[The collection in context]
Prosper d'Epinay, Head of Medusa, c. 1866, Amsterdam,
‘Une beauté sauvage’: Prosper d'Epinay's Head of Medusa
Few mythological figures have been given such contradictory external forms as Medusa, the mortal among the three Gorgons. Since Antiquity she has been represented as both terrifying and beautiful.1 In the Archaic period, her forbidding countenance was used (particularly on buildings) for what was believed to be its apotropaic quality. Hellenistic art developed the image of the Gorgon with a pained but classically noble face. Her surprising alternation between the repulsive and the attractive was already described in Ovid.2 Whether as a distorted grimace or a lovely face, however, her effect on those who dared look at her was equally fatal: her gaze turned them to stone. According to legend, Perseus overcame this danger with a trick: using a mirror in order not to look at her directly, he approached the demon while she slept and decapitated her. This had been Athena's idea and she was given the head as a trophy. A mask of Medusa then came to decorate her breastplate.
Medusa's gaze turns the viewer to stone. This fear of deadly metamorphosis is a primal one and so it is not surprising that Medusa has been a permanent presence in art and literature since ancient times. The way her story has been interpreted, however - as is the case with most myths - has been subject to change. What was it about this snake-haired demon that so fascinated artists? As an apotropaic sign, Medusa's head was the epitome of ugliness, a challenge to the ideals of art. Not every Medusa, however, is unsightly, and sometimes she is even depicted as too beautiful to be frightening. These different approaches are, of course, the key to the deeper meaning of an individual work. In the latter case, the viewer was expected to play an active role: he needed to use his knowledge of the myth in order to foresee that death lurked behind her lovely features. Medusa thus became an allegory of deception, a symbol of the discrepancy between appearance and reality.
‘Medusa’ forced the artist to make a choice, and a work depicting her is always in some sense an unmediated statement about beauty and ugliness, about what is and is
not allowed in art. It was this conflict that made the subject so attractive for painters and sculptors, and it was not the least famous among them who tried their hand at it. Periods in which she appears only rarely were followed by those in which one encounters her frequently. Her ‘heydays’ were Mannerism and the Baroque and then again in the 19th century. This oscillation between vision of horror and beautiful mask was repeated in modern times in quick succession until the break with the classical tradition around 1900.
‘Medusa, both fair and hideous, is the arresting emblem of that productive conflict we call Mannerism,’3 and indeed the 16th century is full of Gorgons. The almost caricature-like, abstract, primitive masks of the Archaic could no longer serve as models for artists, who had been given the status of scientists. In order to make fear and pain believable, even in a handsome face, a conscientious study of human physiognomy was a prerequisite.
Systematic research into facial features began with Leonardo da Vinci.4 He quantified them and produced studies that went beyond the grimaces found in late Medieval northern European art. His so-called ‘grotesque heads’ are not only preserved in numerous drawings, but are also reflected both in his own paintings and those of his followers. Physiognomy provided a means of giving the internal qualities of mythical figures - as well as historical and contemporary personages - visual expression. Although this new method was intriguing in itself, its moral implications were even more so: what conclusions, if any, could be drawn about a person's character from his or her exterior? Many physiognomists made comparisons with animals, whose characteristics were supposed to correspond to those of the human subject. Leonardo wanted nothing to do with this kind of pseudo-science; for him, physiognomy was mainly a theory of expression. Since, however, he did believe that appearance was formed by experience, it was still possible to judge the personality of the person depicted.
Whether they chose to use the animal analogy or concentrated purely on facial expression, artists were given a tool to aid them in illustrating human feeling, one which became increasingly refined in the course of time.
Laocoon (detail), Rome, Vatican Museum
Ancient remains provided numerous examples. The Laocoon group, excavated in 1506 (fig. 2), became the model for the depiction of pain. The forehead and knitted eyebrows were often adopted almost formulaically. Medusa was another motif suited to these studies and she quickly became the preferred excuse for the representation of extreme emotions. Leonardo himself had painted a shield with Medusa's head, now only known through Vasari's description. What it might have looked like can be seen in a painting in the Uffizi once attributed to him and in a shield of Athena from the School of Fontainebleau.5
The Medusa's heads of the Leonardo circle fulfill his prescription for the depiction of anger: ‘The angry figure will have his hair standing on end, his eyebrows lowered and drawn together, and teeth clenched, with the two lateral corners of his mouth arched downward.’6
Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus and Medusa, 1545-54, Florence, Loggia dei Lanzi
Medusa is the ‘horribile monstro’ so vividly described in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499). If art was to become a science - as Leonardo propagated - then deformity needed to be studied with as much care as beauty. To transform ugliness into an aesthetically powerful work of art was an artistic challenge. Although there was some controversy as to whether or not this kind of objectivity was really the goal of art, important artists of the following generations - from Benvenuto Cellini and Caravaggio to Gianlorenzo Bernini and Andreas Schlüter - were certainly guided by physiognomic theories in their representations of Medusa.
