Woman in Art/Chapter 3 - Wikisource, the free online library

Woman in Art - Nefert and Rahotep.png

Courtesy of Chicago Art Institute



Ancient Types. Queen Hatasu of Egypt. Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. Facial Development from the Fayyum. Greek Ideals.

A Queen was she, in ages buried deep
By nature and by time, when men knew naught
Of spirit life or mind, but only will,
And ruins of her builded art alone
Survive her time.

We have said that representations of woman in art have registered for us the rise and fall of the peoples of earth; so for the types that serve the development there is a distinct line between ancient and pagan, types of early Christian and modern civilization.

Do not judge Princess Nefert and her husband, General Rahotep, who lived some 4500 B. C., by standards and ethics of the twentieth century A. D., rather by the ideals, the time, and the place of which she was a product. Let your imagination place her in her own environment where palm trees overhung the sacred river—a princess whose royal body was painted cream-color and draped in a gossamer stuff, or, judging from the limestone statue, sheathed in a white jeweled garment not unlike those in the fashion books of today. A slave waved a huge fan as her Highness glided through her columned palaces by the Nile. She belonged to the Old Empire when the intellectual status of the people manifested itself in the more rounded head, shorter chin, curved nose, et cetera. The manners, customs, costumes, and warfares are preserved on palace walls in glazed tile.

It is not a soulful art, but ingenious and delicately mechanical. The innate love of finery shows in the head-band set with precious stones, and the collar of jewels strung on gold wire. The feet are not sufficiently civilized to be out of shape. The body of the husband of this royal princess is painted a red-brown, Egyptian style. The cartouche or name-plate gives her name and rank.

Hatasu, of the eighteenth dynasty, was a queen of influence 2750 years later. Amelia B. Edwards tells us that Hatasu is called the "Queen Elizabeth of Egyptian history," an extraordinary woman in the annals of the East. A pylon records the fact that Tothmes I addressed his god Amen face to face, and this is what he said:

"Behold I make offerings unto thee; I prostrate myself before thee; I bestow the Red Lands and the Black Lands upon my daughter, Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt, ma-ka-ra—living eternally—as thou hast done for me."

Makara was the throne name of Hatasu, a solar name it is sometimes called, inasmuch as it affirms direct descent of the reigning monarch from ra, greatest of solar deities. Notice the interpretation of her name; it is significant. Ma was the name of the goddess of Truth, Law, Justice. Ka signified invisible life, that we call soul. Therefore the crude symbols on her cartouche would read thus: Through truth, law, and justice the invisible life receives vital manifestations of ra, their supreme deity over all.

There we have a royal title that is a religious creed, that gives the religious status of the people of the New Empire,—belief in a supreme being represented by the sun, which is under his control,—belief in an invisible soul that shall live eternally, the soul or ka being inspired by ra through truth, law, and justice as cardinal virtues or attributes. Note the symbol for ka, two hands uplifted imploringly.

As to the morals of that age we know little. What was right for royalty was doubtless right for the fellahs, or common people. Tothmes I, was father of Queen Hatasu; Tothmes II was her half brother by the second legal, but not royal wife. Bigamy was the practice. The daughter of the royal wife was given the throne before the death of her father, and wedded to her half brother Tothmes II. They had two daughters, and the one who survived was married to Tothmes III, a half brother by a third wife; all this because the royal line was on the mother's side. But the monarch of that dynasty was Hatasu, of vigor, of purpose, of achievement. Some of the finest wall paintings in Egypt, and the most elaborate temples, were produced during her reign and under her own supervision. So numerous are the hieroglyphics concerning this royal woman and her activities, and so well preserved are they, that she serves as a type of the ancient woman and her influence in the elaborating of Egyptian culture. Under her orders obelisks and temples were erected and gorgeously painted, and it is the art of her time existing today that gives us a little knowledge of that borderland of time.

So far as we know, portrait art originated in Egypt for the purpose of aiding the ka, after eons of rest, to find and recognize its former body or mummy. Hence the art of painting mummy cases, and carving in little and large, representations of the deceased. Such are found in tombs or are mammoth in size like the colossi that still adorn the rock-cliffs overlooking the Nile. Here again we find a tenet of their religion promulgating a characteristic racial art.

