Women and the female form have long been the subject of the male artist’s attention. An interesting theme to notice throughout the history of men studying women is the perspective and attitude each artist takes regarding the women they study. Many of these different attitudes and perspectives seek to add narrative value to the piece by placing the woman being studied within some sort of socially constructed role. Other works simply use the woman as a resource, either as mandated by her societal role or by the artist’s use of her. Many pieces comment on the morality of the woman being studied without drawing attention to the morality and decision-making of the artist who made it. Throughout nearly all pieces that study women from the male perspective, the viewer is expected to take the perspective of the male artist and often engage in judging the woman either for her social value, morality, or even aesthetic beauty. Part of the reason for this was that the majority of art viewers and appreciators throughout history were male. These trends have most prominently been seen in Europe in the period stretching from the Renaissance to the Victorian era, although remnants of it are palpable even today.
Guido Reni, Charity. Date unknown, Oil on Canvas. 1974.348
This Baroque piece by Guido Remi considers the female in the role of the charitable and motherly figure. The female subject willingly and without question offers up her body as a resource to three young male infants, who may not even be her own children. Her left breast is bared so that one of the infants can breastfeed. Her eyes directly engage a second child sitting on a ledge next to her. On her lap lays a third sleeping child. The viewer is expected to look upon this female approvingly, as her adoption of the role of mother and of the children is what is encouraged by the artist and 17th century Italy.
Charles Le Brun, Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family. 1660, Oil on Canvas. 2014.250
This piece by Le Brun is less of a perspective from the artist himself but more of a perspective from the man pictured within the painting. Everhard Jabach would have commissioned this painting and been influential in its structure which shows him as the head of his household, with his wife sitting by his side. Her gaze is fixed loyally upon her husband, and her children surround her, leaning against her for support.
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman. 1909, Bronze. 1996.403.6
Picasso’s seven-year fling with Fernande Olivier was passionate and essential for his growth as an artist. Many of his famous works were based on Fernande’s figure, including his Head of a Woman. Once Picasso reached the fame he had hoped for, however, he left Fernande, but continued to use her form for many of his works. His treatment of Fernande was not unlike how one would treat a resource. Once he had no more practical use for her, he disappeared from her life. Although the piece itself does not necessarily reveal Picasso’s perspective of the woman depicted, the story behind the piece certainly does.
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Broken Eggs. 1756, Oil on Canvas. 20.155.8
Greuze’s Broken Eggs is a Genre Piece, which conveys a story with a moral message. The painting depicts the loss of virginity of a servant girl, symbolized by the broken eggs that lay on the floor. Now that the girl has lost her virginity, she is shamed and despondent. The perspective given is in accordance with the moral values of the time in which it was painted. The artist and the viewer engage in silent disapproval of the moral complications shown within the painting, the brunt of which lies upon the girl, who, as the main subject, is placed front and center and painted with brighter colors than the other characters.
Max Klinger, Shame. 1887-1903, Etching and Aquatint. 52.586.1(9)
Shame is a depiction of a woman who has been abandoned by her lover, and is left alone to bear his child. The title of the piece is enough to give away the perspective. The artist views such a woman as shameful. Without the presence of her male significant other, the woman, according to the artist’s perspective, is incomplete and sombre. High-class women look down upon the abandoned subject from the wall above, showing their mirrored disapproval. Shame itself is symbolized as an otherworldly figure standing next to the woman, accompanying her.
Louis Surugue, Young Woman Chopping Onions. 1724, Engraving. 24.62.1656
The perspective given in Young Woman Chopping Onions by Louis Surugue is that of a predatory male, who surveys a potential sexual conquest in this kitchen maid. The piece is littered with suggestive imagery such as the hanging bird, the jug, the candlestick, and the mortar and pestle. The perspective is highly comparable to that of the man depicted in Greuze’s Broken Eggs. The young woman’s main purpose in this piece is to entertain the eyes of both the artist and male viewer.