The three sculptors used the Gorgon to give expression to the concept of pain. Cellini's masterpiece is one of the few works to represent Medusa's death in all its drama and to present it in a highly public space (fig. 3).7
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Medusa, c. 1635, Rome, Palazzo dei Conservatori
Interestingly, the expression of the cut-off head, proudly held up for the population to examine, was prepared in numerous studies and even these exercises were cast in bronze. The Medusas of Caravaggio, Bernini and Schlüter demonstrate that anger and distress are related emotions, one the result of internal processes, the other of external influences. The wide-open eyes and the scream interrupted by death prove the painter among them to be the heir of Leonardo and Michelangelo, whose equally tortured damned from the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel he would have known.8 The sculptors of the later generation made studies in expression in which Medusa's suffering almost makes one forget her monstrosity. Bernini masterfully applied his research into Laocoon and physiognomic theory not only to his marble Gorgon (fig. 4) but to a number of other works: both his Anima Beata and Anima Damnata
Andreas Schlüter, Head of Medusa, c. 1696, Berlin, Zeughaus
suppose a connection between appearance and character (Rome, Palazzo di Spagna), and his St Theresa of Avila in Santa Maria della Victoria in Rome has often been read (even by his contemporaries) as an exploration of the proximity of agony and sexual arousal. Schlüter's Medusa (fig. 5) is part of his series of Dying Warriors for the Zeughaus in Berlin. Like Bernini, he, too, was educated on the Laocoon.
Idea and theory went hand in hand in the drive to turn art into a science. As Thomas Kirchner recently emphasised, the study of physiognomy played an important role in the professionalisation of the fine arts.9 Leonardo's treatise was published in 1651, three years after the foundation of the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture, the first of its kind. On 2 July 1667 Gérard Van Obstal gave a lecture for its members entitled ‘Sur la figure principale du groupe de Laocoon’ which focused on the new science.10 Still more influential in the coming decades was court painter Charles Le Brun's ‘Conférence sur l'expression générale et particulière,’ held on 7 April 1668. It was printed in 1698, accompanied by reproductions of his drawings.
According to Le Brun, the position of the eyebrows was of utmost importance (fig. 6), as it was from them that one could read the general tenor of any of the passions.11 Overly schematic depictions were, however, to be avoided. Even at the beginning of their studies, artists would have found it too banal to simply represent one kind of feeling: the challenge
was to represent mixed emotions. These latter were the focus of Le Brun's investigation and were later to become the basis for the Prix d'expressions, founded in 1759 by the Comte de Caylus. The analogies applicable to the Medusas of the Baroque are to be found in Le Brun's interpretations of hate (la haine), anger (la colère) and contempt (le mépris). Of course, the ugliness which resulted from these negative feelings was only permissible when depicted according to Le Brun's strict academic rules. Those who did not adhere to them - like the great Austrian sculptor of physiognomic studies Franz Xaver Messerschmidt - were destined to remain outsiders.
The aesthetic value of the representation of extreme emotions was the focus of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Laokoon, published in 1766, a work which did much to determine what was and was not permissable in art and poetry. The enthusiasm for this ancient sculpture had its roots in the respect for its Greek creator, who had managed to evoke the anguish of mortal struggle without resorting to banal realism. Winckelmann and Goethe were also among the statue's admirers. In 1786, during his trip to Italy, the latter had come under the spell of another work of Antiquity, the Medusa Rondanini, the most classic and elegantly proportioned mask of the Gorgon, a work in which even the snakes coil in decorative symmetry (Munich, Glyptothek).12 For the Neo-classicists, she was the model for the representation of an emotionless Medusa. Antonio Canova's interpretation of around 1800 (Rome, Vatican Museum) is one such ideal depiction, leaving no room for any element of horror. Here, Medusa's power cannot be divined from her strict facial symmetry and even features; Canova completely relied on the viewer's knowledge of the myth when he chose the Medusa Rondanini as the basis for his own work, which gives almost no expression to either triumph or pain.