Bearing in mind that the wave theory applies to races and nations, no less than to sound and light, we find Egypt on the crest of nationalism about a thousand years B. C., and from that period, with glacier-like movement, her national life
Woman in Art - Cleopatra and Caesar.png

J. L. Gerome Pinx

glided down the years and down the Nile, till we find the Ptolemys on the throne and on the shore of the Middle Sea. Invasions weakened the integrity of Egypt and her sovereigns. Her antiquity and glory were to be supplanted. Rome was the scourge whereby the derelict Ptolemys were to be sunk into oblivion and Egypt lie waste for an eon or two.

Look at a native carving of the last queen, who disrupted Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Early portraits of the Egyptian-Greek period hint of the appearance of women of that age and country. We note the change from the purely Egyptian, in both art and features, toward the refinement of Greek influences.

True to the manners and customs of that age, Jean Leon Gerome, of French instinct and training, painted "Cleopatra Before Caesar." The amorous queen is adorned with stomacher, girdle, bracelets and necklace of jewels, while a silver-wrought drapery of gauze falls from the girdle over the thigh, parted to show the curves of the limbs. She stands in the hall of her ancestors, the walls representing in hieroglyphics Egyptian Pharaohs and their Greek conquerors, the Ptolemys. The Queen exposes her physical charms to the Roman Caesar because of a political purpose and passion. It was not the custom of those women to go nude, but thinly clad, often bare to the waist. Men of the middle class went nude to the waist, and children were accustomed to a state of nudity. Morals were questionable. Caesar's presence in the Nile valley signified the waning power of the Greek dynasty.

Cleopatra's slave has his hands on the leopard skin to cover the Queen in an instant, at pressure of her finger on his back.

In Browning's poem, "Fifne," he has described this scene perfectly, and in three words characterized the picture: "One Thievish Glance," for it applies to every figure on the canvas, to the voluptuous woman, to the Caesar, to his attending nobles, and to the slave.

The artist has portrayed a woman of the highest rank. She is Queen of the oldest civilization on earth.

Debased by passion and by power—
Nor hath the wit to know
She lacks the sense of purity,
'Twas not engendered in her breed.
Virtue had not yet come to birth,
For pagan Rome sceptered the earth.
With her last agonies
Millenniums of Egypt's power
Slipped from earth's history of man
In one brief hour, with poison drunk—
That moral poison that ends all.
Was she then better than her slave?
And had the Ptolemic Queen a soul to save?

Why is the spirit of the period and the woman so truthfully portrayed in the painting? It is one man's ideal of Cleopatra. The artist was thoroughly equipped for his chosen task. Gerome was one of four noted modern painters of women. His four most noted paintings represent soulless women who lived in the days of polytheism or heathenism; the other three are "Phryne Before the Areopagus"; she being accused of impiety was brought to trial before the tribunal. In the picture she is represented at the moment that her defender puts into his action his idea of saving her, of her idea of saving herself, by snatching aside her drapery, revealing her wonderful figure. The universal sway of beauty asserted itself and she was acquitted by the judges. Pliny tells us she was a poor girl gathering and vending capers, but in Athens as a courtesan she debased her beauty. At the festival of Pascidon she laid aside her garments, let down her abundant hair, and stepped into the sea in sight of all the people. This act gave to the great artist Appeles the idea of his most wonderful picture, "Aphrodite Rising From the Sea."

Gerome's third and lower type of woman is "A Singer and Dancer in Cairo." The fourth, "A Slave Market," tells its own tale of moral degradation, and of a people who declared that woman had no soul. It has been said that this painter saw no divinity in woman, that in early life he headed a delegation petitioning for the abolition of marriage in France.

"Christian Martyr" was another canvas of this type of subject on which the artist worked for twenty years, repainting it three times,—a monument on canvas of an unspeakable epoch of human history. How could a man with a heart and soul dwell on such subjects; yet they record history. Is not the man somewhat expressed in his work?

The art expression of every age, whatever its classification, bears the stamp of its environment, and is developed only so far as the people are developed who produce it.

Then we have the ideal, the conception of a thing in its most perfect state or form, a love for the pure and beautiful entering into such expression.

A subject is modeled or pictured in the mind of an artist before he touches clay or canvas worthily or unworthily.

