Friday, April 21, 2006

The Proposition: and a woman's reply

As we are interested in the notion of women using art to reply to a male exponent of the art form, this painting by Judith Leyster of 1631, ‘The Proposition’. It took me a while to re-find it on the invaluable Web Gallery of Art, and all I know (and vaguely remembered) about it and how it has been interpreted comes from there, where it says (with my italics):

“An intriguing painting … offers a view of an old man displaying coins to a dramatically lit young woman sewing by lamplight. His hand resting on her shoulder suggests that he is not offering payment for her labour as a seamstress. Is he making a proposition for sex which she virtuously ignores? This interpretation has been offered, and with good reason. The theme had been used by northern artists since the Renaissance … To be sure, Leyster's young woman has nothing in common with the readily seductable recipients of offers of purchased love depicted by earlier artists. Leyster's young woman steadfastly remains occupied with her sewing, a model of domestic virtue. If this reading of the subject is accepted, the painting can be viewed as Leyster's critical response to the salacious treatment of the subject by male artists who demean woman by representing them as sex objects exploited by men. It also would qualify the picture as Leyster's only painting that treats a feminist issue.”

It is an interesting painting, its slightly off-balanced quality helping to make it feel to the viewer (too) that the man simply should not be there. He comes from behind her, black to her white, and encroaches. His effrontery is captured in his intrusive stance, the suggestion of his forced smile, his raised eyebrows: he will chink those coins to get her to look at them, a good handful too, he thinks. She has gone rigid, and tries to keep her focus on her work, but into the light of that very naked flame he puts what he thinks will buy her. You can read her tension, her resentment. If she looks at the coins, she is close to the flame; for her virtuous labours are not well paid.

A dear friend of mine told me that once, when she was dancing at a disco, a moneyed fellow student, scarcely known to her, approached her with, as she put it, ‘a straight cash offer’. Of course, I asked her how much it was, but this she was not willing to disclose, whether for fear of creating a bidding war, or because the sum was ultimately unimpressive (for she was a vibrant young woman) I don’t know. Dare I guess that any woman in the position of this eminently respectable, neatly coiffed and immaculate girl will have at least some curiosity as to just what has been offered for her ultimate favours? That is why she must not even look at his hand, for then she is on the way to putting a value on herself, and she knows that she is beyond price. She can smell the drink on his breath. Go away, greasy man!
on the Web Gallery of Art gives Gerard Terborch doing the same kind of theme: though in his picture, the girl is assessing the money offered.

1 comment:

Emily said...

Neatly coiffed she may be, but she’s not exactly beautiful. Although perhaps this judgment is partially, and wrongly construed as a result of the miniature picture, and the fact our lady here has her head demurely bowed down, thereby making it difficult to really see her face. The man is not exactly old either is he, if he has a head of healthy looking hair? Although you may have a point about it needing a good wash!

There’s something distinctly annoying about this picture. You note she shows her defiance by ignoring him, but I wish our artist had shown a picture where she gives him a sound smack. But I suppose our moralists would then have her to be a violent mad woman.