It was only much later that Ernst Buschor recognised in this ‘beautiful’ Medusa a copy of the gorgoneion on the shield of Phidias's Athena Parthenos.13 At the beginning of the 19th century, however, archaeologists still argued about what this mask had actually looked like. Based on the ancient sources, one had always assumed it to have been frightening; on the other hand, it was difficult to credit Phidias with the creation of something hideous. When, in 1855, Charles Simart presented the public with his colossal
Charles Le Brun, Studies of human eyes and eyebrows, 1670s, Paris, Musée du Louvre
François Rude, La Marseillaise (detail), 1836, Paris, Arc de Triomphe
chryselephantine reconstruction, commissioned by the Duc de Luynes (Château de Dampierre), it was this detail - besides the outrageous use of polychromy - that caused the most controversy:14 a distorted mask of the Gorgon was perhaps appropriate to a militant female figure, such as François Rude's Marseillaise on the Arc de Triomphe (1836, fig. 7), but not for a noble statue of Athena designed by the greatest of Greek sculptors.
Those who chose to depict Medusa as beautiful either accepted that her ‘effect’ would only be felt by those who knew her story, or consciously sought to play on the idea that a demonic character could be hidden behind a charming face. The Gorgon thus became the embodiment of the femme fatale. Since she entrapped the - male - viewer with her attractive exterior, she could easily be made a symbol of female falsity. With their reference to Eve and original sin, the snakes, which either form her hair or decorate her head like a crown, only added to this notion.15
Medusa and Eve were certainly not the only female figures to have been given the doubtful honour of representing the evil of the world. The Romantics chose a number of mythological and historical women as subjects for the artistic exploration of the principles of lust and repentance. It is, however, no accident that Mario Praz began his famous standard work The romantic agony with a chapter on the Gorgon: ‘Beauty of the Medusa, beloved by the Romantics, beauty tainted with pain, corruption, and death - we shall find it again at the end of the century, and we shall see it then illumined with the smile of the Gioconda.’16 Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem ‘On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine gallery’ of 1824 has been cited by Praz and others as proof of the Romantics' interest in the myth.17 Little attention has been paid, however, to the lines in which the poet describes the demon's facial features:
Yet it is less the horror than the grace
Shelley here once again emphasises Medusa's importance for the study of physiognomy. He appears to be exploring the underlying psychological meaning of her features much as Leonardo had done. It is unclear whether the poet knew the Italian's treatise directly; a more likely source of inspiration would have been a translation of Johann Kaspar Lavater's popular Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe of 1775-78. Whatever the case, the iconography of Medusa was to remain the most important interface between classical mythology, modern theories of physiognomy and their representation in art.
Medusa in the mid-19th century
It is generally believed that after Romanticism the interest in femmes fatales (and thus in Medusa) only resurfaced at the end of the 19th century. On the contrary, the history of the representation of the Gorgon is a continual one, as a number of now forgotten, but formerly quite famous, examples demonstrate. Interestingly, some of the more important works of the mid-century were created by women.
In the Medusa by Harriet Hosmer (fig. 8), an American student of John Gibson's, all aspects of repulsiveness are banished as the demon bends her head gracefully to one side. The bust is the pendant to a Daphne and, according to William Gerdts, is part of a series of tragic heroines which includes Oenone, Beatrice Cenci and Zenobia. Many a contemporary viewer was so enchanted by the work that one could almost say it had the feared effect: ‘The folded beauty wings above the hair on each side of the face give an air of majesty to the head. It was hard for me to look away from this statue; if long gazing could have turned one to stone, the old tradition would have been fulfilled.’18
Harriet Hosmer, Medusa, c. 1853, London, Daniel Katz Ltd
In 1865, the Swiss sculptress Adèle d'Affry, comtesse de Castiglione-Colonna, who exhibited under the name Marcello, also created a bust of Medusa (fig. 9). Inspired by a performance of Lully's opera Persée, she sought to model a Gorgon: ‘One day,’ she recalled, ‘Mme R. sung Lully's aria of the Gorgon. I asked her to stop so that I could quickly get some clay in order to capture her expression. You will see, I told her, I am going to make a
Marcello, Medusa, 1865, private collection
head of Medusa whose beauty is a mixture of contempt, fury and defiance.’19 The work was to become her greatest success. It was shown at the Royal Academy in London in 1866 and at the Exposition Universelle in 1867, and was also cast in bronze in many variations. The critics were full of praise and Théophile Gautier designated her ‘[the] George Sand de la sculpture contemporaine.’20 Marcello's interpretation forms a sort of stylistic link between
Marcello, wax sketch for Medusa, c. 1865, Fribourg, Fondation Marcello
Henry Cros, Head of Medusa, 1870s, Paris, Fabius Frères
Harriet Hosmer's, with its harmless, abstracted gaze, and later, once again unprepossessing versions.
