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An essay by George Augustus Moore

Sex In Art

Title:     Sex In Art
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

Woman's nature is more facile and fluent than man's. Women do things more easily than men, but they do not penetrate below the surface, and if they attempt to do so the attempt is but a clumsy masquerade in unbecoming costume. In their own costume they have succeeded as queens, courtesans, and actresses, but in the higher arts, in painting, in music, and literature, their achievements are slight indeed--best when confined to the arrangements of themes invented by men--amiable transpositions suitable to boudoirs and fans.

I have heard that some women hold that the mission of their sex extends beyond the boudoir and the nursery. It is certainly not within my province to discuss so important a question, but I think it is clear that all that is best in woman's art is done within the limits I have mentioned. This conclusion is well-nigh forced upon us when we consider what would mean the withdrawal of all that women have done in art. The world would certainly be the poorer by some half-dozen charming novels, by a few charming poems and sketches in oil and water-colour; but it cannot be maintained, at least not seriously, that if these charming triflings were withdrawn there would remain any gap in the world's art to be filled up. Women have created nothing, they have carried the art of men across their fans charmingly, with exquisite taste, delicacy, and subtlety of feeling, and they have hideously and most mournfully parodied the art of men. George Eliot is one in whom sex seems to have hesitated, and this unfortunate hesitation was afterwards intensified by unhappy circumstances. She was one of those women who so entirely mistook her vocation as to attempt to think, and really if she had assumed the dress and the duties of a policeman, her failure could hardly have been more complete. Jane Austen, on the contrary, adventured in no such dismal masquerade; she was a nice maiden lady, gifted with a bright clear intelligence, diversified with the charms of light wit and fancy, and as she was content to be in art what she was in nature, her books live, while those of her ponderous rival are being very rapidly forgotten. "Romola" and "Daniel Deronda" are dead beyond hope of resurrection; "The Mill on the Floss", being more feminine, still lives, even though its destiny is to be forgotten when "Pride and Prejudice" is remembered.

Sex is as important an element in a work of art as it is in life; all art that lives is full of sex. There is sex in "Pride and Prejudice"; "Jane Eyre" and "Aurora Leigh" are full of sex; "Romola", "Daniel Deronda", and "Adam Bede" are sexless, and therefore lifeless. There is very little sex in George Sand's works, and they, too, have gone the way of sexless things. When I say that all art that lives is full of sex, I do not mean that the artist must have led a profligate life; I mean, indeed, the very opposite. George Sand's life was notoriously profligate, and her books tell the tale. I mean by sex that concentrated essence of life which the great artist jealously reserves for his art, and through which it pulsates. Shelley deserted his wife, but his thoughts never wandered far from Mary. Dante, according to recent discoveries, led a profligate life, while adoring Beatrice through interminable cantos. So profligacy is clearly not the word I want. I think that gallantry expresses my meaning better.

The great artist and Don Juan are irreparably antagonistic; one cannot contain the other. Notwithstanding all the novels that have been written to prove the contrary, it is certain that woman occupies but a small place in the life of an artist. She is never more than a charm, a relaxation, in his life; and even when he strains her to his bosom, oceans are between them. Profligate, I am afraid, history proves the artist sometimes to have been, but his profligacy is only ephemeral and circumstantial; what is abiding in him is chastity of mind, though not always of body; his whole mind is given to his art, and all vague philanderings and sentimental musings are unknown to him; the women he knows and perceives are only food for it, and have no share in his mental life. And it is just because man can raise himself above the sentimental cravings of natural affection that his art is so infinitely higher than woman's art. "Man's love is from man's life a thing apart"--you know the quotation from Byron, "Tis woman's whole existence." The natural affections fill a woman's whole life, and her art is only so much sighing and gossiping about them. Very delightful and charming gossiping it often is--full of a sweetness and tenderness which we could not well spare, but always without force or dignity.

In her art woman is always in evening dress: there are flowers in her hair, and her fan waves to and fro, and she wishes to sigh in the ear of him who sits beside her. Her mental nudeness is parallel with her low bodice, it is that and nothing more. She will make no sacrifice for her art; she will not tell the truth about herself as frankly as Jean-Jacques, nor will she observe life from the outside with the grave impersonal vision of Flaubert. In music women have done nothing, and in painting their achievement has been almost as slight. It is only in the inferior art--the art of acting--that women approach men. In that art it is not certain that they do not stand even higher.

Whatever women have done in painting has been done in France. England produces countless thousands of lady artists; twenty Englishwomen paint for one Frenchwoman, but we have not yet succeeded in producing two that compare with Madame Lebrun and Madame Berthe Morisot. The only two Englishwomen who have in painting come prominently before the public are Angelica Kauffman and Lady Butler. The first-named had the good fortune to live in the great age, and though her work is individually feeble, it is stamped with the charm of the tradition out of which it grew and was fashioned. Moreover, she was content to remain a woman in her art. She imitated Sir Joshua Reynolds to the best of her ability, and did all in her power to induce him to marry her. How she could have shown more wisdom it is difficult to see. Lady Butler was not so fortunate, either in the date of her birth, in her selection of a master, or her manner of imitating him. Angelica imitated as a woman should. She carried the art of Sir Joshua across her fan; she arranged and adorned it with ribbons and sighs, and was content with such modest achievement.

