Saturday, 19 October 2013

Chameleon and Narcissus

John Keats, Thomas Lawrence and the Brilliance Feminine
Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mrs. Jens Wolff, 1803 - 1815. 
© The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball Collection.

We feed on the human drama; it stirs and nourishes us. The painting suddenly looks better. We must forget....
While Pre-Raphaelite female beauty is impassive, the women in Thomas Lawrence’s Regency society portraits are animated, with parted lips, sparkling eyes, and “flush of welcome ever on the cheek”.[1] Lawrence, though dependent on “the wolfsbane of fashion and foppery and tattle” that Keats claimed to despise,[2] captured likenesses in what he referred to as“the fleeting moment of Expression”,[3] the same as  “the instant feeling[4] admired by Keats in Kean’s acting.

In “his elegant affetuosa style”, the genuine tender feeling underlying his swagger discerned by Constable, [5] Lawrence portrayed women as intelligent, sexually confident individuals and imbued his male sitters with feminine sensitivity, transforming the most prosaic of politicians and bloated of princes into Byronic heroes.

Under the suave surface, he untied his own gordian self-identity in his paintings, the fundamental subject of art being the artist, in manifold identities. As if enthralled by Keats' three passing “figures on a marble urn” in Ode on Indolence, sometimes, led by fame, rather than art, Lawrence was cloyingly flattering, but when moved by love, for man or woman, he painted like a poet.

Isabella Wolff, dressed in tactile white satin, could be posing for Madeline, shining like “a splendid angel”, in the The Eve of St Agnes, dreaming of love, except, looking as sophisticated as Lamia in her sinuous sheath, she has a more determined, “penetrant”, character than Keats’ mortal heroine. The portrait, finished in 1815, four years before The Eve of St Agnes was written, has the same amorously expectant atmosphere.

She sits in profile, rapturously contemplating an art book, brightly illuminated by a hanging lamp, the dark mysterious recesses of an arch behind her. An artist wants a picture to tell its own story; but we, the viewers, the readers, the audience, we lap up gossipy biographical details that add to our emotional titillation. Lawrence and the willowy, poised divorcee, with her distinguished aquiline features and slim modern figure, her intelligent expression and taste in contemporary art and Renaissance art (her rapture is ostensibly aroused by studying Michelangelo) were bound in a relationship that lasted till his death.

More pathos is added by noting that the pose in which Lawrence directs her is similar to the profile of his lost love, Sally Siddons, in a spontaneous drawing of the mid 1790s:

Sarah Martha (“Sally”) Siddons by Frederick Christian Lewis Sr, after Sir Thomas Lawrence
stipple engraving, published 1841 © National Portrait Gallery, London

We anthropomorphize art, whether it's painting, sculpture, music, even a building, find a pattern, superimpose a feeling, but it is our way of creating a story about the creators. The slick society portraitist, the habitual, probably bisexual flirt who never married, the melancholic who lived selfishly on impulse, the gentle narcissist who wanted to please everyone and ruthlessly insisted on having his pictures hung in the best place at exhibitions, seems to have committed all the tenderness and delight of which a lover and artist is capable into his art, recreating genuine transitory feelings, with the authenticity of Rochester's "live-long minute true to thee", giving life to the women he loved as in "eternal lines to time" Shakespeare gave life to his beloved, and as Keats strived never to write a verse that had not been experienced.

We feed on the human drama; it stirs and nourishes us. The painting suddenly looks better. We must forget we know anything about Lawrence's love life, just as we really don't need to know about Keats' love for Fanny Brawne, the mortal woman who had to live up to being a poet's immortal love, and then start her life again, all the while suspecting that poetry was more important to him than she was. (We never doubt that Constable, the landscapist, loved his wife Maria for herself.)

The painting and the poem must stand on their own merits, or they are not art, they are soap. Lawrence, like Keats, or a great actor “anatomizing the passion of every syllable”,[6] was not mannered. He made old forms new again by feeling them for himself. In the sumptuous richness of fabrics and floral embroidery, the full-blown rose, her lily white neck, her flushed cheek, in all this intensely realized intimacy, Lawrence is the painter of Keatsian warm love and “the brilliance feminine”.[7]

[1] Keats, Sonnet To J.H. Reynolds, 4
Keats, Letters, in a selection edited by Robert Gittings, p376
[3] Lawrence
quoted by Jacob Simon, Thomas Lawrence's studios and studio practice NPG
Keats, review of Mr Kean in The Champion
C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable (1843)
Keats, Mr Kean
Keats, Lamia, I,92