Woman in Art/Chapter 7 - Wikisource, the free online library


Woman as Art Motive


Form and Ideal. Environment Affects Art. Despoliation of Greek Art. Woman In the Art of Michael Angelo. Woman the Ideal in Modern Sculpture.

"Like conscience, the Ideal is ever latent and must be
lovingly cared for. Its principles proceed from the
imagination and must be expressed through nature by
knowing her secrets."—Viollet le Duc.

Woman as art motif must first be considered as to form. The processes toward achieved perfection in modeling and chiseling the "form divine" monopolized Greek art for hundreds of years. In placid beauty and perfection of form, grace, and proportion, the Venus de Milo is the seeming ultimate; chaste and noble, it represents the age of perfection amid the multiforms of Greek art.

Were it a living being we would say that soul was latent. The perfection of form seemingly animated by spirit, with the added forces of nature and mind in combat, have given the world a translation in marble of the fact and act of Victory. Victory means overcoming; overcoming implies force, will, and determination; the spirit that does not weaken, that says No to wrong. It is the spirit triumphant—that is the expression and poise of the Victory of Samothrace. It is not the figure of a man, but of a woman, and the marble is powerful with the spirit of woman triumphant. Her very drapery is eloquent of action, of onward pursuit in the teeth of opposing wind and wave, of the will that gives no quarter till the unseen trumpet in the unseen hand proclaims—"Victory!" You do not see the lips that voice that fact; you miss the shapely head and its poise on the powerful neck; because of time and accident your imagination must supply the face alert with determination that Is Victory, with eyes that would have flashed with the exultation of Victory. You miss all the expression of features, but you have the tremendous expression of action.

That splendid figure on its pedestal of a galley's prow, on the shore of its island home, against the rich background of ilex and lemon foliage, must have leaned toward its own reflection in the clear blue of the Aegean Sea, as it greeted Paul of Tarsus on his way from Troas to Philippi. That Victory was 450 years old in the time of Paul. Where is it now? O, but art is long! From the scented air, the glowing sky, from being the glory of Greek art and culture, it has passed westward with the course of Empire and is imprisoned—preserved, shall we say, for its beauty and the one-time art that it glorified, and glorifies it still, in the gallery of the Louvre, and is an inspiration to the world.

Thus we see how form brings us to the ideal, how the ideal may be expressed in form.

The mind of an artist partakes of the thought, spirit, and status of his environment; hence, now and then, we need a sprinkling of history to obtain consecutive stages of development.

Barbarian Rome conquered and despoiled artistic Greece. Both were pagan as to religion. The Roman soldiery was iconoclastic in its attack upon art that was priceless and irreplaceable. When the head of the armies realized the destruction, and that what glorified Greece might be the conquerors' spoil and glorify Rome, the marbles, bronzes, and paintings were carried off to Italy to beautify the domain of the Cæsars. The ambition of Rome used this spoil to such a lavish extent that its palaces, streets, and piazzas were crowded with statues, and the cities of Italy had an over-dose of art inoculation—against art? So it seems. Greek artists and artisans were also impressed from Attica and its isles to the end that Rome be converted into the most magnificent city in the world. But prophecy had to be fulfilled, and after the fall of Rome and the dark ages that followed, nothing remained to attest a one-time glory of art but the imported remnants of Greek and a moiety of Greco-Roman art.

Greece had many sculptors, but only one Myron, one Phidias, one Praxiteles. The next great wave of sculpture came with the Renaissance of the Italian world. There were many sculptors in those days, but only one Michael Angelo—a robust thinker, a robust worker with chisel, brush and pen. The fine arts met together in his horoscope.

According to the tenets of the times and of the church, for whose glory he wrought most worthily with his art, he gave out but little of the nude. His Sibyls and Virtues were strong in face and pose; the power was in their repose, their strength and expression of features. His pagan Sibyls, placed alternately with the Hebrew Prophets in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, represent a remarkable type of woman. One has the feeling that they were evolved from the brain of the artist regardless of nationality, or of the supposed physical or mental differences that were said to accompany the power of supernatural vision.

Sibyls were of remote antiquity, useful or baneful as the case might be, to leaders who would interrogate the future; hence the great master recorded a
Woman in Art - Lunette in Woman's Building.png

Mary F. MacMonnies, Artist

prolific thought when he introduced them as art motif, for contrast and historic significance between Prophets of the Most High and Sibyls of pagan people, such as called in vain upon Baal, while Elijah and Israel listened.

