Female Modernity: Manet vs. Rossetti (MFA, Boston)

So far on canvasandcrumpets I have shown you DIY crafts and exhibition reviews of museums and galleries. What I would like to do next is look at two famous painters- Edouard Manet and Dante Gabriel Rossetti- and see how these contemporaries  depicted women. I will look specifically at two paintings hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Manet’s Victorine Meurent (1862), and Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata (1859). The differences in these paintings reflect two distinct styles, impressionism and aestheticism, and also reveal the perspective of each artist towards women. This is a long post so feel free to skip around. I have organized it into several sections. The first is a look at the GAZE of each woman and what it reveals about the PERSPECTIVES of the artists themselves. Then I look at LIGHT, BRUSHWORK, and SPACE, to see how surface techniques depict the perspectives of Manet and Rossetti toward women. At the end, I take everything into consideration to make a statement about the overall effect of each portrait, regardless of the artists’ intentions.

To start, take a look at each painting: Victorine Meurent is the first, and Bocca Baciata is the second.

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THE GAZE

The gaze of each woman in Victorine Meurent and Bocca Baciata offers a look into the perspective that each artist holds of women, and a perspective that the VIEWER is projected into simply by looking at the painting.

In Bocca Baciata, Fanny (who happened to be Rossetti’s mistress) looks off into the distance. She does not look at us or acknowledge our existence. We, the viewers, are projected into the perspective of a male voyeur appraising her vibrant copper hair and soft, pale skin. Rossetti makes it clear that we are allowed and encouraged to fetishize her beauty without fear of being confronted. She will never meet our eye.

Rossetti’s View of Women

This projected perspective reveals several things about Rossetti’s own view of women. Rossetti wanted the viewer to enjoy women the way he did; he took pleasure in painting the smallest hint of a blouse at the bottom of the painting. He reveled in giving her red lips the roundest shape, twirling her delicate fingers around a strand of hair. And yet what was most tantalizing to Rossetti appears to be the unattainability of women. While the viewer and Rossetti himself may have access to Fanny’s body, she cannot be entirely consumed while she gazes at something, or someone, else. The resulting painting is deeply disturbing. Rossetti painted an overabundance of sexual female symbols and sensual details as a way to fetishize her, and to almost make up for the fact that he would never be able to attain all of her. One such symbol is the apple, representing fertility, unsubtly placed at the foreground of the painting, implying his ability to impregnate her. This can be seen as a play of both sexual desire, and desire for male power, in that pregnancy renders a female somewhat debilitated. Impregnating Fanny would be another way for Rossetti to claim her.

THE GAZE

Manet also paid great attention to the gaze of his female protagonist. However, Victorine looks right at the viewer, whereas Fanny gazes provocatively away. Victorine looks out through hazel eyes shaded by feathery yellow eyelashes. Her eyes seem separate from the patchy brushstrokes that served to both construct and deconstruct the rest of her face. The intensity of her gaze dissolves the space between subject and viewer. Victorine not only looks out of the painting and into our space; she has an active relationship with the viewer. Victorine holds the viewer at a distance, stopping us from coming closer. The mere suggestion that we would come closer reveals that the viewer is projected into the perspective of a male voyeur, the very same position we are given in Bocca Baciata. Victorine is aware and accepts that she is being appraised, but she does not pretend to enjoy the attention paid to her appearance. Her response to the invasion of her privacy and to our appraisal is to regard us with cool dignity and confidence. She will not attempt to stop us from looking at her, but she will also not let us do so without meeting our eyes. The effect is jarring. The viewer is made to feel like his thoughts and actions are exposed.

Manet’s View of Women

The entire experience of looking at this painting—appraising her and then catching her eyes and feeling uncomfortable—reveals Manet’s own attitude towards women. The discomfort felt by the viewer is dependent on the viewer’s inability to understand exactly who she is. While Manet would also never understand what it was like to be a woman in modern Paris, he attempted to give women a voice through painting, which reflects his respect for them. In depicting a woman unsatisfied with the confines of her gender, he recognized women beyond their typical roles as mothers, wives, or prostitutes. The painting is, in a way, his depiction of how suffocating he saw female modernity to be. Victorine wears a white blouse that evokes innocence, embroidered with black thread on the shoulders to emphasize her narrow frame. Her hair is tied back with a soft velvet headband. These feminine details illustrate how women were supposed to appear—modest and feminine. Victorine’s thin black choker draws attention to her femininity, particularly the smallness of her neck. Its tied bow functions to tie her to the surface of the painting, whose flaky brushstrokes threaten to dissolve her from representation. Furthermore, the tied choker glues her to the confines of her position in society. The velvet headband also bears a tied bow, doubling the symbol of the tied knot. She is stuck within the boundaries of her gender and class. Manet attempted to give her a voice that the realities of French female modernity did not provide. He did so through her gaze that quietly confronts the issue of male voyeurism and the power dynamic between men and women in modern Paris.

SURFACE TECHNIQUES

Specific surface techniques underline each artist’s perspective towards women.

Light

In Manet’s Victorine Meurent, the first oddity is the reflection of her earring. It reflects the light with one single fleck. This seems odd given that this side of her face is in shadow. No light is being shone on her ear to promote this effect. Perhaps it is meant to draw attention to the shadow itself, which creeps onto the right side of Victorine’s face with jagged edges. It is oddly dark in contrast to the chalky pallor of her face. No regular light fixture could leave a shadow with so many sharp edges, without any gradation from dark to light. It makes one wonder what is before her that creates that unrealistic, encroaching, shadow, so dark and bizarrely shaped. Is it a man? In which case, we are that man, as that is our projected perspective, and we are threatening to literally put her entirely in the dark. Darkness here symbolizes the silencing effect of modern Paris on the French woman. In this way Manet utilizes light to underline the constraints of female modernity.

