Covering the face in painting 3

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Gassed (1919), oil on canvas, 231 × 611.1 cm, The Imperial War Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first two of these three articles looking at paintings in which the face is covered, I looked at the role of veils and face coverings, then covering the face as a gesture, mainly to hide embarrassment. Here I continue the theme introduced in the last painting in that second article, of paintings which have been composed so as to hide the face, which is perhaps strangest of all in figurative painting, given the role and importance of the face.

Carl Gustav Carus (1789–1869), Barge Trip on the Elbe near Dresden (Morning on the Elbe) (1827), oil on canvas, 29 x 22 cm, Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Both Caspar David Friedrich and his follower Carl Gustav Carus frequently posed their figures looking away from the viewer. Carus also developed a fondness for distant views framed by foreground objects, as in his early Barge Trip on the Elbe near Dresden (Morning on the Elbe) from 1827.

Broken Vows 1856 by Philip Hermogenes Calderon 1833-1898
Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898), Broken Vows (1856), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 67.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1947), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s Broken Vows from 1856 uses concealment of two of its figures to make it one of the earliest true ‘problem pictures’.

A beautiful young woman, displaying her wedding ring, stands with her eyes closed, clutching a symbolic ‘heart’ area on her chest to indicate that her love life is in trouble. On the ground near the hem of her dress is a discarded necklace or ‘charm’ bracelet. The ivy-covered wall behind her would normally indicate lasting love, which was her aspiration.

A set of initials are carved on the fence, and on the other side a young man holds a small red flower in front of his forehead, which a young woman is trying to grasp with her right hand. The wooden fence appears tatty, and has holes in it indicating its more transient nature, and affording glimpses of the couple behind, but only tantalisingly small sections of their faces.

Calderon here deliberately introduces considerable ambiguity. The eyes of the shorter person behind the fence are carefully occluded, leaving their gender open to speculation. Most viewers are likely to conclude that the taller figure behind the fence is the unfaithful husband of the woman in front, but that requires making assumptions which aren’t supported by visual clues. Whose vows are being broken? Calderon leads us to speculate.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Interior (‘The Rape’) (1868-9), oil on canvas, 81.3 x 114.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Edgar Degas uses similar devices in his famous ‘problem picture’ Interior from 1868-9.

A man and a woman are in a bedroom together. The woman is at the left, partly kneeling down, and facing to the left. Her hair is cropped short, she wears a white shift which has dropped off her left shoulder, and her face is obscured in the dark. Her left forearm rests on a small stool or chair, over which is draped a dark brown cloak or coat. Her right hand rests on a wooden cabinet which is in front of her. She appears to be staring down towards the floor, off the left of the canvas.

The man stands at the far right, leaning on the inside of the bedroom door, and staring at the woman. He is quite well-dressed, with a black jacket, black waistcoat and mid-brown trousers. Both his hands are thrust into his trouser pockets, and his feet are apart. His top hat rests, upside down, on top of the cabinet in front of the woman.

Between them, just behind the woman, is a small occasional table, on which there is a table-lamp and a small open suitcase. Some of the contents of the suitcase rest over its edge. In front of it, on the table top, is a small pair of scissors and other items which appear to be from a small clothes repair kit (‘housewife’). The single bed is made up, and its cover is not ruffled, but it may possibly bear a bloodstain at the foot. At the foot of the bed, on its large arched frame, another item apparently of the woman’s clothing (perhaps a coat) is loosely hung. On that end of the bed is a woman’s dark hat with ribbons.

Although so theatrical as to imply narrative reference, all attempts to attach a text narrative to it have so far failed. Key to the mystery is the fact that, with her face obscured, there’s no opportunity to read the woman’s emotional state.

Marià Fortuny (1838–1874), Nude on the Beach at Portici (1874), oil on panel, 13 x 19 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In Marià Fortuny’s Nude on the Beach at Portici (1874) the naked body of a woman on the beach is viewed from a high angle, and her hidden face gives a decidedly voyeuristic impression.

Love Locked Out 1890 by Anna Lea Merritt 1844-1930
Anna Lea Merritt (1844–1930), Love Locked Out (1890), oil on canvas, 115.6 x 64.1 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1890), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Love Locked Out (1890) is the painting which brought Anna Lea Merritt fame. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1890, it was so well received that it was purchased for the British national collection, which soon became the National Gallery of British Art, then the Tate Gallery, where it has remained ever since. It was the first painting by a woman artist to be acquired for the collection through the funding of the Chantrey Bequest.

Merritt intended this as a memorial to her husband, and hoped one day that she would be able to afford to have its figure cast in bronze as a monument to him. In her later autobiography, she explained that her Love was waiting for the door of death to open and reunite the couple. However, it was more generally interpreted as a symbol of forbidden love. Another reading is that the figure represents Cupid, god of love, who is trying to open the door of a mausoleum, and for love to conquer death.

Its popularity casts light on Victorian attitudes to nudity and sexuality. That she as a woman artist had painted a male nude was dangerous ground. However this work did not generate any protest over decency, because the nude is a child, who was assumed to be less conscious of nudity and its connotations, and had ‘no sense of shame before artists’. It may also have been considered more acceptable by virtue of the fact that you can’t see the figure’s face.

Later this summer, I’ll be commemorating the centenary of the death of one of Sweden’s greatest painters, Anders Zorn. Among his many skills was knowing when and how to obscure the faces of his figures.

Anders Zorn, Midnight (1891), oil on canvas, 69 x 103 cm, Zornmuseet, Mora, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.
Anders Zorn, Midnight (1891), oil on canvas, 69 x 103 cm, Zornmuseet, Mora, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

The rower in Zorn’s Midnight (1891) follows in the footsteps of Carus, in drawing our gaze towards her destination.

Anders Zorn, Mora Fair (1892), oil on canvas, 133 x 167.5 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.
Anders Zorn, Mora Fair (1892), oil on canvas, 133 x 167.5 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

In Zorn’s Mora Fair from the following year, the young woman’s partner lies, slumped face down amid the weeds, presumably from an excess of alcohol.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), Salome (c 1900), oil on canvas, 116.5 × 89.4 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Ossawa Tanner is better known for his religious paintings, but uses what were new electric lighting effects in his Salome (c 1900) to make the diaphanous gown of his dancer model more sensuous, and to hide her face.

My last two paintings show how effective obscuring the face can be in depictions of the horrors of war.

C R W Nevinson (1889-1946), Paths of Glory (1917), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 60.9 cm, The Imperial War Museum, London. By courtesy of The Imperial War Museums © IWM (Art.IWM ART 518).

In C R W Nevinson’s famous Paths of Glory (1917), two dead soldiers lie face down in the mud of their trenches, simultaneously anonymised and identified with every one of the millions who died there.

Nevinson quotes from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard (1750):
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

His frank depiction of two of the more than 5.5 million Allied (and 4.3 million Central Powers) dead was judged too much by the official censor. Nevinson therefore exhibited the painting with a brown paper strip across it, marked ‘censored’, for which he was reprimanded.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Gassed (1919), oil on canvas, 231 x 611.1 cm, The Imperial War Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

John Singer Sargent’s Gassed (1919) is an unusually large canvas with a more explicit but equally damning narrative. Mustard gas attacks were used in the Western Front in August 1918, just three months before the end of the war. Here a group of blind and injured soldiers from an attack are led to medical aid in the Corps dressing station. Look carefully and you’ll see that every single figure has their eyes bandaged, with the exception of the medical orderly leading them, who is looking away, his face also obscured.

As I wrote at the start of this series, it’s our faces that make us human.