Monday, 4 August 2008

The Victory of Faith

The Victory of Faith (detail)

St George Hare
The Victory of Faith (c.1890-91)

St George Hare, (1857 – 1933) was an Irish painter who lived and worked in England. He trained at the South Kensington School of art and made a respectable living as a portraitist. He was patronised by the wealthy Hoare family, who were bankers. He painted a series of family portraits for them, and in fact the family estate of Stourhead is one of the few places where Hare's portraits are to be seen by the public today.

He also specialised in painting nudes and semi-nudes in religious or allgorical settings. I particularly like the NGV's straight-faced comment on the plaque beside this painting: "The depiction of naked women in chains seemed to hold a special interest for Hare, and he returned to the subject frequently".
The Gilded Cage
Hare's more well-known works of this nature include "'Miserere Domini - Christians in Prison", depicting two bound women and a child in a dungeon, and "The Adieu", a sentimental scene showing a woman who has shed all earthly encumbrances (including, of course, her clothes), about to be carried off by a rather macho angel. My personal favourite is "The Gilded Cage", in which a damsel in distress (and nothing else) is bound, Andromeda-like, to an opulent marble column, awaiting her fate.

"The Victory of Faith" was donated anonymously to the NGV in 1905. It depicts two young women asleep on the straw in a dungeon. They are naked and chained to the wall, on which a cross is chiselled. Ostensibly they are two Christian martyrs who are due to be thrown to the lions the next day.
The Victory of Faith

Dr F.W. Boreham, the famous Baptist minister who wrote editorials for The Hobart Mercury and The Melbourne Age, was full of praise for the serene faith of the victims in the painting. He declared that their nudity was merely emblematic of the fact that as Christian martyrs, they had been stripped of everything.

The NGV publication, "19th Century Painting and Sculpture", comments that "F.W. Boreham … could not have known that the source of Hare's image, with its moralizing title, was quite probably a contemporary photograph: a piece of late Victorian erotica."

Despite their repressive social norms, or perhaps because of them, the Victorians had a penchant for erotic art, but sexualized subject matter had to be represented in the guise of classic or religious themes.

A popular theme is that of the captive woman, which eroticised the idea of violated innocence. Rather than being seen as a sexual object, the subject could be likened to an example of purity and chastity: the girl's nudity was not her fault, but that of her captors.
The Greek Slave

An excellent illustration of this is "The Greek Slave" by Hiram Powers, which quickly became one of his most famous and most popular works. The crucifix on her wrist and the bit of Turkish carpet on which she is standing proclaims her to be a Christian girl being sold into the exotic world of the harem. "The Greek Slave" was considered to be "an extremely moral nude" and miniature copies of the statue were immensely popular.

Another recurrent theme, as exemplified in The Victory of Faith, is that of two (or more) nude women together. Victorian men seemed to find lesbian erotisicm just as fascinating as their modern counterparts do. (I am told that lesbian dating websites are full of teenage boys pretending to be lesbians so they can exchange sexy chat with other teenage boys pretending to be lesbians. Meanwhile the unfortunate genuine lesbians can't get a date!)
Les Dormeuses by Courbet
Most of these works with a classical or religious bent were publicly displayed and acclaimed for the fine works of art that they are. The Pre-Raphaelites fairly churned them out.
However, there was an oeuvre of work, less acceptable to the general public, that remained pretty much sub rosa. Victorian gentlemen of means commissioned artists to create erotic works for their private collections, to be enjoyed only among a select group of friends. One of the most celebrated collectors of erotic art was Khalil Bey, a Turkish diplomat to Paris and London in the late 19th century.
The Origin of the World by Courbet

He commisssioned and owned such famous paintings as Ingres' "Turkish Bath" and Courbet's "Les Dormeuses", but perhaps the most daring painting in his erotica collection was Courbet's notorious "The Origin of the World". Khalil Bey kept it behind a green velvet curtain in his private dressing room, showing it only to his closest associates.
The painting disappeared after Bey's death, its wherabouts surrounded by obfuscation and secrecy: it was, for a time, in the private collection of Baron Ferenc Hatvany in Budapest, hidden in a double frame behind a a second Courbet, "A Castle in the Snow". It then passed through the hands of several private collectors, the last of which was the renowned psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. He concealed it in his office behind a sliding panel, on which was a painting by his brother-in-law.

In 1988, the painting was shown for the first time in public, at a Courbet retrospective in New York. Since 1995 it has been on public display at the Musée d’Orsay. Ironically, it hangs in the same room as Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe”, which caused a furore in its heyday for being "indecent". (Nobody ever called "The Origin of the World" indecent, probably because nobody ever got to see it! Even Courbet himself was too cautious to include it in the record of his paintings, and kept the details in a private notebook.)

The Magazine of Art (London) described St George Hare in 1900 as being popular with that section of the population which enjoys a "pleasant treatment of a pretty motive" and there can be no better description of The Victory of Faith than that.

"19th Century Painting and Sculpture" - NGV Publication
"The Improvident Turk", New York Times, February 17, 1879


Lexcen said...

Found your site via WASP magazine. Excellent article. I've been trying to put together (as a project) an article on the history of the nude in art. Maybe you have some interesting references?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that my great great Uncle St. George would be pleased that his art is still being admired and appreciated. He was also a co-founded the Chelsea Arts Club in London (circa 1892) on the advice of his friend James MacNeil Whistler, whom he met at the Royal Academy of Art in London.