The Art Of “I Love You”

No matter how much you know about great art, there is always something new to discover. Recently I’ve become interested in the work of a Swedish painter, Alexander Roslin (1718-1793). During his lifetime he was arguably the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris, but today he is not as well-known as he ought to be. Today I want to draw your attention to a charming portrait of his wife, who was also a popular but now largely forgotten artist. The painting is not only a charming piece in its own right, but I think it captures something of the love which the two of them felt for each other, in a way which was very unusual for the time.

Roslin was born in Malmö, the city in Sweden now famous as a major international business and design center, but in 1718 not much more than a tiny provincial town of a couple of thousand people. He moved to Stockholm in his teens to study painting, and his career might have remained that of a provincial Swedish painter had he not been given the opportunity to travel and study in Germany and Italy. Then in 1752, Roslin moved to Paris, where he met a young lady named Marie-Suzanne Giroust (1734-1772).

Giroust was an orphan from a comfortably well-off, conservative family of artisans, whose father had been jeweler to the King of France. She used her inheritance to study art, and it was while she was taking classes in pastel drawing from Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809), later the official court painter to Louis XVI, that she met Roslin at Vien’s studio in The Louvre. The two immediately fell in love, but Giroust’s bourgeois family refused to allow her to marry Roslin: he was from a poor family, he was a foreigner, and he was a Protestant.

It took seven years for Giroust to wear down her guardians, but eventually she succeeded, in part due to the intervention of the Count of Caylus, Roslin’s main artistic patron, and the Swedish Ambassador, who agreed to witness their marriage contract in 1759. This combination of persistence on behalf of the couple, and persuasion on behalf of the higher-ups, eventually convinced Giroust’s family that this would be a respectable marriage. She and Roslin went on to have six children together, 3 boys and 3 girls.

“The Lady With The Veil”, which is in the National Museum in Sweden, was painted by Roslin in 1768. It shows a lady dressed “à la Bolognaise”, the style then fashionable in the Italian city of Bologna. The lady’s head, shoulders, and part of her face are covered by a voluminous, black satin veil, which has led some art historians to speculate that it was painted during Carnival or Lent.

Despite her somber overlay, it is hard to imagine a more feminine and charming image of a lady. The subject of this picture is smiling and blushing at someone over to her left. Even though we can only see one of her eyes, the one that we can see is obviously twinkling at the object of her gaze. Whoever it is, she clearly has a soft spot for them, but it is actually the fan that tells us who she is looking at.

Back when ladies carried fans, they were more significant communications weapons than we would appreciate today. Depending on how a lady held her fan, she could send a message to someone else, provided that they knew how to read the secret signals which a lady’s fan could convey. The drawing of a folded fan across the right cheek was well-known “fan-speak” for, “I love you.”

No prize then, for guessing that the lady with the veil is Giroust herself, and the person whom she is signaling to is her husband, Roslin.

When this painting was exhibited in the Salon of the French Royal Academy the year of its creation, the French philosopher Diderot praised it, and famously commented that it was “très piquante’ – “very spicy”. Given the flirtatiousness of the Rococo era, it would be easy to look at this picture as an example of 18th century coquetry, like the work of Boucher or Watteau, which was later swept away by the horrors of the French Revolution. However given the back story of the couple involved, I think there is a lot more depth to this picture than meets the eye.

What I find particularly interesting is that this image was painted in 1768, nearly a decade after Roslin and Giroust were married, and after they had to fight tooth and nail for years just to get permission to marry in the first place. This is a couple that had already been through tremendous strain and hardship together long before they got to their marriage vows, let alone having to deal with the six rugrats they soon had scampering about the house after they were married. It strikes me that a man who could paint his wife in this way, after ten years of marriage and six children together, is still very much in love with her, and she is still very much in love with him.

Sadly, Giroust died of breast cancer at the age of 38, four years after this portrait was painted. Her husband never remarried, but he did manage to survive the French Revolution, unlike many of his patrons. This image remains a beautiful testament to their marriage, and the power of truly devoted love.

Crazy in Divorce: Why A Ruined Marriage Is No Fun

Does the following headline disturb you?

