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Michael Field's La Gioconda: Redefining Female Beauty In Art

Alix Caissie and Nicole Farrell

Ryerson University

Original artwork by Maggie Hill
Edith Emma Cooper and Katherine Harris Bradley @
Michael Field
Art in the Victorian era was primarily focused on the importance of aesthetics and beauty for beauty’s sake. Women quickly became revered for their physical beauty and thus were the inspirations for many works of art. Since women were the source of inspiration, the majority of writers and artists were male, and viewed the female form as something to be admired through poetry and imagery. During this time, a poet named Michael Field became prominent in the literary circle for poems inspired by the female form. Although on the surface it appears that Michael Field was just another male writer, in actuality the name was a pseudonym for two females who were in a relationship together. Edith Emma Cooper and Katherine Harris Bradley chose to write under a male name because at this time, women were oppressed and not taken seriously in the art and literary sphere. In choosing to write under the pseudonym of a male alias, they were able to circumvent public gender criticism, and furthermore allow for the possibility to push beyond what was considered acceptable from female writers.@ Through this, they were able to explore and reinvent perspectives on art which to some extent allowed for their work to be read without bias against their gender.
    Marion Thain describes Michael Field as “a created and creative space of lyric production,”3 which defines the duo not as two individuals working in tandem, but as a complete and separate entity which functions with the purpose of creating singular works of poetry and drama. Although conducive to their own relationship as lovers, this sense of uniformity was controversial within the Victorian context, as it devalued the importance placed on singular authority and individualism. 4This focus on singularity reflects the dominant male perspective and opinion on art which this essay will explore in further detail in reference to the painting La Gioconda by Leonardo Da Vinci. La Gioconda was painted in the early 1600s but became a part of popular culture in the 1800s due to the accessible reproduction of the image via the printing press. As one of the most famous images of a female, much has been written about her beauty. In exploring the various perspectives, it has become apparent that when viewed through the eyes of a male, La Gioconda becomes inherently sexualized and in turn victimized because the observer demonstrates power over the objectified female image. In the poem “La Gioconda” by Michael Field, there is a transfer of power in which the female image is interpreted as having dominance which contradicts the more traditional male view. This essay will analyze Walter Pater’s essay on La Gioconda and his interpretation of the female image as both an idealized and sexualized object in contrast to Field’s perspective on reconfiguring the sexualization of the male observer and transferring dominance from the male observer to the female image.
Observing La Gioconda
Taken at the Louvre in Paris, France
Lady Lilith (replica) (reproduction)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith
Typical sexualized representation of women
The physical female body was praised as being the ultimate in beauty, but the mental, emotional and intellectual aspects of women were thusly oppressed. The focus on bodily beauty overshadowed the women themselves and turned their physicality into a commodity. Many women in paintings were portrayed as being “a young girl crying silently, a suffering Madonna, asleeping prostitute...” which are “images of passivity and subservience.” @Although the focus was on the outward appearance of women, they were not painted in neutral or positive settings or situations. Instead, they were represented in positions of submissiveness and had little power or authority over their selves and bodies. The female image was desired and lusted after, and even idealized and made unrealistic, but was not respected. This meant that the power lied with the male observer who was not only oppressing women’s voices in literature and art, but also degrading their worth by manipulating their physical images. Since males were sexualizing the female form and expressing the importance of beauty, women were seen as objects of sexualized wanting and portrayed as passive, submissive, and weak. In an article exploring how women are portrayed in Victorian art, it is argued that male speakers impose their own voices and opinions upon women, thus silencing women from having their own ideas and also compressing their entire aura into one fixed meaning.@ This objectivist approach towards women was the traditionalist perspective during this era, and Field set out to explore and redefine gender influence in aesthetics. The male perspective is incredibly narrow as its focus is purely on physical aesthetics, whereas Field’s goal was to create a more subjective view that would take into account the complexity of feelings and emotions behind the art form.
Published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane in 1892,@ Michael Field’s Sight and Song is a collection of poems which represents their collective position as female writers working within the Victorian era. On the surface, the short volume is made up of thirty-one poems that depict a wide range of paintings which were viewed during their tours around some of Europe’s best art galleries. However, while this selection of paintings do not reflect a specific theme, there is a notable concentration on those which centre around the female form, such as the The Birth of Venus, A Portrait and La Gioconda. This focus directed towards the study of the female image brings forth the true intentions of Field’s work which was to redirect the female aesthetic experience and moreover, provide a critique against their contemporaries and the traditional interpretation of female objectification. Furthermore, as Ehnenn argues, it is through this observation of famous female representations that Field’s poems “reclaim previously objectified paintings and resists contemporary notions of sex and gender.” @This is presented within the overall context of Sight and Song through the removal of the actual image from the translation.
            As Lysack notes, the collection forgoes the use of images and instead values the use of text.@Unlike traditional interpretation of a figure, as seen for example in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poems which were accompanied by visual representation, Field’s denial of the image secures their position of non-objectivity. Through this denial, Field demands that the audience participate in the reconstruction of “an absent image through words,”@which allows for the participation of the audience in viewing the figure. The use of non-visualized poems to describe not only visual, but well known objects, forces the viewer to re-imagine the image not in terms of the innate continuity of the male gaze, but as being outside of its traditional and historical context. Field then reclaims the image through this interpretation, and places her as an independent figure, which can be viewed through multiple interpretations and without direct objectification.