Sunday, February 17, 2019

396. Beauties, Dancers, Whores

 The Eye That Never Sleeps 

     Pre-order my new novel,The Eye That Never Sleeps, from the publisher, Black Rose Writing, at a 15% discount from the retail price of $18.95; it will ship on the release date, May 2. E-book available soon after that.  Author's copies available now at $20.00 + postage.

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

Summary: The fourth title in my Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York, The Eye That Never Sleeps tells the story of the strangest friendship that ever was. Hired by the city’s bankers to apprehend the thief who is plundering their banks, private detective Sheldon Minick develops a friendship with his chief suspect, Nicholas Hale, an elegant young man-about-town who is in every way the sober Methodist detective’s opposite. They agree to a truce and undertake each to show the other the city that he knows and values.  Further adventures follow, including a cancan, a gore-splattered slaughterhouse, and a brothel with leap-frogging whores.  But when the truce ends, the inevitable finale comes in the dark midnight vaults of a bank.

Not a standard detective story.  Sheldon Minick is scared of women, wears elevator heels, and loves to belt out Methodist hymns at church.  He is fascinated by Nicholas Hale, who is young, dapper, free-spending -- a risk-taker, deft with women, bisexual.

                     Beauties, Dancers, Whores

         This post was inspired by three beauties at the Met, the scandalous Madame X, and a celestial dancer.

         I am fascinated by the works of the Spanish master Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (let’s just call him Goya), who painted portraits, genre paintings, heroic historical scenes, and grotesque works conveying the horrors of war.  Trouble is, you don’t find much of his work outside Spain.  So when, some years ago, the Met announced two Goya works on temporary loan from the museum of Lille in northern France, I rushed to see them.  (Lille?  Yes, Lille.  Because Napoleon encouraged provincial museums to expand their collections, and Lille managed to snag two Goyas).

         The two Goyas, though acquired by Lille separately, were a perfect pair, for they were about the same size and displayed elegantly dresses majas.  At the time I took maja to mean a belle or beauty, which seemed to fit the subjects of these paintings.  One shows two gauzily dressed young women sitting in a box at a bullfight, with two shadowy, mysterious gentlemen behind them.  

File:Goya (attr.), majas al balcon, 1800-10 ca. 01.JPG
Another version, with a balcony, at the Met.

The other painting shows a well-dressed young woman reading a letter, while her maid holds a parasol over her.  (A love letter, the museum notes suggested.)  On the ground near her, presenting a stark contrast, are several working-class women doing their laundry on a river bank.  Clearly, she is a lady, or a good imitation of one, and they are not.

         The two paintings made a great impression on me, and I wondered what kind of a reputation the majas might have.  This was, after all, Goya’s Spain of the early nineteenth century, far more conservative than post-revolutionary France.  And when, recently, I found an online definition of maja as “a Spanish belle of the lower class,” I was even more curious.  If these majas are of the working class, who paid for their finery?  The mysterious gentlemen escorts of the bullfight/balcony scene, one suspects. So are majas simply glorified whores?

         In the nineteenth-century U.S. it was risky for a respectable woman to draw undue attention to herself.  Middle-class wives didn’t want their names in the newspapers, and if they had their portrait painted, it was meant for display only in the home.  This was true even in sophisticated Paris, where the American artist John Singer Sargent shocked the public when he exhibited, in the 1884 Paris Salon, his Portrait of Madame X.  

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Here she is, with both shoulder straps intact.

The work showed a handsome woman in black satin, her head in profile, with one strap of her low-cut gown unfastened.  The subject of the dramatic painting, the world soon learned, was the American wife of the French banker Pierre Gautreau, noted for her beauty and her rumored infidelities.  The work was not painted on commission, but at a request from the artist.  The reaction to it was so negative that Mme Gautreau, who at first thought it a masterpiece, felt humiliated, and the chagrinned young artist left Paris for London and remained there for the rest of his lengthy career.  As for the painting itself, Singer kept it, later displayed it at international exhibitions, and sold it to the Met in 1916, convinced that it was the best work he had ever done.  Another version is in the Tate in London.