Lady Butler, however, thought she could do more than to sentimentalise with De Neuville's soldiers. She adopted his method, and from this same standpoint tried to do better; her attitude towards him was the same as Rosa Bonheur's towards Troyon; and the failure of Lady Butler was even greater than Rosa Bonheur's. But perhaps the best instance I could select to show how impossible it is for women to do more than to accept the themes invented by men, and to decorate and arrange them according to their pretty feminine fancies, is the collection of Lady Waterford's drawings now on exhibition at Lady Brownlow's house in Carlton House Terrace.

Lady Waterford for many years--for more than a quarter of a century--has been spoken of as the one amateur of genius; and the greatest artists vied with each other as to which should pay the most extravagant homage to her talent. Mr. Watts seems to have distanced all competitors in praise of her, for in a letter of his quoted in the memoir prefixed to the catalogue, he says that she has exceeded all the great Venetian masters. It was nice of Mr. Watts to write such a letter; it was very foolish of Lady Brownlow to print it in the catalogue, for it serves no purpose except to draw attention to the obvious deficiencies of originality in Lady Waterford's drawings. Nearly all of them are remarkable for facile grouping; and the colour is rich, somewhat heavy, but generally harmonious; the drawing is painfully conventional; it would be impossible to find a hand, an arm, a face that has been tenderly observed and rendered with any personal feeling or passion.

The cartoons are not better than any mediocre student of the Beaux-Arts could do--insipid parodies of the Venetian--whom she excels, according to Mr. Watts. When Lady Waterford attempted no more than a decorative ring of children dancing in a richly coloured landscape, or a group of harvesters seen against a rich decorative sky, such a design as might be brought across a fan, her talent is seen to best advantage; it is a fluent and facile talent, strangely unoriginal, but always sustained by taste acquired by long study of the Venetians, and by a superficial understanding of their genius.

Many times superior to Lady Waterford is Miss Armstrong--a lady in whose drawings of children we perceive just that light tenderness and fanciful imagination which is not of our sex. Perhaps memory betrays me; it is a long while since I have seen Miss Armstrong's pastels, but my impression is that Miss Armstrong stands easily at the head of English lady artists--above Mrs. Swynnerton, whose resolute and distinguished talent was never more abundantly and strikingly manifested than in her picture entitled "Midsummer", now hanging in the New Gallery. "Midsummer" is a fine piece of intellectual painting, but it proceeds merely from the brain; there is hardly anything of the painter's nature in it; there are no surprising admissions in it; the painter never stood back abashed and asked herself if she should have confessed so much, if she should have told the world so much of what was passing in her intimate soul and flesh.

Impersonality in art really means mediocrity. If you have nothing to tell about yourself, or if courage be lacking in you to tell the truth, you are not an artist. Are women without souls, or is it that they dare not reveal their souls unadorned with the laces and ribbons of convention? Their memoirs are a tissue of lies, suppressions, and half-truths. George Sand must fain suppress all mention of her Italian journey with Musset, a true account of which would have been an immortal story; but of hypocritical hare-hearted allusions Rousseau and Casanova were not made; in their memoirs women never get further than some slight fingering of laces; and in their novels they are too subject to their own natures to attain the perfect and complete realisation of self, which the so-called impersonal method alone affords. Women astonish us as much by their want of originality as they do by their extraordinary powers of assimilation. I am thinking now of the ladies who marry painters, and who, after a few years of married life, exhibit work identical in execution with that of their illustrious husbands--Mrs. E. M. Ward, Madame Fantin-Latour, Mrs. Swan, Mrs. Alma-Tadema. How interesting these households must be! Immediately after breakfast husband and wife sit down at their easels. "Let me mix a tone for you, dear," "I think I would put that up a little higher," etc. In a word, what Manet used to call _la peinture a quatre mains_.

Nevertheless, among these well-intentioned ladies we find one artist of rare excellence--I mean Madame Lebrun. We all know her beautiful portrait of a woman walking forward, her hands in a muff. Seeing the engraving from a distance we might take it for a Romney; but when we approach, the quality of the painting visible through the engraving tells us that it belongs to the French school. In design the portrait is strangely like a Romney; it is full of all that brightness and grace, and that feminine refinement, which is a distinguishing characteristic of his genius, and which was especially impressed on my memory by the portrait of the lady in the white dress walking forward, her hands in front of her, the slight fingers pressed one against the other, exhibited this year in the exhibition of Old Masters in the Academy.

