A Woman Half-Naked and a Man Fully Dressed
Entry 37 July 10, 2016
They are next to one another on page 351 of The Louvre: All the Paintings. They appear in two works by the same artist, Jacob van Loo (1615-1670), in the small format (here 1.5 by 2 inches) that is used for most of the paintings in the book. The man isn’t only fully dressed but rather ostentatiously covered right up to the chin, whereas the woman has no clothing, only a drapery on which she’s leaning, with the fingers of her left hand supporting a fold of it, perhaps to help the cloth cover a small portion of her naked leg. The man looks out confidently, and his left hand is extended toward the viewer. The woman’s head is lowered to her throat, and her right hand is resting just above her breasts in such a way that the right one is concealed; these two gestures suggest she is in some measure acting self-conscious and perhaps ashamed of the way her body is exposed.
The titles of the two paintings demonstrate a further distinction between the two subjects. The man is identified by profession, by name, and by importance of post. His portrait is entitled The Painter Michel Corneille the Elder (1601-1664), Rector of the Académie Royale de Peinture de Paris from 1656 (ca. 1663). The woman is defined as an anonymous representative of her sex, and the painting labeled as only a preliminary work, in the title Study of a Half-Naked Woman (ca. 1650). A visit to the Atlas Database on the English-language website of the Louvre adds the further information that the portrait of Corneille was the painting van Loo presented to the Academy on his entry in 1663, while the information on the second painting adds only that the woman pictured was probably a well-known model painted by many of van Loo’s contemporaries in Amsterdam; her name is not given.
Pointing out the juxtaposition isn’t meant to suggest that the Louvre’s collection contains only clothed males and naked females. Even in the very small number of paintings I’ve been able to include in the blog we’ve had naked males and clothed females; for example, Entry 24 includes a clothed Diana looking down on the naked body of Orion. It is an intriguing question, though, whether we might be able by tracking the incidence of nudity to learn something about the attitudes of past ages on such contemporary issues as gender identity. For now, though, the juxtaposition of the two van Loo paintings is, as Freud would say, just a juxtaposition.
Working through the Louvre book has made me think all sorts of things about looking at paintings, with most of them having to do with the problem of whether any experience can ever compete with the experience of being in the presence of the painting itself. In the area of juxtaposition, a gallery visit seems to have quite the advantage over my book of reproductions. A gallery wall and a page spread of the book both usually group a number of paintings, often by some commonalty such as artist or school or historical period, but not too surprisingly the impressions made by images next to one another are likely to be more involving in the gallery, where all the details of the works are easy to examine. The small-format reproductions tend to swallow up details; this is particularly true of landscapes, whose human figures are often hard to make out even with a magnifying glass. This is one thing, I believe, that caused the two van Loo paintings to attract my attention; quite by chance, it seems, two very different and yet very resonant images happen to have found their way next to each other, and I happened to notice them.
In previous blog entries, I’ve sometimes used juxtaposition. For example, Entry 32 examines two paintings of Lot and his Daughters; in Entry 24, mentioned above, I pointed out two paintings in which the dynamic of male power and female subordination was overturned: Diana and Orion’s Corpse (ca. 1685) and Juno and Argus (ca. 1685). The two paintings by van Loo provided me with a ready-made juxtaposition of images, one I decided to write about because it gave me, yet again, an opportunity to consider the relative merits of a gallery visit and a visit to the pages of my Louvre book.
Undoubtedly, the ultimate source of whatever value I find in my book and in online resources is the Louvre collection itself; equally true is the uniqueness of experiencing that collection in person. The reverse, however, is also true. My next in-person encounter with the Louvre collection (may it be soon) will be informed and enriched by the access to knowledge of the collection I have gained from my Louvre book.
I’m glad, too, that I decided I would usually write in the blog about paintings that were either the only work by an artist in the Louvre collection, or one from a small group. Van Loo has four paintings on page 351. Looking at my Louvre book has made me determined to take time when I’m in the Louvre again to pause with every painting rather than hurry by most of them in favor of a must-see work in another gallery. My progress through the book is slow, but I’m determined to see all 3,022 of the paintings presented in it. I feel like such a resolution calls for a count-down: 1,250 done, 1,772 to go.