         If respectable women were not supposed to put themselves on display, what about actresses?  The public might applaud an actress’s brilliant performance in the theater, but respectable women wouldn’t think of inviting her into their home, and dreaded the thought that one of their sons might fall in love with a thespian (the meaning of which they weren’t quite sure).  So actresses were both acclaimed and excluded -- the same ambiguous position that burdened Molière and his troupe, men and women alike, in seventeenth-century France.  

         A woman’s respectability is the subject of Henry James’s delightful story “The Siege of London” (1883).  It opens with two Americans at the Paris opera, a newcomer,and a seasoned widower wise in the ways of the world.  The newcomer confesses that he doesn’t understand how his friend can tell at a glance if a woman is respectable.  Eyeing a box with his opera glasses, he asks the old hand if the woman there is respectable or not.  His friend takes a look and immediately says she isn’t, but adds that the young man with her is.  Then he realizes that he once knew the woman and decides to say hello to her at the intermission.  So begins a story that hinges on whether or not a much-married American woman can in any way be called respectable.

         The women mentioned so far – Goya’s majas, Sargent’s Mme Gautreau, and James’s protagonist – risked society’s rejection, but they were not performers.  If in the nineteenth century respectable women were not supposed to put themselves on display, what about actresses?  Respectable women and their husbands might applaud an actress’s brilliant performance in the theater, but they wouldn’t think of inviting her into their home, and dreaded the thought that one of their sons might fall in love with a thespian (the meaning of which they weren’t quite sure).  This applied even to Sarah Bernhardt, the acclaimed French actress whose first tour of America in 1880 garnered attention, rave reviews, and money (which, being debt-prone, she could use), but not respectability.  Not that she needed it, preferring freedom and a series of male lovers.  “Have you seen my latest?” she would ask an old acquaintance, usually referring to some fledgling actor discovered in the provinces, whom she had annexed and, to the annoyance of her troupe, given roles he was unequipped to handle.  (The annexed young man lasted a season or two.)  So society’s wariness of actresses was not without foundation. 

File:Joseph Karl Stieler-Lola Montez1847.jpg
Lola Montez in Munich, 1847.

         So how about dancers?  Worse still.  A dancer’s ability to wreak societal havoc was demonstrated by the career of the Irish dancer who took the name Lola Montez. After engaging in numerous dalliances and provoking a duel between two admirers with fatal results in Paris, in 1846 she performed in Munich.  There she became the mistress of the smitten king, Ludwig I, who created her Countess of Landsfeld and gave her an annuity. She then meddled in politics, and when the 1848 revolution erupted, Ludwig no. 1 had to abdicate, and she too fled the country.  Coming in time to the U.S., she shocked and titillated audiences, especially the gold miners in California, with her wiggly Spider Dance.  In and out of marriages, she began wasting away, spent her last days doing rescue work among fallen women, and died in Brooklyn in 1861, at age 39, of syphilis.  She is buried in Green-Wood cemetery, a repository of celebrities that also harbors Boss Tweed, assorted minor Roosevelts, and mobster Albert Anastasia.  Good company, indeed.

         Mention of the notorious Lola brings to mind – at least to my mind – the life-size sandstone statue of a contorted Hindu dancer in the South Asia hall of the Met.  

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Though she lacks arms and legs, she looks wonderfully supple and sensual.  Identified as a celestial dancer of the mid-eleventh century, she must be performing in honor of the gods, who are thought to inhabit temples and consider them their home.  Presumably the real-life celestial dancer would be performing in a temple, but I can't help wondering about the status of her secular equivalent, perhaps a dancer at court.  Would she hope to captivate a monarch, as Lola did, or to advance her position in society otherwise? 

         Such matters will be considered in the next post; see below.


For my other books, go here.

Coming soon:  Artists or Whores?  Nautch Girls, Geishas, and the Dancing Girls of Lahore.

©   Clifford Browder   2019


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