Fair Women , by Wm Sharp Part I
Having done with the fair Sunderland and her rival, "la belle Hamilton," I studied one by one the other pictures selected by my friends. Who could not admire the Zurbaran, masterly as a Velasquez? And Titian's Catarina is admitted by all to be worthy of her fame. The Luini, a fine example of mysterious haunting beauty of expression, will appeal to all who love the type of which the rarest presentment has been given to us by Leonardo. Of the more modern works, Romney's Louisa Cathcart is likely enough first to win the wandering fancy. Sweet she is, and gracious, and lovely in her young dignity of wifehood, this bonnie Lady Mansfield. But there is beauty, too rare and convincing beauty, in Hoppner's Miranda. Who was "Miranda"? All that the catalogue tells is that she was the wife of Michael Angelo Taylor, M.P. Michael Angelo, it may be added, was a member of Boodle's. That alone meant social distinction. But he was also an intimate acquaintance of the Prince Regent. On a memorable night in 1811, on the occasion of the drafting out the reply to the Address of the Houses of Parliament, George P.R. was kindly put to bed by his solicitous companions, and Michael Angelo wrote out the princely response, while Sheridan and William Adam "paced opposite sides of the room till each could find an opportunity of whispering to Michael that the other was the damnedest rogue existing." As for Mrs. Michael, she was persona gratissima at Carlton House, where the Prince, half drunk or half sober, radiated the glory of the world. She might have been a sister of Mrs. Jane Middleton or of Nell Gwynne, rather than that Miranda whom Shakespeare drew in rainbow gold and touched with immortality. But even as an impossible Miranda she is well worthy the homage of admiration. As a painting, this is one of Hoppner's triumphs. Its beauty, its grace, its freedom, its charm, are unmistakable. Here, and in at least a score of other canvases on the line of his ablest achievement, he proves what a high place in English art is his due--a long-deferred and even now not often frankly granted due.
There still remained the strange selections of Fair Women on the part of my literary counsellor. One of these is certainly not without attraction, and probably the lady whom Van Somer painted was more than merely comely. She has fine eyes, and there is a look upon her face as though the best light of beauty--that of happiness--was often seen there. A brave dame this Lady Derby was--a "brick," as my friend called her. She is sometimes spoken of as a type of the heroic woman--an aristocratic Grace Darling, an English Kate Barlas; [Catherine Douglas, who, for her heroic attempt to save James I. of Scotland by barring the door of the royal chamber with her naked arm, received the sobriquet of "Kate Barlass." This is the origin, it is said, of the Scottish surname "Barlas." Kate Barlas is immortalized in literature in The King's Tragedy.] but honour to whom honour is due, and so let it be remembered that the wife of the seventh Lord Derby,
who was so famous for her heroic defence of Latham House against Fairfax and his Parliamentarians, was a Frenchwoman, Charlotte de la Tremouille by name. Neither disaster nor the death of her nearest and dearest quelled her indomitable spirit. She could not prevent the execution of her husband, but she could maintain his loyalty in death and his loyalty in life to the king. The Parliamentarian chiefs were anxious to make her a prisoner, either for exile or restraint; but she was in her own lands, and no man durst betray her. In time she made good her escape to the Isle of Man, and it must have been a consolation to her pride that she was the last person who submitted formally to the authority of the Parliament. It is pleasant to know that so staunch a Royalist not only escaped the enmity of her foes during the period of the Commonwealth, but lived to see the Restoration, and to have a message of gracious courtesy from the King, who had come "intill his ain" again.
But at the Queen Mary I admit I looked unmoved. It is not a genuine "Mary," in the first place; as to that there can hardly be any question. But over and above this, it is doubtful if there is a portrait of the Queen of Scots in existence which any Mariolater could have pleasure in looking at. There are certain women we never wish to see except in mental vision. Some readers may recollect that Sapphic fragment preserved by HephAEstion which tells us simply that "Mnasidica is more shapely than the tender Gyrinno." Fortunate Mnasidica, who has haunted the minds of men ever since, not once enslaved by sculptor or painter of any period! Beautiful shapeliness, that none can gainsay! Painters who give us Helens and Cleopatras and Queen Marys seem quite unaware of the heavy handicap they put upon their productions. And so it goes without saying that all portraits of Mary of Scotland are disappointing, from that of the earliest anonymous limner to that of Mr Lavery. There is not one of us blase' enough to withstand the cruel disillusion of what, by way of adding insult to injury, is called an authentic likeness. Poor Mary! She has paid bitterly in innumerable portraits for the wonderful rumour of her beauty in her own day. No man who respects himself should commit lEse majestE by staring and commenting upon this much pictorially misrepresented Queen. It does indeed make one glad that a few other young ladies famous for their beauty were spared the ignominy of pictorial immortality!
