The first article in this long weekend series looked at paintings in which the faces of figures were covered with veils and similar. In this second article, I look at paintings featuring gestures which cover the face, usually the result of emotion, most commonly embarrassment.
There are many gestures which involve covering the face. Some have even entered modern English, such as facepalm, as an expression of dismay.
Murillo’s Two Women at a Window from about 1655-60 shows a pair of women looking intently at something out in the street. The older woman discreetly covers her laughter (and her consequent embarrassment) with her veil, a manner of those brought up in the upper classes, but the younger woman smiles with an open face.
My canonical example of the emotional reading of a figure covering their face is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s brilliant narrative painting of Phryné before the Areopagus from 1861.
Phryne was a highly successful and very rich courtesan (hetaira) in ancient Greece who, according to legend, was brought to trial for the serious crime of impiety. When it seemed inevitable that she would be found guilty, one of her lovers, the orator Hypereides, took on her defence. A key part of that was to unveil her naked in front of the court, in an attempt to surprise its members, impress them with the beauty of her body, and arouse a sense of pity. The legend claims that this ploy worked perfectly.
Phryne is to the left of the centre, in the midst of the semicircular court, completely naked apart from some jewellery on her neck and wrists, and her sandals. She is turned away from the gaze of the judges, her eyes hidden in the crook of her right elbow, as if in shame and modesty. Behind her (to the left), her defence has just removed her blue robes with a flourish, his hands holding them high.
At Phryne’s feet is a gold belt of a kind worn to designate courtesans in France from the thirteenth century, with the Greek word ΚΑΛΗ (kale), meaning beautiful.
Gérôme draws contrast between Phryne, who is hiding her face – specifically her eyes – and has turned away, and her judges, who are staring at her naked body.
Jules LeFebvre made his career from painting nude women for all sorts of ‘acceptable’ reasons. He even found a religious motif which could feature a nude: Mary Magdalene In The Cave, which he painted in 1876. This refers to a French legend which held that Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus and some companions fled across the Mediterranean to land at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer near Arles. From there, Mary went to live in isolation in a cave on a hill near Marseille, now known as La Saint-Baume, and the setting for this painting. Her left arm is covering much of her face, although here she looks at the viewer with her eyes.
Continuing the association of naked women and their hidden face, Anna Lea Merritt’s Eve (also tellingly known as Eve Overcome with Remorse) (1885) is a striking depiction. Eve’s head rests on her knees and her face is turned away, a partly-eaten apple resting on the ground beside her outstretched legs. This won a medal when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1885, but attracted censure because of her use of a nude model.
Lovis Corinth’s splendid Homeric Laughter, painted in 1909, is another example of an embarrassingly naked woman covering her face. Corinth inscribes a German translation of line 326 in book 8 of Homer’s Odyssey, which reads in English:
unquenchable laughter arose among the blessed gods as they saw the craft of wise Hephaestus
referring of course to the story of when the gods came to see Venus caught in adultery with Mars.
Corinth painted two versions, this being his first. It shows Venus recumbent on the bed, shielding her eyes from the crowd around her. Mars struggles with Vulcan’s net which secures the couple, looking frustrated. Vulcan, clad in black with his tools slung around his waist, is talking to Poseidon (who wears a crown) with Bacchus behind clutching a champagne glass. At the right edge is Mercury, with his winged helmet. Sundry putti are playing with Mars’ armour, and an arc of putti adorns the sky.
I end this small collection with what must be a very unusual if not unique painting in Western art, showing the Prophet Muhammad, as an opening for the third article in this series, with paintings composed so as to obscure the face.
Domenico Morelli’s The Sermon of Mohammed dates from about 1895. Not only has this been culturally alien to the great majority of European painters, but making images of the Prophet is usually considered to be against religious law. Morelli tries to work around this by not showing the Prophet’s face. Indeed, in spite of the painting showing a host of followers, not a single face is shown.
It isn’t clear whether Morelli intended this to be a specific sermon (khutbah), such as the most famous of them all, the Farewell Sermon, which was delivered on the ninth of Dhul Hijjah, ten years after the Hijrah, migration from Makkah to the Madinah, i.e. 6 March 632. That is accepted as having taken place during the Hajj in the Uranah Valley of Mount Arafat, which is a plausible interpretation of the location of this painting, although it would be more conventional perhaps to have pictured the Prophet on the mountain slopes.