While the wave of Egyptian greatness was slanting downward, the next wave of mentality and art was rising to high tide on the shores of Greece. Greek expression in art is a thing apart, not comparable with that of any other nation. Investigation along the line of anthropology sets forth a reasonable reason for this advance in mentality, hence in unusual beauty of face and form.

We are all children in the use of the ubiquitous Why, when it concerns wished-for knowledge. There was scant similarity between Egyptian and Greek even after centuries of sovereignty of Greeks over the Nile Valley. A commingling of the nations seems to have produced a sort of hybrid art so far as painting was concerned; Egyptian portraits from the Fayyum indicate women of dark complexion and black eyes, but of refined features and high foreheads unlike the Egyptians. That we have any knowledge at all of the art of painting of that period in Greece is due to the writers and not to the painters. That more perishable art vanished centuries ago, leaving sculpture and architecture to stand for the glory of Greek art. The developing of that art covered about seven hundred years, the wave of progress rising till its height of strength and beauty was reached about 300 B. C. in the brilliant constellation that had for stars of the first magnitude Phidias, Scopas, Polyclitus, Praxiteles, with Pericles for the national spokesman, who led a host of other craftsmen of the square, mallet and chisel, who populated the whole out-spread of Greece and Asia Minor with exquisite figures in marble and bronze.

Mythology furnished their motifs, and their numerous deities began to take form as dazzling ideals of physical beauty and valor. Venus, Victory, Athena, Diana, Niobe—phases of woman's beauty and bravery—all appear in plural number, and Caryatides still bear the burdens that man in the name of art laid upon female heads and shoulders, albeit mostly housed now in modern museums.

Beautiful in form, proportion, and features, not forgetting strength and dignity, where did their superb models come from? Whence the mentality that produced their poets, dramatists, and thinkers who brillianced the centuries of Greek dominance in culture? The various shades of life in tribes and nations are needed in the weaving of the endless tapestry of humanity; shades of skin may count with some, but in the study of art it is the shade of mentality, of innate moral fibre and refinement, that counts.

Not all the inhabitants of Greece, nor even of Athens, were artists, nor men of letters. There were as wide differences in humans then as now and here. The Athenians were of the highest type of all the tribes and clans that for various reasons were tempted to the shores of Greece from a northern country, and history and science tell us "Athens was great because of her women," and furthermore, "that there can be no great sons unless there are first great mothers." There lies the secret of all progress. Thus do we know the womanhood of Greece as translated into marble. We needs must agree with Ruskin, who said, "A Greek never expresses personal character nor momentary passion."

Grace and proportion seem to have been ruling principles in all their art expressions; strength even to severity marks many female forms and faces, as might be expected of the impersonation of Wisdom and Victory. There are no signs of hope or happiness, they are truly marble faces. Niobe is the one sculptured mother known to us, and her attitude and limited expression bespeak protection from danger slightly mixed with motherly solicitude.

Portrait busts, a troupe of exquisite Aphrodites and hunting Dianas add to our appreciation of Greek art, but a soulless art.

The Athena of the Parthenon, represented to us by replicas and coins, is as expressionless of sovereignty and benignity as the marble, ivory, and gold that made it the most valuable of her national deities.

Scant indeed are hints and examples of Greek painting that have survived the ages, yet historians of that time assure us it was a prolific art portraying scenes of a nation's interest in portraiture, mural decoration, the adornment of architecture with color, and in many cases the painting of statues with a startling semblance to life.

We have glanced back thousands of years to gain a glimpse of woman in art, and find certain strength, curves, and beauty in both subject and work; finding also a harmonious and analogous development, crude as it sometimes was, as beginnings must ever be.

It seems proof that neither man nor an age can produce what it does not possess. But remember, there is always something ahead, something to reach for, always an unfolding, ever an advance—progress.

After the highest attainment of Greek art came the despoiling enemy, brute force against an athletic, intellectual, and artistic perfection, of which scattered and shattered remnants illustrate the Athenian writers and serve as criterion in plastic art for ages to come.

The Ptolemaic Queen is embodied in history, drama, poetry, and art for the mischief she did; and with her own hand she opened the door to make her exit from life's stage. She passed when the outlook for humanity was clouded with the darkness that precedes the dawn.