Exhibit preview: The gendered art of ‘Persuasion’

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Goya’s “And They (The Women) Are Wild Beasts.” (Courtesy of the Ackland Art Museum)

By Tatjana Zimbelius-Klem

Before you head over to our book exhibit at Wilson Library on Thursday, make sure to stop at the Ackland Art Museum to check out our exhibit exploring the gendered art of “Persuasion,” including — for a short time — two prints, by Goya and Rembrandt.

The Jane Austen Summer Program has prepared a self-study guide to browse the Ackland’s permanent collection and temporary exhibits. Among the pieces are five prints that will be on display in the print room only from 11 to 12:30. The exhibit aims to connect the artworks to “Persuasion” and explore the many ways in which gender is a driving force of the narrative and — together with class — the most important structural element of the society the characters inhabit. The dichotomy between men and women was expressed in various ways: from men writing not only the history of seminal events but also the emotional history of women; to the contrast of travel and confinement, with men moving around freely, hunting, traveling — even going to war — while women stayed home, especially when there are children as in Mary Musgrove’s case. Here’s a peek at a few of the works on display:

Theme:  Motherhood and female duties

Rembrandt’s “Studies of a woman and two children” (Courtesy of the Ackland Art Museum)

Trust us: You’ll want to see these two works on this theme in the print room.

Artwork: “And They (The Women) Are Wild Beasts, from Los Desastres De La Guerra,” 4th edition, 1906; Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) (PICTURED AT TOP)

Artwork: “Studies of a Woman and Two Children,” undated; Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

Goya’s work, part of a series called “The Disasters of War,” touches on motherhood as well as war. According to the Art Institute of Chicago: “Even mothers are driven to violence, as this image depicts. A woman holds a child on her left hip, even as she thrusts a spear into a French soldier with her right arm. In the background, other women assault the enemy by various means or languish from their wounds. The striking juxtaposition of the maternal with violent aggression serves to communicate the desperate conditions of the Peninsular War.”

The Rembrandt print prompts viewers to think about motherhood in “Persuasion”: the absence of the mother for Anne and Lady Russell as her stand-in, and Mary as a reluctant mother.

Theme: History/her story

“Persuasion” quotes: ” ‘Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.’

‘Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’ “

Education: “She would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments; and envied them nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.”

” ‘And I do regard her as one who is too modest for the world in general to be aware of half her accomplishments, and too highly accomplished for modesty to be natural in any other woman.’ “

“Madame de Villeneuve-Flayosc” (Courtesy of the Ackland Art Museum)

Artwork: “Madame de Villeneuve-Flayosc,” 1789; by French artist Jean-Louis Le Barbier Le Jeune (1743–1797)

In 1788, Mélanie de Forbin-Gardanne (1759-1841) married Alexandre de Villeneuve, the Marquis de Flayosc, and then became known as Madame (or Marquise) de Villeneuve-Flayosc. The Marquise’s lavish, fashionable clothing and surroundings demonstrate her wealth. The stylus in her right hand, her books and her drawing papers demonstrate her learning and artistic ability, as does the statue of Minerva. This painting inspired a short story by Allan Gurganus, written in 2010, and a short play by Daniel Wallace that was performed at the Ackland in 2012.

This picture was chosen as it represents a young woman showing all the tokens of education: the pen, the paper, the statue. She is wealthy and is afforded an education, and with the blank piece of paper in front of her, she might set off to write her own story instead of giving this right over to a man.

In “Persuasion,” Anne is competent, educated and accomplished, though entirely underrated, with the notable exceptions of Captain Wentworth and William Elliott — the former appreciating her natural competence and quick mind, the latter flattering her on account of her learnedness.

Gérôme’s “La Fontaine and Molière” (Courtesy of the Ackland Art Museum)

Artwork: “La Fontaine and Molière” c. 1890, by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)

In this painting, Gérôme imagines a meeting between two of the greatest French writers of the 17th century. The comic playwright Molière is working at his desk during a visit from a friend, poet La Fontaine. The 17th century, the age of King Louis XIV, is often considered the golden age of French literature. Yet during that time, Molière’s comedies and La Fontaine’s fables ranked below tragic works. In the 19th century, however, their writings appealed to a growing middle-class audience.

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-73), better known by his stage name Molière, is without question one of the great masters of comedy in Western literature. While not a political writer per se, plays like “Tartuffe” dealt with questions of morality and virtue. Its performance at Versailles in 1664 created a scandal: the dominant classes were not at all amused by being shown the mirror of their hypocrisy and religious bigotry. An important aspect of Molière’s writings is his depiction of women and their struggle to find ways to educate, if not emancipate themselves. Scholars argue whether he can be called an early feminist. Advocates of that notion reference the ways in which his female protagonists skillfully fight patriarchal demands and expectations, such as in “The School for Wives.” Meanwhile, counterarguments cite the ridicule lavished upon women trying to cast off the roles assigned to them within family and marriage, and instead to partake in the male-dominated world of words and ideas, as is the case in “The Affected Young Ladies” and “The Learned Ladies.”

We like to think that there is some kinship of minds between the two writers, who both had such clear vision of the faults of the societies they inhabited respectively, and a similar wit and esprit in their writing to express it.

Theme: Travel/confinement

Quote: ” ‘We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.’ “

Artwork: “At the Window,” 1869; British artist John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

Millais was a child prodigy and the youngest student to enter the Royal Academy. “At the Window” is particularly appropriate to the theme. Depicting a woman in a black dress, the painting features a running theme of mourning as it pertains to Anne Elliot, mourning for the loss of her mother, the loss of Wentworth, and in general the melancholy she displays. The woman stands at a window, which may be half open, but she is still on the inside looking out, confined as women are in Anne’s assessment. There is a mandolin (and while it may not  be a piano, the musical reference is helpful), and she has an open letter in front of her. Letters are vital for the entire narrative, but of course there is the most important one: Wentworth’s. … When you view the exhibit, keep a lookout for works depicting “men’s endeavors” (hunting, horseback-riding), the Navy and traveling.

The exhibit is 11 to 2:30 (Note: special display of prints on view ONLY 11 to 12:30 in the prints room) at the Ackland Art Museum on the UNC campus.

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