I think that allegory, embodying abstract ideas inside a persona, is one of the most powerful and creative philosophical tools available to an artist. I’ve become fascinated by how so frequently it is women who are used to express temperaments, characteristics, and even more so: the varying genres of the arts. It’s quite ironic then that an article I wrote a good year back I entitled Beauty is a Woman in reference to Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, thinking I’d found a relatively undiscovered and explored idea.
Recently I’ve had the light shone on some 18th century art, and thus begun to recall some 18th century pastoral literature, in which I became acquainted with the nine muses. These, the inspiration of the arts: Caliope of epic poetry, Erato of lyric poetry, Clio of history, Euterpe of music, Polyhymnia of choral poetry, Terpischore of dance, Melpomene of tragedy, Thalia of comedy and Urania of astronomy, are personified by the attractive Grecian goddesses; almost like the precursors to the Spice Girls – each to their very own female empowering identity (though, I feel sorry for Scary Spice!)
Is or is this not a compliment to female sex, that, all that is possessed in that creative character is female. It surely elevates the capabilities of the gender? I have found it particularly pleasing and encouraging that painting (right hand figure) pictured in Angelica Kauffman Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting (right painting) and in Artemisia Gentileschi‘s self portrait (left painting), is an alluring female (and is such in paintings by male I do not hesitate to add!) So here’s my thought - If painting’s character is female, surely she is, even more so, insightfully actualised by a female [artist]. Unfortunately the past is proof that this hasn’t been an idea that has struck any significant people – for then female artists would have been all-over-the-shop praised with natural talent! So surely I must be missing something?
Perhaps then this would be too optimistic a view to hold and in fact I am missing the point of women’s involvement. While I see visual arts as essential, and liberal in form – an output of intelligent beings – for much of history, the arts have been underappreciated when compared to other disciplines. In the modern world, science has taken precedence, especially in the Enlightenment (1800s) when what was rational and reasonable gained significant not that which ‘persuade[s] by touching men’s sensibilities…’ as French socialist St Simon (1760-1825) said in ‘The Artist, The Savant and the Industrialist’. So it could be said, that being the inspiration for the arts is a minor role as far as progress is concerned, and that the arts’ importance (and some would say) like women’s is, is concerned by emotional matters.
Does allegory flatter its model? In the tradition of Feminine Portraiture in the Royal Academy at the time of their first president, Joshua Reynolds, allegory such as the Tragic Muse used to represent the tragedienne Sarah Siddons began to cover the sitter’s individual female identity with a generic form that doesn’t record the lady in contemporary social status or noteworthy history. It’s a generalised but true statement that portraiture of females were more commonly idealised than of men.
Now I see also how to be a Beauty, as many female portraits are known as Bellas without the real name of the sitter when lost, is not in fact a compliment upon her radiant looks, but simply eye candy for a male viewer. This opinion of art is very well argued in John Berger’s second essay from Ways of Seeing. Then again, for I hate to leave writings on a negative note, without the inspiration of the muses attributed to the female sex, so many masterpieces would not have existed, and in this case is it a worthy cause for good art?