The desire to express a ‘mixture of defiance and honour’ was also the inspiration for Marcello's more famous Pythia, at first also conceived as a Gorgo.21 In this life-size figure of the priestess of Delphi, installed in the Paris Opéra in 1875, the sculptress rejected both Neo-classicism and the Renaissance, demonstrating a clear preference for art of the Baroque. In 1869, that is, at the time she was working on this piece, Marcello resided in Rome. There she was in close contact with the French colony and must have known her colleague Prosper d'Epinay, although there is no direct evidence they were acquainted. Epinay, too, - of the same generation as Marcello and also of aristocratic background - was influenced by the works of the Roman Baroque, a style the Neo-classicists had adamantly rejected.
Epinay's Head of Medusa (fig. 1) is a clay bozzetto and it seems the work never went beyond this early stage. More finished versions in other materials are not known. The terracotta allowed the sculptor to create a highly effective - and rather Bernini-like - haptic contrast between hair and skin. The sculptor's painterly conception did not end with the furrowing of the clay: he also coloured the work in various shades and painted the eyes. The discussion about polychromy in sculpture had reached its first climax by this time, and we can be sure that the Frenchman knew - or at least knew of - the Tinted Venus by the Briton John Gibson. It was not only executed in Rome but was also first shown there, later being put on display at the International Exhibition in London in 1862.22
While Marcello's finished marble Medusa (fig. 9) is much more demure than Epinay's interpretation, an undated, probably preliminary wax sketch by her hand could have served as his inspiration (fig. 10). Given the differences between stone and wax or terracotta, one has, of course, to be careful with such equations. Henry Cros's clay Head of Medusa of the 1870s (fig. 11), however, offers a much more ‘classical’ interpretation of the subject, despite the soft material. Thus, Marcello's and Epinay's expressive versions can perhaps best be seen as a conscious reaction against the polished, gentile Medusas of Neo-classicism.
Prosper d'Epinay, Portrait of Assunta, 1868, present location unknown
When, in the 1860s, Prosper d'Epinay approached this theme - one which any number of the greatest sculptors before him had attempted - he was only at the beginning of his career.23 Son of a lawyer, he was born on Mauritius in 1836. He began his studies in Paris with Dantan jeune and moved to Rome in 1861 where, with the exception of a visit to his island birth-place, he lived for the next 16 years. In 1880 he settled permanently in the French capital. His contributions to exhibitions in Paris and London demonstrate that he was a most versatile sculptor. The female nude entitled The golden belt was the success of the Salon of 1874 and was recreated in numerous variations.24 Occasionally, Epinay was even accused of catering to fashionable taste. His portraits and statues with mythological subjects, as well as his genre figures, were indeed very popular, both with the general public and those in high places. Willem III, King of the Netherlands, for example, bought a number of works and even awarded the artist the Golden Lion of Nassau. Among his models were many female members of the most important ruling families of Europe.
Should certain suspicions prove correct, however, then it was a personality of much lower rank who stood model for the Head of Medusa, namely the wife of a highwayman. Patricia Foujols has recognised an astonishing similarity between the Medusa and Epinay's Portrait of Assunta (fig. 12), exhibited in London in 1868. The prominent eyebrows, the closed, slightly turned-down mouth, the sunken cheeks and the concise chin all have the same
somewhat severe attractiveness. The upper eyelids partially cover the pupils, which emphasises the determination, even harshness, of her gaze. If one relates the description of Assunta to the myth of Medusa the justification for this striking likeness may have a basis in content as well.
Notes among the artist's papers record the history of the creation of the bust of Assunta and allow the reader to feel some of the effective force she must have exercised over those who saw her. Epinay reports how in December 1864 all of Rome flocked to the trial of an infamous band of brigands from the Campagne who had been carrying on a running battle with the occupying French troops. The bandits had been supported not only by the rural population but also by their own wives, who had likewise been arrested, and the public demonstrated particular interest in these women ‘because of their costumes, their emblems and their savage charm, as well as by their unbelievably naive and cynical depositions.’ A friend had told Epinay of the incredible beauty of one of these peasant women, the wife of a certain Della Ruella, and had helped the sculptor to obtain a good seat for viewing the proceedings. According to Epinay, his friend had not exaggerated. When Assunta entered the courtroom a kind of murmur went through the crowd: ‘[she had] the regular profile of Bonaparte, much like the one seen on those handsomely executed portrait-medallions of the First Consul during the Italian campaign; but this classical profile was more powerful, more rugged, I might even say more ferocious. Her gaze was steady, implacable; her upper lip stuck out wonderfully; her cheek-bones were prominent; in short, her features were startlingly impressive.’25 The artist immediately became obsessed with the idea of obtaining leave to make her portrait. Permission was granted and, accompanied by two guards, Assunta was brought to Epinay's studio. The sittings stretched over several days. Although the sculptor wanted to learn more about his model, all attempts to draw her into conversation were greeted by silence and a condescending look.