As for Lady Ellenborough, surely it must be admitted that even the art of Sir Thomas Lawrence does not bestow beauty upon her. Doubtless she had a smile that would unlock prison doors, eyes that would melt a Marat or a Danton, a mien and manner, an expression and charm, that made her irresistible to most men. But, on canvas, one can see no more than that she looks like a woman who had immense vitality. Otherwise, I sympathize with my friend. The lady's story is certainly a remarkable one. Miss Jane Elizabeth Digby must have been a vivacious damsel, even while still a schoolgirl and learning, in the manner of her time, to spell execrably. She was one of the fortunate women born with the invisible sceptre. If she had been an actress, she would have been the empress of the stage; if she had been a demi-mondaine she would have been the Aspasia of her day; if she had been a queen, she would have been a Catherine of Russia. Again, she was one of those impetuous people who have no time to be virtuous. We know next to nothing of her girlhood, yet we may be sure that she set her nursemaid a bad example in flirtation, and shocked her governess, if she had one, by many abortive intrigues. No doubt her friends thought that she would settle down and be good when she became the wife of the Earl of Ellenborough. They argued that what a high-spirited Miss Digby would do a proudspirited Countess of Ellenborough would disdain. But Miss Jane Elizabeth had, she considered, come into the world to enjoy herself in her own way. Not long after her marriage she permitted the too marked attention of Prince Schwartzenberg, and this brought about a duel between that gentleman and Lord Ellenborough. Neither duellist was killed; and the only result was that not long afterwards the lady made up her mind to go off with Prince Schwartzenberg. After a time Lord Ellenborough died, and then his widow married the Prime Minister of Bavaria. That a genuine passion for this strange woman animated the Bavarian noble is clear not only from his having offered marriage to a lady of such doubtful reputation, but from the tragic circumstance that, when she tired of him in turn, and set forth once more on her dauntless quest of man, he committed suicide. She had several episodes between this date and that when she found herself in Syria, and espoused to an Arab Sheik of Damascus. It would be incredible that she died in his arms in the desert were it not for the additional fact that she was at that moment contemplating an elopement with her handsome dragoman. Miss Digby was, certainly, not one of those " beauties " towards whom--as Gautier advises a man, in a sentence already given here--one should go straight as a bullet. Instead of our seizing "her by the tip of her wing, politely but firmly like a gendarme," she would be much more likely to seize us. She was unreasonable, we will admit, but then, with Mme. de Girardin, she might exclaim, "Be reasonable!" which means: No longer hope to be happy." Obviously she was of those essentially feline women of whom Edgar de Meilhan speaks when he says that "tigers, whatever you may say, are bad companions." "With regard to tigers," he adds, "we tolerate only cats, and then they must have velvet paws." Neither Lord Ellenborough, nor the Bavarian Prime Minister, nor the Arab Sheik, nor any other of her special friends, would deny that a little more velvet on the paws of the sprightly Jane Elizabeth would have been an advantage.
There are always women of this kind, who exercise an imperious and inexplicable sway over the male imagination, or, to be more exact, over the imagination of certain males. It is no use to reason with the bondager. With the King in Love's Labour's Lost he can but reply:
We are fortunate, no doubt, who never hear this music, a bewildering strain from the heart of the Venusberg. Rather that "silver chiming," which is "the music of the bells of wedded love." Poets are terrible romanticists in the matter of the affections. They are the most faithful of lovers to some fair impossible She; but they are apt to have wandering eyes in the ordinary way of life. Too many behave, even on the threshold of the Ideal, in the reprehensible manner of Samuel Pepys when that famous chronicler and incurable old pagan found himself in church one fine day. "Being wearied," he writes, "turned into St. Dunstan's Church, where I heard an able sermon of the minister of the place; and stood by a pretty modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again--which, seeing, I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design. And then I fell to gaze upon another pretty maid in a pew close to me, and she on me; and I did go about to take her by the hand, which she suffered a little and then withdrew. So the sermon ended." It is to be feared that Pepys had not realized the very common truth, which may be given in the guise of a remembered phrase from Evan Harrington, - "Both Ale and Eve seem to speak imperiously to the love of man. See that they be good, see that they come in season."
If all the Fair Women of Picture-World were to be brought together, it would be made quite clear that the one thing that in a thousand instances escapes the painter is expression. Expression is the morningglory of beauty. A few men in all ages have understood this, Leonardo and the great Italians pre-eminently. It is to the credit of many of the most eccentric "impressionists" that they have wearied of conventional similitude, and striven to give something of the real self of the person whose likeness is being transferred to canvas.
These, with Bastien Lepage, have realized that "we must change our ways if any of our work is to live." "We must try," adds that notable artist of whom Mrs. Julia Cartwright has recently given us so excellent a biography--"we must try to see and reproduce that inmost radiance which lies at the heart of things, and is the only true beauty, because it is the life."
That inmost radiance! To discern it, to apprehend it, to reveal it to others, that is indeed the quintessential thing in all art.
But the spectator must not only make allowances for the painter of a portrait; he must himself exercise a certain effort. In a word, he must bring the glow of imagination into play, he must let his mental atmosphere be nimble and keenly receptive. He must remember that while portraiture may have verisimilitude of a kind, it can very rarely simulate that loveliest thing in a woman's beauty--expression. He must discern in the canvas a light that is not there. He must see the colour come and go upon the face, must see the eyes darken or gleam, the lips move, the smile just about to come forth, and if possible the inner radiance that in many vivid and fine natures seems to dwell upon the forehead, though too fugitive ever to be caught, save as it were for a moment unawares.