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November 03, 2010

Visit to the National Gallery of Art in DC: The Age of Innocence, Gesture and the Fan.

Follow-up to Screening Intimacy Panel at 'Writings of Intimacy in the 20th and 21st Centuries'. from The Midnight Heart

When I was in Washington D.C. last week, I visited the National Gallery of Art where they have a show on at the moment: From Impressionism to Modernism – The Chester Dale Collection . There were some very impressive paintings on display, but what particularly struck me was a series of paintings that featured women in sumptuous surroundings holding fans.

Only recently, I wrote up a blog entry on gesture and intimacy from a paper that I saw by the film academic Steven Peacock at the Writings of Intimacy conference . In his paper, Peacock talked about Scorsese’s film The Age of Innocence based on the book by Edith Wharton. Both the film and the book focus on the scandalous Countess Elena Olenska, whose separation from her husband causes ripples in 1870s upper-class New York society. Newland Archer is fascinated by the Countess Olenska, in spite of the fact that he is about to marry the innocent, pure, beautiful May Welland.

What Peacock talked about was how Scorsese uses gesture as a kind of power play between Elena Olenska and Newland Archer. Here is what I said about it in my previous blog entry:

Peacock analyzed the scene in the box at the opera in which Elena’s gestures are both declamatory and intimate. Elena extends her arm to Newland to be kissed, but her hand hangs there while he hesitates. They start to make smalltalk and in discussing her experience of the opera, Elena extends her fan over the spectators. When she does so, she is expressing her fondness for the place, yet it is also a gesture that claims dominion.

When I was looking at paintings in the Chester Dale collection, I remembered Peacock’s reading of The Age of Innocence. I was fascinated to note too that many of the paintings from around the time when The Age of Innocence was set (1870s) featured women with fans, and in each case the fan seems to signify something different,

The first painting was Madame Camus by Degas (1869-70):

Degas - Madame Camus (1870)

Here, the woman, who might be another Countess Olenska, is sat up in her seat in sumptuous surroundings. We see her thoughtful face in profile, and the fan in reaching out and up from the chair suggests intention. The scarlet colours of the background, her dress and the fan suggest love, sexuality, passion even. Altogether, the picture presents a vision of someone on the verge of doing something and the fan is almost leading her there.

Next was The Loge (1882) by American artist, Mary Cassatt.

Cassatt - The Loge (1882)

A loge is a small compartment, a box at the theatre or a separate forward section of a theatre mezzanine or balcony. In this exclusive space sit two young women, a decorous spectacle for the theatre-goers, and the scene is very reminiscent of The Age of Innocence. The two women, however, seem uncomfortable with the situation, and one is almost hidden behind her fan. These female figures resemble the good, true and innocent May Welland more than Countess Elena Olenska.

Finally is another painting by Mary Cassatt, Miss Mary Ellison (1880):

Cassatt- Miss Mary Ellison (1880)

The title suggests that this portrait must have been a commissioned work, yet strangely the figure is picture of dejection. Staring into the distance, she is lost in her own thoughts, and the way that she holds the fan seems mechanical, as though she is merely going through the motions of proper manners and delicacy. There is also something very vulnerable about the figure, since reflected in the mirror behind her is the back of her head and her shoulders.

In each of these paintings, the fan works differently to suggest passion, shyness and dejection. It would be interesting to know whether Wharton or Scorsese were aware of paintings like these and to what extent they might have contributed to their renderings of The Age of Innocence.


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