I am desperate to discuss with you the most beautiful work of art I’ve seen in the last week, and the most intellectual and morally inspirational work of art I’ve seen in the last week. The absolutely perfect coincidence is that they have something in common, Female Virtue.
The work of art who’s beauty is strikingly extravert is, Lady Godiva, c. 1897, by John Collier, at The Herbert museum and art gallery, Coventry. The work of art who’s is an enigmatic introvert is, Innocence between Virtue and Vice, 1790, by Marie Guillhelmine Benoist.
I have no doubt that Collier’s figure is the (for I can recall no other) most beautiful figure I have seen in art. It surpasses even Deigo Veláquez’s stunning posterior view upon Venus in, The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’), 1647-51, at the National Gallery, London. For in Collier’s masterpiece, Godiva’s flesh radiates. It is utterly sensuous, and yet wholly dignified. Even the ratty hair standard to Pre-Raphaelite painting, of which Collier’s style could be associated with, that I usually find myself twitching at, does not bother me in this painting. Moreover, it isn’t something of visual surplus, it is in this painting completely visually necessary – it seals the Lady’s virtue.
Though it may seem that her head is head in shame, and as though she is a prostitute paraded about the city; she is in fact a woman of will, whose head is held down to show the sacrifice of shame she has made in order to achieve good. This historic character of Saxon nobility, alive between c.980-1067, rode through the streets of Coventry naked to make a stand against her husband’s unjust leadership. Her spouse, Leofric the Earl of Mercia, enforced unreasonably high taxes upon his tenants, to which Lady Godiva could not support. What a woman of virtue?
Female artist, Maria Guilhelmine, Comtesse Benoist painted Innocence Between Virtue and Vice to retell the didactic mythological story, ‘The Choice of Hercules.’ Hercules, in this case Innocence, is to decide between the characters of morality and immorality, and if [s]he chooses correctly [s]he will reach the temple of innocence and success. The artist (1768-1826) worked at a time of male dominance, when women were often viewed as an evil temptress of sexual immorality. Thomas Gisborne in Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex wrote on the supposed instable mental qualities of the female gender, arguing they had the tendency to, ‘frivolousness…a thirst for admiration and applause; to vanity and affection.’
In this painting the balance is readdressed. Vice, or the appealing pleasure, is the male figure the leaps towards Innocence who is appropriately dressed in the colour of purity. Innocence rests into Virtue, who becomes thus the symbol of protection. The nature of Vice’s unexpected and aggressive approach left Innocence little time to consider the temptation upon her, he had planned to whisk her away immediately; yet in Vice she will find freedom as she runs gaily towards the temple. Together the women represent the relentless and unified quality of feminine willpower. They flash Virtue an evil gaze and skidaddle.
A great interactive exhibition on Lady Godiva is at Coventry’s Herbert Museum and Art Gallery, entitled ‘Discover Godiva’ and is one of the permanent exhibitions.