Single sensation: A breakup with Jay Z could push Beyoncé’s career to even greater heights
If it comes down to a split, being a cool, fierce single mom could make the singer more popular than ever

In breathless tones the accompanying article, published today, provides reasons why the possible divorce of two very famous entertainers might turn out to be a sound professional move for both parties.  Against my better judgment in directing you to read it, I’d like to take a moment to point out why you should find such an argument to be insane.

To begin with, the piece tells us that if her marriage breaks up, Beyoncé will be able to spend time doing exciting, glamorous things, such as associate with other celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.  [N.B. I should point out that this is something which she already does anyway, but there you are.]  As a “fierce” and “cool” single mother, the article speculates that she would only gain more fans than she already possesses.  To some extent the author is probably correct, albeit callously so.

The report goes on to reassure the reader that financially, should the couple divorce, “Bey” will recover quickly, since she achieved her fame and fortune independently of her husband.  A “crisis coach” quoted in the piece advises that, “if more cheating rumors come out, and she looks like she is standing by her man, that might hurt her more, professionally, than leaving him.” If indeed infidelity is to blame here, cheating on one’s spouse could also prove to be possible future entertainment material for both performers, the article concludes, telling us that Jay-Z “for his part, can cleverly profit off of this breakup by teasing the reasons in song lyrics.”

I do not know, or frankly care, enough about either Beyoncé’s or Jay-Z’s personal life to weigh in on what may or may not have happened to their marriage.  I do, however, have a word or two to say about the rather bizarre, underlying premise of this news item, which is that divorce can be viewed as fun and profitable for everyone involved, if examined through the funhouse mirror distortions of our present, celebrity-obsessed culture.  This is madness.

For starters, none of the people I know who have had to go through a divorce found the experience to have been one which they would wish upon someone else, no matter how “amicable” the proceedings.  Divorce is, in fact, the exact opposite of being amicable.  It is a formalized recognition of at least some degree of permanent enmity, which prevents the parties from staying together.

When they seek a divorce, instead of simply choosing to live apart from each other, a couple is asking for formal recognition by society that they have profound, insurmountable differences, which must result in the dissolution of their marriage.  Through our system of laws, we have created a technical process by which this result can be achieved.  Yet whatever may go on in public, and no matter how civilized the proceedings, we do not know the range of emotions and problems which those contemplating or actually going through with a divorce may be experiencing, that may affect them for the rest of their lives.

It’s true that in some cases, divorce may be the only solution to an utterly destroyed marriage.  However, we need to realize the fundamental fact that when a divorce takes place, a family unit breaks down.  Our society is built on the bedrock of family life which, when it crumbles, causes the entire social structure built upon it to be weakened.  To give the impression that divorce can be fun and profitable therefore, is not only to belittle the sorrows of those who have gone through it, but to further chip away at what is supposed to keep us from descending into social chaos.

Marriages fall into ruin quite often these days; for some, it has become little more than an expensive excuse for throwing a costume party every few years, as the mood strikes.  Better journalism, and indeed better citizenship, demands that we stop treating both marriage and divorce so lightly.  Divorce is not, nor should it be, a cause for celebration and excitement, no matter whose divorce we are talking about.

Detail of "Capriccio with Roman Ruins" by Francesco Guardi (c. 1760-1770) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Detail of “Capriccio with Roman Ruins” by Francesco Guardi (c. 1760-1770)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A Response to JK Rowling: Singling Out the Single Parent

This morning author J.K. Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame published a post on the website for Gingerbread, a UK charity she heads which seeks to provide support and assistance to single parents and their children.  In it, she describes her own experience as a single mother when she and her first husband divorced, and she went to work in the office of a local Church of Scotland kirk.  The following passage in her piece caught my eye:

I remember the woman who visited the church one day when I was working there who kept referring to me, in my hearing, as The Unmarried Mother. I was half annoyed, half amused: unmarried mother? Ought I to be allowed in a church at all? Did she see me in terms of some Victorian painting: The Fallen Woman, Filing, perhaps?

Now there needs to be a balance here, which I will attempt, however inadequately, to draw from these words.

