he twentieth and twenty-first centuries have a very pronounced view of Victorian morality. The stereotype of a prudish, repressed society in which sexuality was never mentioned and piano legs were covered up in fear of embarrassment is contrived from extreme cases and our own ignorance. Although the Victorian's sexuality was not as blatantly represented, as our present day culture allows, sexual and moral behavior was articulated in many ways. Because of the repressive social norms, artists of the Victorian era wishing to represent sexualized subject matter had to do so in subversive ways. Through many works of art the modern viewer can discover clues to the darker aspects of nineteenth-century sexuality.
Due to the influence of the Crimean War, the images of female slaves became widely spread and popularized by contemporary culture. The reoccurring theme, inherited from the Romantics, and exploited by various artists throughout the century, is that of the captive woman, entirely at the mercy of the male. In fact, the more general theme of female bondage became more common than ever in nineteenth-century art. A polar opposite of the femme fatale, female slavery was a subject, which combined fashionable orientalism with the highly eroticized idea of the violated innocence of female subjection (Jenkyns 116). The image of the captive woman was in which Victorian artists explored darker themes of female submissiveness. A modern mind may find it somewhat surprising how often the theme of slavery recurs in works, which enjoyed enormous popularity. One of the best examples of this subject is the American artist Hiram Power's sculpture The Greek Slave. Noted for stealing the show at Great Exhibition of 1851, the sculpture even outshone a large diamond from India (Jenkyns 26).
As I noted in my essay on erotic art in Pompeii, Victorians were not the first culture to produce art with an erotic undertone. The Greek Slave, most likely modeled after the Renaissance ideals, imitates highly sexualized Venus de'Medici in its pose and smooth glossy finish, establishing itself as a modern counterpart to an historical erotic image. At first the title of the work suggests its relation to ancient Greece, but with careful inspection this idea is negated. The inclusion of a Turkish carpet and tiny crucifix notifies the viewer that the young girl is a slave of the Turks, and leads us to presume that she is destined for the harem (Jenkyns 26). This inference in addition to the young girl's nudity and the binding chains around her wrists, one cannot help but notice the deviant sexual eroticism of The Greek Slave.
The strongly religious social attitudes of the time encouraged people abstain from viewing sexualized images, or those worthy of eliciting impure thoughts. To counteract this decree, artists often used moralistic language to advocate and distinguish their work as morally acceptable. In defense his statues nudity and underlying erotic theme, Powers explained the young girl's nudity was not her fault, but that of her Turkish captors who stripped her to display her for sale. Rather than a sexual object, he likened Greek Slave to a perfect example of Christian purity and chastity, because even in her unclothed state she was attempting to shield herself from the gaze of onlookers (Assumption College). In his defense the slave's degrading predicament is offset by her modest expression and perfectly smooth surface, which suggests courage and purity.
Despite the public's initial wariness of the statue, the art critics praised Powers for his work. Their attitudes and responses to The Greek Slave reveal many of the contemporary views on female ideals: In this work a youthful creature of very delicate form is studied from life and exhibits an extraordinary refinement of form. The treatment of the back especially, is one of the happiest efforts in modern sculpture.
During the Greek revolutions the captives were exposed for sale in the Turkish Bazaar, under the name of slave. The artist has enacted a young girl, deprived of her clothing, standing before the licentious gaze of a wealthy Eastern barbarian. Her face expresses shame and disgust at her ignominious position, while about her lip hovers that contemptuous scorn which a woman can well show for her unmanly oppressors. (Cunningham 179)
As Colin Cunningham points out in his discussion of the critic's responses, the sculpture's image and the critical attitudes it elicits reveal the gendered nature of power relations. Both criticisms emphasize the life-like representation, claiming the value of the work lies in its precise imitation of nature. But this seems contradicted by the cultural subtext of the audiences' gaze, touched on in the second quotation. "The viewer is inevitably put in the same position of the wealthy eastern Barbarian, encouraging a voyeuristic fascination with the naked captive girl" (179). Thus, both the statue and the critic's responses reveal a basic attitude, which considers the female body as the "legitimate possession of the viewing public" (179).
In accordance with the art historian Gill Perry's concept, artists of the period inserted the male gaze into the narrative of their images, offering another subtle introduction of the erotic into the work. Like many other works of this same subject matter, paintings such as Edwin Long's The Babylonian Marriage Market, or Alma Tadema's The Sculptor's Model, represent the strong upright figure of the male gazes at the passive figure of the woman. Although each hides behind historical authority, the works invite an erotic voyeurism on the part of the male spectator.
Elizabeth Lee, in her discussion of artistic renderings of women in chains, quotes historian Peter Gay: "the representation of a beautiful girl in shackles, helpless before her sensual onlookers, must have given rise to intimations of sadistic pleasures." This which seems more than apparent in the critics' response to the work and the public's guarded awareness of its nudity depicts the erotic power of the work. It could be said The Greek Slave is intentionally shown naked and chained encouraging erotic pleasure and male sexual fantasies. Despite Power's efforts to create an example of "Christian purity," this work, like others of the same theme, invite the spectator to see the slave's body as an object of desire.
Erotic Elements in the Art of the Victorian Era
- We DidnÕt Start the Fire: Discovery of PompeiiÕs Erotic Art and its impact on Victorian Culture
- Reinstating the Male Nude
- Private vs. Public: Female Sexuality in Victorian Culture
Lee, Elizabeth. "Andromeda: Women in Chains." http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/chains.html. Viewed 8 May 2007.
Ed. Perry, Gill. Gender and Art. Cunningham, Colin, Gender and design in the Victorian Period.
The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Commemorative Album. rev. ed. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1964. Figure 184.
Unattributed essay on the reception The Greek Slave on the Assumption College site. Viewed 10 May 2007.
Last modified 18 May 2007