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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.