Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Adam, Eve, and the young female artist

I was asking my students to point out for me, or find for me if they could, depictions of Adam and Eve by women artists prior to the nineteenth century (I’d thought of Suzanne Valadon). My notion was that the subject was perhaps one that involved too much naked man to be quite feasible for the woman artist to undertake, at least until the 19th century.

But I failed completely to think of one special category of female artist that valiantly, methodically and with epic concentration undertook the subject time and again: little girls working their samplers.

Why Adam and Eve were so favoured as a design element in the sampler is worth pondering. Paradise allowed lots of attendant animals, and they were fun to stitch. Adam and Eve were part of children’s iconography – in part because their homes might not feature much pictorial material (a less pious household might have some ballad sheets with woodblock prints pasted up on the privy walls). But Adam and Eve popped up everywhere – often they appear on title pages of Bibles. For the German market at least, cut out and paste Genesis I-III pictures were available.

One could take a grave view of this, that the little daughters of Eve were being made to focus on her role in bringing sin into the world. It is possible that some of the earlier women writers about Adam and Eve – I am thinking of Lucy Aitken, and possibly further back to women of the 17th century like Lucy Hutchinson and Ester Sowernam - may have had to demonstrate their skill with the needle in working Eve and her husband , and what they slowly worked onto the linen they also stitched into their minds as a subject they’d want to return to and say more about.

But there may have been, short of effects of indoctrination, some fun to be had in working these figures. It was probably fun to be judicious about doing the naked figures with suitable decency, and the serpent was a joy to work, wriggling in the tree.

On the wonderful Google Art Project, several such samplers can be seen. On the 18th of April 1737 Margaret Grant began her work, aged just nine. Perhaps the materials for making her sampler were a birthday present. She will use silk and linen threads in many colours, it’s a big project, with an outlay involved. It’s easy to imagine that work on the sampler inaugurated the girl’s own sewing box, and her mother passing on some material, but also buying new to set the project off to a good start.

But Margaret, obviously a painstaking child, went far beyond the usual proof of being able to read in displaying the conventional elements in a sampler of an alphabet and her name: she included a whole poem

Neither the Google Art Project nor the Museum that holds the item seems to have identified the poem, but it is easily found, being Francis Quarles’ ‘On Adam’: 

How soon, poore Adam, was thy Freedome lost!
Forfeit to death ere thou hadst time to boast;
Before thy Triumph, was thy Glory done,
Betwixt a rising and a setting Sun:
How soon that ends, that should have ended never!
Thine eyes nere slept, untill they slept for ever.

The poem was first published in Quarles’ Divine Fancies in 1632, but that was an astonishingly popular work, going through edition after edition. (On EEBO I see 1632, 33, 41, 52, 53, 57, 58, 60, 64, 65, 71, 75, there might have been more, clearly if a 17th century household had a book of verse, it was quite likely to be this). Resonantly gloomy, the poem briefly expresses (and finds relish in expressing) the commonly agreed view that Adam and Eve fell on their first day in Paradise. It’s not a view that enhances anyone’s sense of God’s sense of proportion, but it seems as though anxiety about Adam and Eve sleeping together, and immediately conceiving a child while sinless, alarmed everyone to thinking it was all over between 9am and 3pm (or similar). There was also that inveterate desire to read the Old Testament typologically, so the sequence of events in the original sin must match the time taken for Christ to die on the Cross, in redeeming that sin.

Lord; if our Father Adam could not stay 
In his upright perfection, one poor day; 
How can it be expected, we have power 
To hold out Siege, one scruple of an hour …

exclaims Quarles in his Meditation 21 (“See, how the crafty Serpent, twists and windes / Into the brest of man!”, etc).

 A nine year old slowly stitches out this horrible ‘wisdom’, product of so much hard-driven extrapolation from the Bible. Quarles, wanting a strongly conclusive final couplet, leaves Adam dead and unredeemed, a first man who lost his freedom before he could formulate an appreciation of it, and who never knew any triumph.

Well, at least it wasn’t a verse about Eve…