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.

Bring Warmth to Someone

It is difficult to say exactly what it is about the autumn that makes many of us go into a kind of social hibernation.  It may be the angle of the sun as it skims lower along the horizon which reminds us of time flying past, or the curl of the leaves as they turn brown and rustle off the trees to the ground.  With less sunlight, shorter days, and colder temperatures, you would think that, logically, human beings would seek to come closer together to share warmth and solace.  Only nowadays we don’t tend to do this: we bundle up and go off to our respective hobbit holes, which may be nice and snug, but they are not very communal.

If you happen to have more than one pet, or have observed how animals on a farm behave, they tend to stick together, particularly when it is cold and dark, for warmth and companionship.  Yet for all the time we humans spend together outdoors in summer, as soon as the season turns we begin retreating indoors and into ourselves.  Were it not for holidays, many of us would have little in the way of non-work-related interaction at all: and some of us will not have any even then.

It has long been said that one reason the Scandinavians were such early pioneers in mobile phone technology was because they were so isolated from one another during the long winters that ravage their region.  We can all associate in our minds the concept of Scandinavian people wanting to be by themselves, even in harsh weather.  Yet as it turns out this is not really much good for the descendants of the vikings, or indeed for any of us.

The world of cinema is a good way to see this.  The legendary Swedish-American film star Greta Garbo did not actually want to be alone, as it turned out, she wanted to be left alone – but in her case, the reputation established about her ended up isolating her, making a Garbo sighting in New York something like seeing a fluke of nature rather than a human being.  In the wonderful Danish film “Babette’s Feast”, we see how the villagers’ cottages are all huddled together for practical protection, but they are generally such reserved and quiet people that they make no connection with one another outside of church, until the charity of a French cook brings them all, at least for an evening, together into warmth and love, despite the cold.  And in the Norwegian film “Kitchen Stories”, men in an isolated farming community in Norway are so desperate for basic human affection and companionship, that for much of the film they cannot even bring themselves to say so.

Autumn and winter holidays are all very well, but they are one day affairs, and the nights are now going to be long and cold for quite a few months up here in the Northern Hemisphere.  Perhaps as this season proceeds you will consider ways that you can reach out to others in unexpected ways, by offering to drop by or asking them to come over, or even just picking up that mobile device as intended, to make the darker hours pass more easily.  Those with families can bring those without into their circle, for example, or three or four individuals can make an effort of getting those individuals together to share some time in both talking and listening.

In serving others in this way, not only will you be doing good for someone else, in making the dark time of year seem a bit less dark, but you may also be doing yourself a very good service in turn.

Couple Having a Meal Before a Fireplace
by Quiringh van Brekelenkam (c. 1650)
Private Collection

Thoughts on St. Henry’s Day: The Immigrant and the Internet

One of the assessments of the present age by the chattering classes is that because of new technology, the world is more interconnected than ever before, and that we are all the better for it.  The former may be true, in the aggregate.  Yet we have to question whether the latter is in fact always the case.

This morning at my usual pre-office coffee spot, I was awaiting my beverage when a delivery man came in to drop off some items and return others.  It only struck me as he left that both he and the lady behind the counter were immigrants: he from somewhere in the Caribbean or Latin America, and she from somewhere in East Africa, most likely Ethiopia.  They both spoke in heavily-accented but perfectly understandable English to one another, and each used what we would recognize as normal speech patterns in the United States among people who know each other professionally: a kind of informality that grows up between individuals who transact business together often.

I thought about how this scene might have played out a century earlier, with perhaps the delivery man being from Russia and the girl behind the counter being from Italy.  In this country we are so often told that we are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a great leveler of cultures.  Within their own lifetime, the immigrant behind the counter and the one making the delivery will likely see their children, born in the U.S., possibly growing up speaking their parents’ language, alongside non-accented American English.  And their grandchildren, when they grow up, may very well not speak any language at all other than English.

Of course the question of what happens when you have to move to a new country and adapt to a new culture is not a new one.  Today for example, the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Henry of Sweden who, as it happens, was not Swedish.  St. Henry was born in England, but was studying in Rome when he was consecrated Bishop of Uppsala, Sweden, and went to work in that country.  He accompanied the Swedes when they fought against the Finns in 1154, and stayed behind in Finland after the battle to work on converting the pagan tribes there to Christianity; subsequently he was martyred by a Finnish soldier.

We can assume that St. Henry spoke not only his native English, and Latin as a churchman, but because of the nature of his work he had to learn Swedish and Finnish as well.  No doubt along the way he picked up some Italian, and possibly even French and German.  And who knows: this is admittedly nothing more than speculation, but perhaps there was a language problem between him and the man whom he felt he had to excommunicate, and who eventually murdered the bishop.

That being said, the notion that the Middle Ages was a period of ignorance and provincialism is one foisted upon us by subsequent generations, particularly during the Enlightenment.  It is true that for the peasantry, perhaps the majority of them never traveled beyond their native villages, unless there was a war on somewhere.  Yet it is not true that people were ignorant of the world beyond the far set of hills on the horizon.  Trade, for example, meant that all sorts of products made their way across Europe, Asia, and Africa, and a shopper at a market in London during the Middle Ages could purchase cinnamon for their mince pies brought from Venice, where it had been imported by Arab merchants who had traded for it in Indonesia.

Nor is the assessment of the ignorance of our ancestors borne out by an examination of the lives of those like St. Henry, who traveled widely in the service of the Church.  On a tangible level, one need only look at the art and architecture of the period to realize that the lives of the saints from many different countries, for example, spread throughout Christendom and inspired people who lived far from where these individuals lived and died.  Many of the medieval pilgrims to sites like Santiago de Compostela or Canterbury were travelers from countries other than Spain and England, who were familiar with the biographies of St. James or St. Thomas Becket and wanted to visit their shrines.  This could hardly have happened in a society curtailed by provincialism and closed-mindedness.

These days we are told that the internet and social media have been responsible for achieving significant changes, and there is certainly evidence that this is the case.  The fact that the Syrian opposition, for example, continues its fight against the Assad regime by making use of the internet to spread the truth of what is going on under that repressive regime is hopefully going to result in something good.  Yet we also see that other repressive regimes make use the internet for evil purposes, to prop up their respective strangleholds over their own people, and prevent the rest of the world from knowing what they are up to.  The verdict on the beneficent nature of being more interconnected is still out.

When it comes to immigrants, the question of how the internet affects them is an equally mixed one that deserves further exploration. For those who, for whatever reason, have to pull up stakes and emigrate to another country, being connected all of the time to what is going on back home can be a mixed blessing.  True, it allows them to remain connected to what is going on back home, in a more immediate way that would have been impossible for someone like St. Henry.

Yet being so connected may also forestall these immigrants or their children from becoming more integrated into the country where they have ended up, leading them to remain in a kind of permanent ghetto status.  Under this scenario, their sense of “otherness” is actually reinforced by modern technology and communications, rather than being eliminated by it.  It then becomes very apparent that while technology is a wonderful tool, that is all it is: a tool. It is not a substitute for building true communities.

Detail of “St. Henry Baptizing the Finns” by Robert Ekman (1854)
Turku Cathedral, Finland