec, Géricault’s Horses: drawings and watercolours (New York: Vendome Press, 1984).
5 See Stefan Germer, “Pleasurable Fear: Géricault and uncanny trends at the opening of the nineteenth century”, Art History 22.2 (June 1999): 159-183, p. 167.
6 See Eunice Lipton, Looking into Degas: Uneasy Images of Women and Modern Life (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1986), p. 74.
7 See Lipton, Looking into Degas, p. 75.
8 See Henry James, The Bostonians (New York: Modern Library, 1956).