In yesterday’s article I showed a series of paintings in which gaze plays an important role, starting with a single figure and ending with a whole court of men staring at one naked woman. Sometimes the importance of gaze lies in what the figures are not looking at.
In Paul Delaroche’s account of The Assassination of the Duke of Guise in the Château de Blois in 1588, painted in 1834, the artist has divided his canvas in two. On the right, the Duke of Guise lies dead, in a melodramatic posture with his arms outstretched, at the foot of a bed. At the left, a group of men are talking with one another, most clutching their swords, but none paying the slightest attention to Guise’s body, as if it wasn’t there.
This assassination, and that of Guise’s brother, the Cardinal of Guise, the following day resulted in such outrage among the Guise family that Henry III, who was largely responsible, had to flee and take refuge with Henry of Navarre. The following year Henry III was assassinated by an agent of the Catholic League.
Some of the most fascinating paintings feature complex chains of gaze needing more careful study.
One my favourites among these is Lovis Corinth’s second and more finished version of Salome from 1900.
Salome is staring intently at the lower abdomen of the executioner, rather than the severed head of John the Baptist in front of her. Her right hand is stretching open the left eye of John’s head, which appears to be staring up at her. The executioner and the young woman at the top right are laughing at one another, but a third woman beside her has a serious, almost sad expression, as she stands holding a large peacock fan.
The chain of gaze here is central to the painting’s narrative: John’s eye stares at Salome, who stares at the executioner’s crotch, who laughs at the young woman at the top right, who laughs back at him. Watching sombre and detached from behind is the figure of death.
Paintings of other groups can prove harder to analyse, and might not even have a reading as such.
Benjamin West’s The Treaty of Penn with the Indians or William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1772. This shows the founder of the state of Pennsylvania purchasing land for his colony from the Lenape people, with a treaty of peace between the colonists and the ‘Indians’, in 1682. Looking at the directions of gaze of its figures suggests that the artist had no consistent idea of where they should be looking, and the viewer is even hard-put to identify its central figure William Penn.
The sixth and last of Henri Fantin-Latour’s group portraits, Around the Piano from 1885, shows members of a Wagner fan club in Paris at the time. They are each gazing at something different and not interacting in the least. Emmanuel Chabrier is playing the piano without looking at its keyboard or the music, and its other figures (bar one) appear distracted.
Not so for the members of the Spanish royal court in Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas from about 1656-57.
In what is overtly a portrait of eleven people and a dog in a room in the Alcázar Palace, Velázquez uses composition and gaze to tell us more. Much depends on what we believe most of the figures are looking at. Reflected in the rectangular plane mirror on the far wall are King Philip IV and his wife Queen Mariana of Austria.
There has been dispute over whether the reflection shows the royal couple stood where the viewer is, or the mirror is reflecting their painted images on Velázquez’s canvas. How their images were generated is probably of secondary importance, as either way the gaze of most of the other figures is clearly directed not at the viewer, but at the King and Queen, who may be getting up to leave after sitting for Velázquez to paint them. In this reading, the most important people not in the painting only appear in reflection and the gaze of others.
That must be one of the most subtle and complex uses of gaze in a painting.
My final painting is an even greater challenge.
In Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), two couples are apparently disinterested in the token picnic of fruit and bread which has spilled out from its basket in the left foreground. As the two men talk, fully dressed, a conspicuously naked woman stares unnervingly at the viewer, and the other woman is washing herself in the river behind. If they have indulged in any fruit, it is of the forbidden kind, and that meal was but a side-order to their main.
When this was rejected by the Salon jury, the excuses offered dodged the central issue that it could be read as a depiction of prostitution, in placing a non-classical nude woman between two clothed men. This was judged an indecency, an obscenity, to which was added the woman’s gaze.
I think that may have been the first time a painting was rejected from the Salon on the basis of gaze.