The effect of light on Fanny’s face is more straightforward but equally in line with Rossetti’s view of women. Light hits her straight on so that her entire face is illuminated. Only a tiny shadow hugs her face to give her depth. However, the landscape behind her is not brightened at all. One can see dim flowers, but they do not shine with the same radiance as does Fanny’s face. It is almost as if there is a spotlight being shone directly on her. Spotlight lighting all the more supports Rossetti’s idea of the idealized beauty, on display for the world to see.

Brushwork

Manet and Rossetti also approached brushwork entirely differently. Rossetti strived for his brushstrokes to be as invisible as possible in order to render an idealized female, perfect enough to be fetishized. In contrast, Manet kept his brushstrokes visibly unfinished in order to reveal societal issues beyond pictorial depiction. Rossetti’s brushstrokes are so smooth that one must look very closely to even see the nature of paint on canvas. From a short distance away, the representation is lifelike, and the individual strokes used to construct Fanny’s face blend seamlessly into one another. The result is a licked surface and an idealized female, ready to be consumed by Rossetti and the projected viewer.

Manet’s looser approach to brushwork is no less careful, though its appearance may appear haphazard. He used thick brushstrokes with unfinished edges that created a smudged quality, especially around Victorine’s nose and chin. These smudged brushstrokes have a dual effect. Patched together, they form a recognizable image of Victorine’s likeness. Yet their unfinished edges unravel her face at the same time. The very strokes that construct her face also prevent representation from being completed. They threaten to unravel her completely. The patchy quality to her face can also be interpreted as a physical representation of her making herself up for presentation. The brushstrokes can be seen as iterations of the makeup brushes she uses to apply rouge. While she paints herself up to conform to societal standards, she covers up her identity. The result is a representation that is at once her and not her, with the surface of her skin a space of oscillation between construction and deconstruction.

Space

Interestingly, Manet and Rossetti had similar approaches to space, but for different ends. In both paintings, the female protagonist takes up a majority of the pictorial layout. A portion of each torso and the entirety of each head are visible. The backgrounds are also similarly ambiguous. Manet situated Victorine in front of a smooth, brown wall. As a result, this woman could be anywhere, in any home. She represents the woman behind walls in modern Paris. Too specific a location would take away from her universality. The painting also appears much larger than it is, in part because Victorine fills the majority of its seventeen square inches. Both the choice to fill the frame with Victorine’s figure and to reflect societal pressures on women through her image give Victorine Meurent its great visual impact.

In Bocca Baciata, the background is floral, but it is ambiguously so. One cannot tell if it is meant to be floral wallpaper or a landscape. We receive no understanding of pictorial space. The flowers mimic the flowers in her hair, and seem more like a part of her existence—her aura—than any space she is in. However, the purpose of maintaining a vague background was not to make the image of Fanny more universal. It was to crowd Fanny into her cage of femininity and sexuality. It is as if, the more she is objectified, and the more beautiful things that surround her, the more she belongs to Rossetti and to the viewer. Rossetti utilizes space further to attempt to ensnare her. The frame of the portrait cannot contain her flowing copper hair. It extends beyond the borders on either side. The painting cannot hold all of her, yet it tries adamantly to by keeping its size tiny, as if cutting her off at the edges will diminish her freedom. The frame’s width is roughly half the width of the painting itself. She is trapped within a small, golden prison. It is both a tantalizing thought—this wild, beautiful woman is captured for the viewer’s pleasure—and an uncomfortable one. And so, each woman is depicted without a distinctive background, though for very different purposes: Victorine, to maintain universality, and Fanny, to emphasize her imprisonment.

CONCLUSION

As you have read and seen, Manet and Rossetti approached the depiction of their models with an interesting degree of similarities and differences. Victorine Meurent and Bocca Baciata both project the viewer into the position of a male voyeur. Manet does so in order to create discomfort, which illustrates what he believes to be the oppressive nature of female modernity. His use of space, light, brushwork, and the female gaze all support this attitude. Meanwhile, Rossetti positions his viewer as a male voyeur in order to expose the female to fetishization beyond his own objectification. His attention to surface techniques contributes to the sensual and idealized image of the female. Because of Rossetti’s sexual, objectifying image of Fanny, it could be thought that she is meant to be powerless. She appears to exist completely for the gaze of men. And yet, is there not a kind of power in keeping part of oneself hidden when the rest is exposed? If Fanny’s faraway gaze is tantalizing to Rossetti in his quest to possess women, then there is a power in her resistance to meet his gaze. Looking away becomes a means of self-defense and self-preservation. Therefore, the women in these two paintings may not be so different after all. They both confront the male gaze, though Fanny does so by resisting it, and Victorine does so by meeting it. It is unlikely that Rossetti intended for this occurrence. His objectifying perspective would not support the notion of a confrontational female. However, it is something to consider when viewing the overall effect of each portrait. Manet and Rossetti presented females who confront the issue of the male gaze despite their different perspectives on female modernity and attitudes towards women. The viewer is able to comprehend Manet’s desire to illuminate female modernity and Rossetti’s desire to possess women through each artist’s careful handling of light, brushwork, space, and the female gaze.

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