Suzanne Valadon's Blue Room and some Predecessors - a Comparison
For more on Suzanne Valadon (French Post-Impressionist of the late 19th - early 20th centuries) herself, as well as more on her painting The Blue Room, please see The Blue Room - Part 2.
For Part 2, which is the only one that I'd originally planned on (there was only going to be the one post), I interviewed by email a couple of people who are not artists but who are appreciative of art and aesthetically sensitive. I asked them to tell me what they thought of "The Blue Room" (without their knowing who painted it). One of them (after first looking carefully at the painting) did not answer any questions at first because she thought immediately of this one thing that she couldn't get out of her head until she had verified it: "This painting looks like another I've seen."
"I am trying to think of the period," she said, "where one particular artist had nudes, somewhat voluptuous, in just that pose."
I thought of "Olympia," by Manet. She looked at that picture and said, "Actually, that is similar but not the one in my brain."
Then she thought of Rembrandt. It must be by Rembrandt, and that sounded right to me, too, and quickly we found that the painting she had been thinking of was "Danaë," by Rembrandt. After our conversation, I thought of another painting of a woman lying in approximately that same position: "The Naked Maja" (and "The Clothed Maja") by Goya. And one thing led to another and I ended up with one by Courbet and another by Titian, and one by an artist I'd never heard of: Hendrick Goltzius.
So here they all are -- You'll notice how similar they are, though they are also different. How do you think Suzanne Valadon's "The Blue Room" compares with its predecessors? And, do you think that this pose was thought of independently by these artists, or do you think any used one or more of the previous artists' paintings as a model for their own?
GOING BACK IN TIME
(Above) The Blue Room - 1923
Artist: Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)
(Above) Olympia - 1863 (see reversed below)
Artist: Édouard Manet (1832-1883)
(Above) Olympia - 1863 (Reversed)
(Above) Reclining nude - 1862
Artist: Gustave Courbet (1819 - 1877)
(Above) The Naked Maja - c. 1800
Artist: Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
(Above) Danaë - 1636-1647
Artist: Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 -1669)
(Above) Danaë - 1613
Artist: Hendrick Goltzius (1558 - 1617)
(Above) Danaë - 1554 (see reversed below)
Artist: Titian (Tiziano Vecelli ) - c. 1488-90 - 1576 ( - )
(Above) Danaë - 1554 (Reversed)
Here is another that I found after I'd just finished writing this post: Odalisque with Female Slave (Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres - 1842).
I was astounded to find so many in such a short time, and there are probably many more. To see them all next to each other makes one wonder about a lot of things. One thing I wonder about is whether most of the later paintings shown here were modeled on earlier ones, or if this is just a very natural way that a man poses a woman when he can get away with it (especially when he can get her to pose without clothing). I also wonder if there were yet earlier such paintings that had the woman in basically the same pose with similar surroundings.
It seems it was very handy to have mythology to use as an excuse for painting nude women in the old days, but starting in the 1800s, if not before, at least some painters no longer bothered with that excuse. They were honest: They just wanted to paint nude women. And this is how they liked to see a woman - in an inviting pose, just waiting for a man to arrive. I would guess that Suzanne Valadon, being a woman herself, decided to paint a woman (not nude, but not really hiding anything, either) in this same pose that men had painted them in for centuries, but from a modern woman's point of view. Without judging the "art" in her painting, I would say she did a good job.
When I started comparing all the paintings, I asked myself: What's the same and what's different in these?
What's the same and what's different
For one thing, all the women are lying back on some kind of very soft and cozy looking bedding (note that Rembrandt's and Goya's bedding looks extremely similar), with the upper part of their bodies slanted at just about the same angle. They all have large white pillows behind their backs.
In all except Manet's and Titian's paintings, the head is at the right side of the picture. I'll write more about this (as well as about many other things) in the next post.
In all of the paintings the upper legs meet the torso somewhere very close to the center of the picture -- with the exception being in Titian's painting, but when you realize that the "cloud" hovering over Danaë in this picture represents the god Zeus (see below in paragraph beginning, "The direction of the head and of the gaze"), you will understand that an invisible spot exactly between Zeus (that glowing cloud) and where Zeus is headed (see same paragraph mentioned just above) would be very close to the center of the picture.
In all of the paintings except Valadon's the background is (at least comparatively) dark.
Only Manet's woman has her hand covering herself in a critical area and her ankles are crossed as if she thought that she might be being a little immodest with that pose and certainly wasn't expecting anyone. Maybe it's because she looks straight out at a viewer and she's suddenly embarrassed because she realizes that she is not alone (apparently the servant doesn't count). Goya's woman (the Maja) is also looking straight out at a viewer, but she doesn't seem to mind at all and in fact puts her arms up behind her head as if to show off even more.
The direction of the head and of the gaze is the same in Valadon's and Rembrandt's paintings; they look off to somewhere beyond the left side of the picture. Goya's Maja and Manet's Olympia are looking straight out of the painting toward the viewer. Courbet's woman is looking away as if to say "I really don't like to be in this pose, but this is my job." Goltzius' woman looks like she has fainted or is asleep and dreaming. I think all of these attitudes tell something about the men who painted the pictures and what is most desirable to them, even though three of the paintings depict Danaë in the same scene from Greek mythology. In the book The World of Rembrandt, by Robert Wallace (a Time-Life book, copyright 1968), it says that "an oracle warned the Greek king Akrisios that his daughter, Danaë, would bear a son who would kill him. He therefore kept her in enforced chastity .... However, the god Zeus, taking the form of a golden shower, evaded her guardian maid servant and entered Danaë's bedchamber .... Here [as shown in Rembrandt's picture] Danaë raises her hand, both to shield her eyes and to welcome her arriving lover, whose presence Rembrandt represents in the magnificent, unearthly yellow light pouring voluptuously over her face and body."
Let's leave aside the fact that Valadon's woman is the only one wearing clothes (Goya painted an identical "Maja" except that she was clothed), since the clothes on the woman in "The Blue Room" look like they were painted on her, they are so form-fitting, so nothing is really covered up.
One thing (among several) that makes Valadon's version of this view of a woman different is that it was the only one painted by a woman -- an independent "modern" woman...an equal to men, not an object.
Valadon's woman is gazing toward a place outside of the picture as if waiting for someone, but it seems more likely it's probably a friend or an employee, not a lover. She's dressed without false modesty, but not to entice anyone; she's probably dressed this way because it's comfortable. Her crossed legs and indeed the fact that she is wearing clothes show that she's not available. Her hairdo is not feminine; it's practical. The cigarette between her lips is suggestive, but it's also not "feminine" and may simply indicate that she doesn't care what anyone thinks if she wants to smoke. She looks relaxed, and comfortable with herself.
I don't love her picture (except for that luscious blue thing on the bed), but as far as getting her point across, and getting back at all the male artists who had painted a woman in this same pose, I think she did a great job.
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