Thursday, 31 May 2012

Among Tigers and Panthers

Neoclassical Goddesses and Romantic Heroines
testing the limits of self-determination 

Ariadne on the Panther, marble sculpture by Heinrich Dannecker, 1812 -14. Liebieghaus, Frankfurt. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
 "Lyca lies asleep...among Tygers wild."  William Blake, The Little Girl Found

Neoclassical Goddesses and Romantic Heroines


Louise of Prussia, when Crown Princess, 1796, by Tischbein. Image source:
Louise, queen of Prussia (1776 - 1810), was one of the last and most accomplished of the Enlightenment's children among the European ruling class, educated under the principles of Rousseau, her imagination and taste fed on Schiller, Goethe and Shakespeare, a princess who could say after climbing the Schneekoppe mountain that she felt nearer to her god, and mean it.

During the Napoleonic Wars, in which Prussia, that had seemed invincible a generation earlier under Frederick the Great, was conquered by the French, Louise provided inspiration to the nation and to her husband, who relied upon her resolution and courage to the extent that Napoleon mockingly called her "the only real man in Prussia".

During her lifetime she was given more adulation than any other German queen consort; when she died aged thirty-four in 1810, frozen in time as a young mother, she was instantly mythologized, and became a symbol of German national unity and womanhood over a century before those ideals were perverted by the Nazis.

She was born on 10 March, 1776 into the minor ducal family of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Northern Germany that was related to the Hanoverians by the marriage of her aunt Charlotte to King George III. The family's prestige continued to be raised by the next female generation on the  marriage market. The youthful beauty of Louise and her three sisters excited Romantic intellectuals like Goethe, who optimistically welcomed their appearance as a "heavenly vision" of aesthetic ideals, as much as prosaic German princes on the look-out for dynastic breeding mares.

The eldest sister, another Charlotte, later admired for her singing voice and literary patronage, was married off aged sixteen to the boorish Duke of Saxe-Hildburghausen, and it was her younger sisters, Louise and Friederike, who were snatched up later for the greater marital prizes, both eventually becoming queen consorts. The unamiable characters of all their husbands amid the upheavals of European war pre-empted fairy-tale endings for any of the sisters. Only Louise, who became a mother of ten, was to achieve domestic happiness, with the determination of a mission.  She was pregnant for most of her seventeen-year marriage to Frederick William III of Prussia, and still found time to promote government reform, defy Napoleon and rally the nation during wartime defeat.

One of the most famous images of feminine beauty in German neoclassicism, JG Schadow's Prinzessinnengruppe of the sisters Louise and Friederika of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Sculpture, 1795, collection of the Nationalgalerie, Berlin. At the time, both sisters were married to princes of Prussia. Louise's husband succeeded as king in 1796. The casual intimacy of the pose and the fashionably clinging dresses of real-life princesses shocked some contemporaries, used to more pompous formal presentations of royalty.

Early lessons in a cycle of matriarchal loss and replacement informed Louise's personal quest for emotional stability and her adult sense of maternal and social responsibility. Her mother died when she was six; after two years, her mother's younger sister stepped into the gap as step-mother to the young family, but she died in childbirth only a year later.  Her grandmother, Marie Luise Albertine of Darmstadt, took over the care and education of the children of both the daughters who had predeceased her, bringing them up in a more affectionate and relaxed environment than was usual in contemporary aristocratic families.

Intelligent, strong-willed and energetic, sustained by moral purpose and a belief in her historical destiny, Louise welcomed the power her royal status gave her to perform charitable works and practise the liberal ideas of the 18th century philosophers and support military and social reformers within the absolutist Prussian government.

She was both typical of her time and ahead of it, a once and future heroine, whose natural warmth and spontaneity escaped caste boundaries, even at the rigid Hohenzollern court in Berlin. Instinctively pleasure-loving and light-hearted, she proved her fortitude and capacity for self-denial in exile for three years in Koenigsberg, in the far eastern reaches of Prussian territory, near the Russian border. During the French occupation, Louise expressed solidarity with the Prussian people through the simplicity of her dress and life-style, though she still tried to keep up with French fashions. She loved clothes extravagantly for their own sake, and also for their iconic value to her official position as queen and leader of neoclassical fashion in Germany.

Louise performed a balancing act as wife, mother and leader, scrupulously combining her career as chief political adviser to her husband with being his outwardly obedient wife, reining in reforms that she knew would exceed his tolerance, and matching her gentleness as a mother with the fierce resolve of a war leader.  With foresight, she fought for the country's independence from the opposing threats of imperial French and Russian power, and died when the cause still looked hopeless, before the Allied victories of 1812 to1815.  Her husband and the nation sanctified her as a Prussian sacrifice to the Corsican Monster. 

From then on, her personality was distorted by popular culture and nationalist politics. Recently, historians, novelists and bloggers have attempted to disentangle the real Louise from all her various incarnations, domestic goddess, warrior queen and benevolent saint. who remains one of those historical figures on whom we continue to project our own aspirations and prejudices, shifting the focus as it suits us.