But if we deny that the portrait of the lady with the muff affords testimony as to the sex of the painter, we must admit that none but a woman could have conceived the portrait which Madame Lebrun painted of herself and her little daughter. The painting may be somewhat dry and hard, it certainly betrays none of the fluid nervous tendernesses and graces of the female temperament; but surely none but a woman and a mother could have designed that original and expressive composition; it was a mother who found instinctively that touching and expressive movement--the mother's arms circled about her little daughter's waist, the little girl leaning forward, her face resting on her mother's shoulder. Never before did artist epitomise in a gesture all the familiar affection and simple persuasive happiness of home; the very atmosphere of an embrace is in this picture. And in this picture the painter reveals herself to us in one of the intimate moments of her daily life, the tender, wistful moment when a mother receives her growing girl in her arms, the adolescent girl having run she knows not why to her mother. These two portraits, both in the Louvre, are, I regret to say, the only pictures of Madame Lebrun that I am acquainted with. But I doubt if my admiration would be increased by a wider knowledge of her work. She seems to have said everything she had to say in these two pictures.

Madame Lebrun painted well, but she invented nothing, she failed to make her own of any special manner of seeing and rendering things; she failed to create a style. Only one woman did this, and that woman is Madame Morisot, and her pictures are the only pictures painted by a woman that could not be destroyed without creating a blank, a hiatus in the history of art. True that the hiatus would be slight-- insignificant if you will--but the insignificant is sometimes dear to us; and though nightingales, thrushes, and skylarks were to sing in King's Bench Walk, I should miss the individual chirp of the pretty sparrow.

Madame Morisot's note is perhaps as insignificant as a sparrow's, but it is as unique and as individual a note. She has created a style, and has done so by investing her art with all her femininity; her art is no dull parody of ours: it is all womanhood--sweet and gracious, tender and wistful womanhood. Her first pictures were painted under the influence of Corot, and two of these early works were hung in the exhibition of her works held the other day at Goupil's, Boulevard Montmartre. The more important was, I remember, a view of Paris seen from a suburb--a green railing and two loitering nursemaids in the foreground, the middle of the picture filled with the city faintly seen and faintly glittering in the hour of the sun's decline, between four and six. It was no disagreeable or ridiculous parody of Corot; it was Corot feminised, Corot reflected in a woman's soul, a woman's love of man's genius, a lake-reflected moon. But Corot's influence did not endure. Through her sister's marriage Madame Morisot came in contact with Manet, and she was quick to recognise him as being the greatest artist that France had produced since Delacroix.

Henceforth she never faltered in her allegiance to the genius of her great brother-in-law. True, that she attempted no more than to carry his art across her fan; but how adorably she did this! She got from him that handling out of which the colour flows joyous and bright as well-water, the handling that was necessary for the realisation of that dream of hers, a light world afloat in an irradiation--light trembling upon the shallows of artificial water, where swans and aquatic birds are plunging, and light skiffs are moored; light turning the summer trees to blue; light sleeping a soft and lucid sleep in the underwoods; light illumining the green summer of leaves where the diamond rain is still dripping; light transforming into jewellery the happy flight of bees and butterflies. Her swans are not diagrams drawn upon the water, their whiteness appears and disappears in the trembling of the light; and the underwood, how warm and quiet it is, and penetrated with the life of the summer; and the yellow-painted skiff, how happy and how real! Colours, tints of faint green and mauve passed lightly, a few branches indicated. Truly, the art of Manet _transporte en eventail_.

A brush that writes rather than paints, that writes exquisite notes in the sweet seduction of a perfect epistolary style, notes written in a boudoir, notes of invitation, sometimes confessions of love, the whole feminine heart trembling as a hurt bird trembles in a man's hand. And here are yachts and blue water, the water full of the blueness of the sky; and the confusion of masts and rigging is perfectly indicated without tiresome explanation! The colour is deep and rich, for the values have been truly observed; and the pink house on the left is an exquisite note. No deep solutions, an art afloat and adrift upon the canvas, as a woman's life floats on the surface of life. "My sister-in-law would not have existed without me," I remember Manet saying to me in one of the long days we spent together in the Rue d'Amsterdam. True, indeed, that she would not have existed without him; and yet she has something that he has not--the charm of an exquisite feminine fancy, the charm of her sex. Madame Morisot is the eighteenth century quick with the nineteenth; she is the nineteenth turning her eyes regretfully looking back on the eighteenth.

Chaplin parodied the eighteenth century; in Madame Morisot something of its gracious spirit naturally resides; she is eighteenth century especially in her drawings; they are fluent and flowing; nowhere do we detect a measurement taken, they are free of tricks--that is to say of ignorance assuming airs of learning. That red chalk drawing of a naked girl, how simple, loose, and unaffected, how purged of the odious erudition of the modern studio. And her precious and natural remembrance of the great century, with all its love of youth and the beauties of youthful lines, is especially noticeable in the red chalk drawing of the girl wearing a bonnet, the veil falling and hiding her beautiful eyes. As I stood lost in admiration of this drawing, I heard a rough voice behind me: "C'est bien beau, n'est pas?" It was Claude Monet. "Yes, isn't it superb?" I answered. "I wonder how much they'll sell it for." "I'll soon find out that," said Monet, and turning to the attendant he asked the question.

"Pour vous, sept cents cinquante francs."

"C'est bien; il est a moi."

This anecdote will give a better idea of the value of Berthe Morisot than seventy columns of mine or any other man's criticism.

[The end]
George Moore's essay: Sex In Art