Reading visual art: 13 Hair in secular paintings

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Woman Having Her Hair Combed (c 1885), pastel, 73 × 59 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

The first of these two articles looking at the reading of head (as opposed to facial or body) hair in paintings concentrated on religious works. Its significance in secular motifs is more widespread and often greater, encompassing contradictory meanings.

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi), The Birth of Venus (c 1486), tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.9 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. WikiArt.
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi) (c 1445-1510), The Birth of Venus (c 1486), tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.9 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. WikiArt.

In Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c 1486), she stands in an over-sized clamshell, naked and beautiful, her long tresses blowing in the breeze while crucially ‘covering her modesty’.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Venus Rising from the Sea (1866), oil on panel, 55.5 × 44.5 cm, Israel Museum מוזיאון ישראל, Jerusalem. Wikimedia Commons.

In Gustave Moreau’s Venus Rising from the Sea from 1866, nearly four centuries later, her very long, thick hair cascades down the rock behind her, through her right hand, and over her left arm, glistening in the light like a gold-encrusted wrap. A slip of diaphanous fabric has to stand in for what Botticelli did with her hair.

Hair was of great importance to the Pre-Raphaelites, who were sometimes criticised for its over-emphasis to the point of it becoming an obsession.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Awakening Conscience (1851-53), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Sir Colin and Lady Anderson through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1976), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, painted during the period 1851-53, employs a mirror to show us the back of the woman’s head, and backlighting to bring out the colour and length of her hair.

Beata Beatrix c.1864-70 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Beata Beatrix (c 1864–70), oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple 1889), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, from about 1864-70, Beatrice Portinari’s head is thrown back and backlit to transform her hair into a halo, signalling her imminent death.

Jules LeFebvre (1834–1912), The Grasshopper (1872), oil on canvas, 186.7 x 123.8 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

As the Pre-Raphaelites developed more overtly erotic roles for hair, academic painters like Jules LeFebvre did too. His painting of a sultry young woman titled The Grasshopper, or Cicada from 1872 also refers to a woman street singer, whose dark hair emphasises her nakedness.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Vampire (1893), oil on canvas, 77 × 98 cm, Munchmuseet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

The couple in Edvard Munch’s Vampire (1893) are embracing, and the hair of this femme fatale spreads out like tentacles over the man she is about to devour. Only later did Munch give this painting the lame and euphemistic title of A Woman Kissing the Back of a Man’s Neck.

Hair also needs maintenance. Grooming and brushing the hair is almost sufficient to form its own sub-genre.

Gerard ter Borch (1617–1681), Mother Combing the Hair of Her Child (Hunting for Lice) (c 1652-53), oil on panel, 33.5 x 29 cm, Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Gerard ter Borch’s Mother Combing the Hair of Her Child shows a regular domestic routine, expressed more bluntly in its alternative title of Hunting for Lice (c 1652-53). The mother is looking intently at her young daughter’s hair for traces of lice and nits, and running a fine-tooth comb through it to remove any.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Women Combing Their Hair (c 1875-6), oil on paper mounted on canvas, 32.4 x 46 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

The three Women Combing Their Hair in Edgar Degas’ painting from about 1875-76 don’t seem in the least concerned with hunting lice, more with preserving their appearance. Their rich brown hair contrasts against plain white chemises.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Woman Having Her Hair Combed (c 1885), pastel, 73 × 59 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

As an alternative, this pastel of a Woman Having Her Hair Combed from ten years later shows a maid doing the same task. The woman sits upright, her head thrown back, hands on her hips, and eyes closed, as she enjoys the frisson of her maid’s combing.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Braiding her Hair (1888), oil on canvas, 56 x 49 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Braiding her Hair (1888) is one of Christian Krohg’s variations on the theme of motherhood in poverty, and reminiscent of ter Borch’s nit combing. Both the mother and her daughter face away from the viewer, rendering them anonymous, and both wear plain old clothing, in a barren room.