Whoever the woman was that openly referred to Ms. Rowling in this fashion and in her hearing was both ill-mannered and behaving in a decidedly un-Christian fashion.  It is as if Ms. Rowling was some sort of dangerously infectious hospital patient, who had to be clearly distinguished from those around her to prevent her condition from catching.  To not have the courtesy to learn Ms. Rowling’s name, or barring that to simply refer to Ms. Rowling by her role, i.e. office assistant or what have you, was not only tactless but uncharitable.

The way in which we treat those people with whom we come into contact has consequences.  If I turn someone off to my political views by sinking to a level of uncivility which I find appalling in others, then I do nothing for my cause.  Similarly, if I find there are too many broken families in society, I can hardly go around pointing the finger at something which has already happened, saying, “Tsk, tsk,” and expect that will actually change anything by itself.

In this case Ms. Rowling is, by all accounts, a practicing Christian who struggles with certain aspects of Christianity, such as a perceived smugness among certain Christians.  This perception sometimes comes from examples such as the one given in the above passage.  Other times it stems from a problem with the catch-all idea of “organized religion”, a problem which personally I have never understood. Who would want to be a member of a disorganized religion?

Admittedly, those who attend religious services regularly, and are actively involved with life in their religious community can sometimes come to think they are cock of the walk.  The response from some of these, no doubt, would be that we do not want to encourage divorce and single parenthood, and that is of course correct.  To those who claim that such things are universally beneficial, I would ask you to hold up a mirror to our present-day society and ask yourself whether we are really doing so well, after 40 years of social engineering experimentation spearheaded by those who deplore traditional Judeo-Christian values.  When the family becomes an easily shifting structure which can readily be defined or re-defined to suit one’s mood or personal preferences, we all suffer.

That being said, single parents who find themselves in situations like Ms. Rowling’s after a divorce have a hard enough time as it is, without being made to feel as though they must be shunned by the community at large.  This is a woman who turned to her local church for support, as well as for employment.  It would only make sense that she expected to find some level of compassion in such an environment, and while we do not have enough information here to reach an informed conclusion, it appears that at least sometimes it was decidedly lacking.  Of course in turn the balanced response to this would have to be, yes, there are awful people who go to church every day, but you need to adjust your expectations.

Churches, you see, are correctional institutions built for repeat offenders.  If you were expecting to find heavenly perfection inside an earthly building, inevitably you were going to be disappointed.  The fact that this woman irritated you and made you feel badly about yourself and your circumstances, which she was wrong to do, does not take away from the fact that, presumably, many other people at that same church showed you love and compassion and fellowship in your time of need, otherwise you would have gone elsewhere.  Nor does it take away from the fact that, while you may have had no choice but to separate from your husband, that decision ought to be an exception, and a rare one, rather than something which takes place in over half of all marriages.

What cannot be lost here however is that people suffer deeply when a marriage falls apart and there are children left in its wake, or when an unplanned pregnancy occurs.  Those in the midst of such maelstroms need our support, not our derision.  Yet at the same time, even if no one wants to hear it, we also have to make a distinction between supporting those who suddenly find themselves in this situation, and actively encouraging people to place themselves in the same situation.  If the media or a celebrity or someone else has told us that it is perfectly acceptable to divorce when “the love has gone”, or it is morally equivalent to traditional parenthood to actually seek to have a child out of wedlock, then we are listening to the wrong people, who are more often than not trying to justify their own behavior or sell us something.

This means we have to walk a very fine line between compassionate service toward one and a compassionate telling of the truth to another, and it is not easy to do so.  Nor, frankly, am I any better-informed about how to do this well than I suspect many of you are.  Each one of us, myself included, often wobbles off the straight and narrow beam and falls into the muck and mire of not living up to what is right.

Remembering that all of us are imperfect, we cannot shirk our responsibility for correction when needed.  Automatically treating a single parent as some sort of Hester Prynne, to be shunned and talked about in a condescending way, does nothing to help the individuals involved, whether the single parent, their child, or anyone else.  At the same time to say nothing, when we see someone entering into divorce and single parenthood, concerned primarily with their own transitory feelings and little else, is to lose an opportunity to have a discussion about what the responsibilities of both marriage and parenthood really are.


Detail of ‘The Scarlet Letter” by Hugues Merle (1861)
The Walters, Baltimore