Painter: Vigée Le Brun. Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
Anne-Louise-Germaine de Staël (1766-1817), writer of fiction, political propaganda, moral and feminist essays, literary criticicism and autobiography, held the most influential salon in France during the Directoire, was committed against the principles of Empire and became one of Napoleon's most eloquent opponents, moving her centre of power to her chateau, Coppet, on Lake Geneva.

Ambitious and passionate by nature, she was a liberal intellectual of international significance, who analysed the problems of existence and the prevailing trends of her age in the eye of the storm. She lived, wrote, took lovers and made friends with the same superabundant energy. She was insatiable for answers and control. Benjamin Constant described her as if she was a force of nature, "an explosion like all thunderstorms and earthquakes put together". Not surprisingly, Napoleon was resentful of her, and behaved like a queen bee, putting a disproportionate amount of his time and effort into persecuting her.

The classical motifs of this painting of her in the role of her own literary heroine Corinne, do not conceal either the subjective Romanticism of de Staël, daughter of Necker, the Swiss Protestant outsider appointed by the ancien régime to reform its rotten financial system, or the essentially Rococo instincts of Vigée Le Brun, who had achieved prominence through the patronage of Marie-Antoinette. Neither artist nor subject look fully at ease with the disciplines of neoclassical style from which de Staël's vitality erupts in rebellion.

Painter: David. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
Juliette Récamier (1777-1849) had the most exquisite taste and sweetest nature of all the fashionable literary and political hostesses of post-Revolutionary and Empire France. She pioneered Grecian simplicity of dress and Etruscan interior design. David's unfinished painting of her in1800 is the incarnation of neoclassicism at its purest and most austere, while Gérard's even more famous image of her draped seductively on a chair, is the most sensual. Like her friend Madame de Staël, she distrusted and defied Napoleon, who exiled her.

Among her many admirers was a Prussian prince, August, one of Frederick the Great's more interesting young nephews, and a second cousin of Louise's husband, Frederick William III. He was a career soldier who helped reform the Prussian army after its paralyzing defeats at Jena and Auerstedt (1806) and fought bravely in many battles against Napoleon, finally at Waterloo. He was also romantically ardent enough to fall in love with the virginal Juliette Récamier when they met at Madame de Staël's salon at Coppet in 1807. Their plans to marry were thwarted, but she gave him the Gérard painting instead.
Conquering hero standing in front of his greatest trophy, Mme Récamier by Gérard. This portrait of August by Krüger, c.1817, shows him a decade after his courtship. Nationalgalerie Berlin. Image source: Wikipedia

JOSEPHINE by Prud'hon
Painter: Pierre-Paul Prud'hon. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Marie Josèph Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (1763 -1814), the first wife of Napoleon, who insisted she be called Joséphine, from 1796 until their divorce in 1810, created Empress in 1804, painted by Proud'hon c.1805 communing gracefully with nature and the antique. Having started her career in aristocratic French society as a gold-digger from a Creole family, and successfully capitalising on her sexual charm and financial astuteness during the social upheavals of the Revolution and Directoire, her liaison with Napoleon was a marriage of convenience in which she played the role of gracious Empress with sophistication and good taste.
Her outdoor pose should not be dismissed entirely as affectation: the great love of Joséphine's life was flowers, especially roses, and her gardens at Malmaison were some of the most admired in history. She was a serious horticulturist, who cultivated over two hundred and fifty species of plants. 

Rosa Bifera Macrocarpa by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Josephine's appointed artist of her botanical collection,1811. Coloured engraving Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

The two vases commissioned by Queen Louise from the Koenigliche Porzellan-Manufactur in Berlin as an official state present for Joséphine  were decorated with painted views of the gardens and hothouse at Malmaison, in recognition of the prestige that they had brought to France aswell as of the personal delight that the empress and her family took in them.

In Antoine-Jean Gros' stiffly executed but richly symbolic portrait of Jos
éphine in 1808, everything that she most treasured is celebrated. She is dressed in a light muslin gown, of the simplest Empire cut, with a richly decorated border at the hem, inspired by Middle Eastern textiles, elegantly set off by the saturated bright pink colour of one of her sumptuous cashmere shawls, standing in front of a window at Malmaison, with a view of her gardens in the distance, looking towards her right at a bust of her son Eugene by her first marriage to General de Beauharnais, while on her left, in an allusion to her daughter Hortense, is a vase of full-headed white hydrangea, called hortensia in French. 
Rose Pink: detail of Antoine-Jean Gros' portrait in oils of Joséphine at Malmaison
Josephine's enthusiasm for cultivating hydrangeas, that had been introduced to France and England during the 18th century from China and the Americas, helped make them fashionable. The beloved daughter Hortense had been sacrificed to her step-father Napoleon's dynastic ambitions in a loveless union with his younger brother Louis, for which she was rewarded by becoming Queen Consort of Holland from 1806 to 1810, and mother of the future Emperor Napoleon III.
Joséphine's taste in interior decoration also transcended fashion, celebrated in Gérard's portrait of her on a luxuriously upholstered, minimalistically designed L-shaped sofa of 1801.

