in Art History
by Graham Fuller
from artnet news
A collection of paintings depicting kept women and mistresses may raise eyebrows since it implies a celebration of female sexuality as a commodity. That is not our intention. The works below offer a range of perspectives on the experience of maintaining a relationship with men who, for whatever reasons, find it convenient to pay for sex. Some of these women are regretful, some are empowered—in complete control of their circumstances. And one of them has just realized that she is going to break free and live her life on her own terms—society permitting, of course.
William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience (1853).
The most famous Victorian morality painting captures the moment when a young woman realizes that she’s ruining her life being kept, in nouveau-riche clutter, by her complacent lover. Hunt drew inspiration from Daniel Peggotty’s search for his niece Emily after she runs off with the seducer Steerforth in David Copperfield. The love nest in the Pre-Raphaelite work is crammed with symbols of the mistress’s entrapment— including a cat tormenting a bird and a clock under glass that indicates stopped time. Hunt’s fiancée, Annie Miller, was about 18 when she sat for the painting; they parted acrimoniously before they could marry. The male sitter may have been the artist Augustus Egg. His 1858 morality painting Past and Present—a triptych depicting the sundering of a family because of the wife’s adultery —was inspired by Hunt’s.
Tukioka Yoshitoshi , Looking Itchy – The Appearance of a Kept Woman of the Kansei Era (1789-1801) (1888).
The 19th century Japanese took pride in deciphering character traits from facial features. They would have been able to tell—more easily than contemporary Western art-lovers—the mindset of this voluptuous concubine drowsily emerging from a mosquito netting in a state of post-coital disarray. Number 16 in Yoshitoshi’s “Thirty-Two Aspects of Customs and Manners” series, the exquisitely nuanced “Looking Itchy” demonstrates his mastery of the Uyiko-e genre of woodblock printing and painting.
Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Grace Elliott (circa 1778).
The scandalous early career of the Scottish socialite and royal courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott (1758–1823) would have made a rollicking Fielding or Richardson novel. It involved teenage adultery, her kidnapping by her brother, and numerous liaisons with powerful men. The Prince of Wales, later George IV, possibly fathered her daughter. Gainsborough painted this portrait and a full-length study of the patrician beauty when she was about 20.
A decade later she was witnessing the French Revolution. Whereas Grace was a monarchist, her onetime lover Philippe Duke d’Orléans was a Jacobin who sought the king and queen’s executions. Despite Philippe’s Republican allegiance, he himself was guillotined as a Bourbon in 1793. Grace was imprisoned but survived the Terror. Napoleon allegedly proposed to her. She died in 1823, the rich mistress of the mayor of Ville-d’Avray. Lucy Russell played her in Eric Rohmer’s tense costume drama The Lady and the Duke (2001), based on her untrustworthy Revolution memoir.