Whether painted from models or resultant of his ideal, who can tell? The Cumæan Sibyl represents Wisdom. One feels that she could not have been an ordinary type, but a woman of rugged experience, of body and mind grown strong by use. Wisdom has developed from thought—was it her thought, or that of the artist?

The work of the master was massive, proportionate to his shape of mind which seems not to have been able to produce lesser ideals.

As we are speaking of form, we recall an ideal of another robust mind of nearly five hundred years later. Greek and Roman criterions are the same, studied and imitated by many modern men, but in France there has been but one Rodin—one man who has dared to express his thought in his own way. He has worked out an ideal with much power and originality, and it serves well as an illustration. He has called it "The Hand of God." A powerful hand, perfect in proportion and form, reaches up from a great block of native stone, holding within its upturned palm a mass of formless clay, from which emerges the exquisite figures of the first man and the first woman, the form of the woman being dominant. Studying the form from various angles, the wonder and beauty of the idea grows.

Art springs from a broadcast sowing, and in America, contemporaneous with Rodin in France, we had a St. Gaudens whose work has powerfully and delicately idealized life, and with wonderful skill and imagination has portrayed the subjective.

In the figure of a woman the artist has embodied "Grief." The severely simple figure, exhausted with grief, sits leaning against the granite tomb, the hand supporting the head that would otherwise droop with its weight of woe. She is alone with her grief amid the evergreens that form a shelter for those who are sleeping their last sleep. The spirit, the idea, the environment, are in absolute harmony.

We realize that the setting forth of the subjective impersonated by the beauty and grace of woman has developed a more wonderfully symbolic art than any before known.

Let us note a remarkable example of idealized objective, portrayed in woman's form, though far removed from the human.

In the material of marble, hard, cold, and spotless, Randolph Rogers of the nineteenth century left to American art the statue called "The Lost Pleiad," representing a star missed from heaven seeking her group of six sister stars. Her attitude is of swiftness of flight through the ether; she is above the clouds represented beneath her feet; her hand shields the eyes from the light of dazzling suns that she passes in her wanderings amid cosmic worlds. The eager forward bending of the body, only one foot touching a cloud; the gossamer drapery and hair floating with the speed of a star through space, all picture an ideal of diaphanous loveliness that carries thought and imagination to the heights. A world and a woman are etherealized.

Nothing is so intangible as the human soul. It makes or mars the house-beautiful in which it lives its human years. It moulds, it colors, it expresses by look, word, or deed, its own quality, character, and influence. It is life. You cannot see it enter or leave the body. You may be in a throng of thousands intent on a world celebration, yet you are alone, individual, unknown and not knowing your crowd-crushing neighbor. Or you may praise God in company with the music of æolian pines on Mount Shasta, because of created glory spread beneath that mountain majesty. Your soul is in a native harmony—it thrills.

But humans live mostly on the plains of earth, not on the heights. Man is not prone to lift his eyes to the mountains from whence cometh help; eyes and mind are sadly devoted to the muck-rake. The experiences of life are doing a vital work in your soul and in that of your neighbor or nearest friend, yet neither may know the soul of the other.

Another American sculptor, an Introspective Seer, we may call him, has given to the world his thought of this universal fact, in the medium of marble. There is much of poetry in the life of every true artist, it being an attribute of the human variously and individually expressed. Therefore, in "The Solitude of the Soul," Lorado Taft has given poetic expression of the human endowment of the aloneness of soul.

The modern master struck a deep note in American art in giving form to that wonderful and suggestive group. Man—woman, of the earth earthy, and out of the clay emanates the profundity of soul, the ego man. Each figure of the group stands alone. The thought life, the emotional life is lived in individual solitude.

The soul as God-given and God-recalled is cumbered or unencumbered with the fallacies of earth—as the mind wills. "There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body," and the spiritual shining through the natural shows character noble and art great, and, if one dare say it, almost immortal.

Our western sculptor of ideas has put into monumental form a characteristic of the middle west. He chose to cast the cluster of life-giving lakes into bronze, of such form as would indicate their natural use and beauty to the world. Five graceful figures of women, prophetic of increase and abundance for the future, are directing the water supply by means of their huge conch shells from the Superior sister above to Michigan and Huron on either side; thence from Erie's basin the water falls into Ontario's conch, speeding its onward way to the sea of its destiny.

These sculptural works are strong and beautiful examples of form and the ideal, and we see how beautifully the primitive idea of symbols has developed to grace our modern art.