The empress of good taste, by Gérard, 1801. Oil on canvas, 178 x 174 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.  Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Sculptor: Canova. Galleria Borghese, Rome. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
In Canova's marble sculpture of 1804-08 that epitomizes neo-classical nude beauty, Napoleon's hedonistic sister Pauline, Princess Borghese (1780 -1825), is portrayed as Venus, reclining on an equally finely shaped sofa. Notorious for her promiscuity which was on a classically Roman scale of its own, and disobedient to Napoleon like all his siblings, she was the only one who was loyal to him during his exile on Elba.

Painter: Lawrence. Tate Gallery, London. Photo: Tate, London 2011
The Tragic Muse of Neoclassicism in a portrait of 1804 in which her close friend, Sir Thomas Lawrence (he was involved in a love triangle with her daughters, aswell) displayed her monumental stature with his customary lush romanticism. Born in Wales in 1755, Siddons dominated the female roles of dramatic tragedy for over 30 years. Even the Duke of Wellington, as famous for dry understatement as she was for emotional grandeur, was a fan.

Sarah Martha Siddons, c. 1795, by Lawrence. Private Collection. Image source: Wikipedia

Sally (1775-1803) and her younger sister Maria were both in love with the talented young portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, who attached himself first to Sally with the mutual understanding of an engagement between them, and then abandoned her for Maria. When Maria died the following year, aged nineteen, he tried to revive his relationship with the elder girl he had jilted. Sally renounced him completely, maybe under oath to her dying sister. When she died five years later, aged twenty-eight, it is hard to believe, much as we would like to on her behalf, that she ever recovered from the agonies of love, loss and betrayal.

The portraits of her suggest a softened, prettier version of her mother's dark intensity, along with her Welsh colouring and strong features. While the sisters' short lives were ruptured by this single love affair, their working mother was still playing tragic roles on the stage, receiving adulation for her simulation of unassuageaable emotions, until her retirement in 1812. The great actress remained close friends with Lawrence, who continued to paint her and died in 1831. Few of his female sitters were able to resist falling in love with him, even the sceptical ones. He never married.


Young Woman Drawing. Metropoliltan Museum of Art, New York. Image source: Wikipedia

Art historians like to believe that this painting by Marie-Denise Villers (1774-1821), first exhibited in the Académie's Salon of 1801, is a self-portrait. She was one of three sisters who were all artists, the post-Revolution successors of the distinguished female Rococo painters of Marie-Antoinette's court, Anne Vallayer-Coster, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun. In this harmoniously balanced composition she softens neoclassical starkness with diffused light and the allusion to the parallel world of the lovers on the bridge outside. The combination of cool restraint and the direct appeal to the spectator in the candidly searching gaze of the girl makes Young Woman Drawing one of the most arresting images hanging in the early modern art collection of the Met.

Anti-heroine or victim

Terracotta bust, 1794, by Schadow. Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Image source: Web Gallery of Art 
The younger sister of Queen Louise had a tarnished career compared to the Prussian Madonna, in a much longer life circumscribed by unlucky marriages of convenience and necessity. Aged 15, she drew the short straw in the double marriage of the princesses of Mecklenburg-Strelitz to two Prussian princes, the virtuous, strictly monogomous heir to the throne, Frederick William, and his more brilliant but dissolute younger brother, Louis Charles, who died three years later.

Amid the usual double standards about male and female adultery, there were salacious rumours that during her marriage, Friderika, instead of meekly suffering her unfaithful husband's neglect, retaliated by having an affair with one of his uncles, Louis Ferdinand, who was only a year older than him, and six years her senior.

Their brief relationship, if it existed beyond an unconsummated attraction, has never been proven; of all the men with whom she was associated, he was the most appealing. He was later killed, heroically, after a disastrous decision to engage the enemy at Saarfeld in 1806. He was an admired figure at court. Like his uncle Frederick the Great, he was musical, and accomplished enough as a dilettante pianist and composer for Beethoven to dedicate his Third Piano Concerto (1803) to him, and, thirty-six years after his death, for Liszt to compose his Élégie sur des motifs du Prince Louis Ferdinand de Prusse.

Widowed in 1796 aged eighteen, with three children, Friderika became pregnant two years later by another far less distinguished German prince, Solms-Braunfels. She subsequently married him, again unhappily, as he turned out to be a depressive alcoholic, until she was courted by her cousin Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, the fifth and reputedly most competent son of George III of England and Queen Charlotte. He was a blunt cavalry officer of reactionary Tory sympathies infamous for having been suspected of cutting his valet's throat to avoid exposure of his sex life.

Friderika was saved from the scandal of divorce by the convenient death of her second husband in 1814, which freed her to marry again, but at the price of malicious gossip that she had poisoned him. The rackety coupling of Cumberland and Friderika outlived notoriety to achieve respectability in middle age as king and queen of Hanover. She died in 1841, aged 63. 

Her final domestic misfortune was her son, George's, blindness, caused by childhood illness and the cruel coincidence of an accident in his youth. He withdrew into his own deluded world of autocratic power, endemic among the closely related 19th century German princes, for which he was deposed as king of Hanover in 1866.