Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women

This weekend is Purim, the raucous celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from Persian slaughter in Biblical times. The story begins with King Ahasuerus reasserting male dominion over women throughout his vast kingdom, and in his own palace, by issuing a decree and by banishing his recalcitrant queen, Vashti.

The heroine of the tale is Esther, his new queen who hides her Jewish identity. When her people are threatened with genocide, she bravely intervenes. This entails approaching the king unbidden, an act that could cost her life.

The rest you should read for yourself because it's a well constructed short story until the last two chapters where there are textual problems: contradictions, repetitions, and a shift from a celebratory tone ("The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honor") to a vindictive one ("...the other Jews...slew of their foes seventy and five thousand...").

The painting is by another heroine, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656?). She was one of the first woman painters to achieve fame and acceptance in her own time. However, she suffered rape and torture along the way, and was generally deprived of the more lucrative commissions despite her acknowledged skill. Artemisia is a great favorite of feminist art critics, not least because of her many depictions of strong women in conflict with men.

I like this painting because Artemisia has internalized the story. While it is true that Esther makes herself beautiful before approaching the king, it's also true that she fasts for three days beforehand. In Artemisia's interpretation, Esther does not just prostrate herself before the king, but swoons, no doubt from hunger and fear. Her attendants support her tenderly, bound to their queen in sisterhood.

The king is shown as young and handsome. His sympathy is aroused, not his lust. He rises from his throne. Artemisia omits the golden sceptre that he extended for Esther to touch. He is not a frightening figure; she might even love this man. Esther's fear is for her people, rather than for her own life.

Feminist, but still romantic.

Ester e Assuero by Artemisia Gentileschi; ca. 1621-1630. Click on the picture for a closer look.


DUTA said...

Interesting painting by an interesting female painter!
It shows the strong side of women, and the romantic side of men, while emphasizing Femininity.

Esther looks big, her swoon manipulative. Yet she gets her Man under control, by using feminine tactics, not violence.

King Achashverosh, young, slim, and rather feminine-looking, seems genuinely concerned about Esther's condition (pale and on the verge of swooning). His concern for her shows that he loves her and cares for her - and that is very romantic.

The message of the painting, as I understand it, is this:
YES to femininity and romanticism; NO to machoism and violence.

Paula Slade said...

I remember Purim as being one of the more festive holidays in the Jewish calendar - marked with costumes, songs, delicious homemade poppy seed, prune and apricot hamantaschen pastries and performing in a Purim spiel at Temple. We also collected food and clothing as donations for those less fortunate.

TallTchr said...

Duta, It never occurred to me that her swoon was faked. But since the Bible says she threw herself at his feet, I suppose it could be so interpreted. Thanks for the comment.

TallTchr said...

Paula, I remember also listening to learned debates as to which is better: the latke or the hamentaschen. It's also the one holiday in which the pious are supposed to get schicker.