The Van Gogh Museum's sculpture (fig. 1) has precisely these same features. The only real difference is the hair, which in the Medusa surrounds the face like a circle of flames. Strange as it may sound, it would be no surprise if Epinay had in fact chosen the striking Assunta as his model: her face, too, caused people to stop and stare; it was capable of petrifying those who looked at her. Perhaps even more interesting for the sculptor, however, was the seeming contradiction between her beauty and her criminal history. In the end, the court was not blinded by appearances; even comparisons with Napoleon and the statues of Ancient Greece could not prevent a harsh sentence. Assunta was no new Phryne.
One should also see Epinay's interpretation in the light of the late-19th century obsession with physiognomy. The subject itself, the artist's interest in both the Baroque and the academic tradition all point in this direction. The sculptor was also certainly acquainted with Rude's Marseillaise (fig.7), interesting not only for the Medusa mask on her breastplate, but because she can be considered the quintessential depiction of anger and determination. Epinay's teacher was, after all, Dantan jeune, probably best known for his caricatures, a genre to which Epinay himself turned towards the end of his career.26
Of course, a portraitist must necessarily be interested in physiognomy, particularly one who wishes to fathom the personality of his sitter. The phenomenon of the ‘beautiful thief,’ belle and bête in one, leads us to the contemporary debate on criminality and the question of whether it was innate or the result of environmental influences. Since mid century, French and Italian anthropologists had carried out investigations of the face and body in order to discover the causes of abnormal behaviour; in 1879, however, these attempts to assign wrongdoing to hereditary factors suffered a setback: Parisian youths had committed a horrendous double-murder, and - like Assunta - had been remorseless and unrepenting after their arrest. Still more shocking were the police photographs of one of the boys, Pierre Gille, an innocent-looking blond of 16. The Parisians
were puzzled: if appearances could be so deceiving than the ‘science’ of physiognomy was useless; anyone was capable of anything. As Douglas Druick has shown, Degas's physionomies criminelles, were executed under the spell of these events and the great uproar they caused.27
This crisis resulted from physiognomy's own most essential tool, empiricism. The facade was not to be trusted and to judge character by external factors could lead to dangerous, even lethal, mistakes. No myth was more suited to express this realisation than that of Medusa. Little wonder then that this branch of her iconography experienced an unprecedented revival in the last decades of the 19th century. Medusa was the ideal embodiment of the femme fatale, the one who hides her true and deadly intentions.
The number of Symbolists who dealt with the subject is legion. The list stretches from Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and George Frederick Watts to Fernand Khnopff, Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Jean Delville, Felicien Rops, Carlos Schwabe, Charles Van der Stappen, Arthur Craco, Arnold Böcklin, Franz von Stuck and Carl Strathmann, to name but a few. Medusa's ‘sisters,’ Circe, the Sphinx, Eve, Cleopatra, Semiramis and Salome, Salammbô, Lilith, Lamia, or simply Sin and Maleficia, were also popular among these artists.28 The merry Franz von Stuck, whose humble family background gave him a healthy attitude quite different from the bloodless decadence of many of his contemporaries, could already make fun of the morbid fascination with Medusa. With reference to the mascheroni of Federico Zuccari and the famous Bocca della Verità, he used a Medusa mask for the opening of the letter box of his Munich villa, as a kind of apotropaic sign (fig. 13). Whether or not she was able to prevent evil mail from landing on his desk, however, is not known.
Prosper d'Epinay's Head of Medusa, when looked at through the eyes of the Symbolists, seems serene and formulaic. It is, however, more than just a mid-way connecting point between the interpretations of the Romantics and the Fin de siècle. Epinay's work draws attention to physiognomy, its study and the debate surrounding it. Furthermore, the Medusa indicates the connection that artistic activity can and did have with the broader social themes of the day, without being reduced to mere timely anecdote.
Franz von Stuck, letter box of the artist's villa in Munich