Being visual art, paintings are often at least partly about, or refer to, the act of looking. For most painters, this is a central concern in their figurative works. A single figure shown looking straight at the viewer, or (in more recent paintings in particular) with a fixed gaze at an object outside the picture, is most likely to have been posed for a straight portrait. Once their gaze is directed at an object or another figure, there’s likely to be something else going on.
In today’s and tomorrow’s articles in this series, I look at the reading of gaze in paintings, starting with single figures and working up to groups. This article concentrates on what a figure is looking at, and tomorrow’s is more about the opposite.
The gaze of a single figure can carry important meaning, as in Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s Life Study of Lady Hamilton as the Cumaean Sybil from 1792. Coupled with her ‘eastern’ headdress, distinctive robes and scroll, her heavenly gaze tells us that she is under divine inspiration.
Mothers and their children are another good example, whether in religious paintings of the Virgin Mary and infant Christ, or Elizabeth Nourse’s superb Motherhood from 1897. Closer reading reveals that the mother here isn’t a conventional subject either: her face is tanned from outdoor work, and her hands have clearly toiled long and hard in the soil.
For anyone painting the encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx, gaze is central. There’s no other way in a single image to tell the story of Oedipus being posed a verbal riddle, those tense moments he took to arrive at a solution, and his consequent destruction of the Sphinx.
François-Xavier Fabre’s Oedipus and the Sphinx from about 1806-08 takes a traditional narrative approach, keeping distance between the two figures, and those figures from the viewer. Although their gazes are locked intently, tension is low.
In 1808 JAD Ingres, young winner of the Prix de Rome, sent back to Paris a full-size figure study of Oedipus. In 1825 he reworked that into this more elaborate narrative work now in the Louvre, a painting Gustave Moreau must have been familiar with. Ingres’ 1827 version was very well received when it was shown at the Salon that year, as it brought the two close together and intensified their gaze.
One of the most intense painted gazes is that between Gustave Moreau’s Oedipus and the Sphinx from 1864. These two are right in one another’s face, staring the other out. The Sphinx is already latched onto what she assumes will be her next and delectably young meal, and promises to be the young man’s femme fatale.
Oedipus knows that he cannot falter. A false guess in his answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, even a slight quaver in his voice, and this beautiful but lethal beast will be at his throat. His left hand clenches his javelin, knowing that what he is about to say should save his life, and spare the Thebans. He will then no longer be pinned with his back to the rock, and the threat of the Sphinx will be vanquished.
With larger groups, it’s often worth taking the time to consciously examine the gaze of each face you can see in the painting.
If it’s just a group portrait, as in Henri Fantin-Latour’s Homage to Delacroix from 1864, then it’s down to identifying the individuals and their setting. Without interactions between the figures, this is just a curated collection of eleven individual portraits.
In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Phryné before the Areopagus from 1861, the elders of the court are, almost without exception, staring at the naked body of the highly successful and very rich courtesan (hetaira) who has been brought to trial before them for the serious crime of impiety. Their faces (below) respond with emotions ranging from pure fright, to anguish, grief, or disbelief, but they can’t take their eyes off her. She has responded by turning away from them and covering her eyes: they gaze at her, but she can’t see them, and they can’t see her eyes.
When it seemed inevitable that Phryné 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, and with his skill in using gaze, Gérôme’s painting makes that crystal clear.