Pictured below is Portrait of Mlle. Lange as Danae, as painted by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson in 1799. This particular piece hangs gallantly in an unassuming corner on the top floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It is eye-catching in its gilded transcendence; an ethereally beautiful woman-with Cupid at her side-is catching fallen coins in her blue robes. The scene is vibrantly displayed within an ornate, golden frame. However, look closely, and you will note the misfortunate surrounding the woman.
The woman portrayed was a famous actress known for her beauty and her wealthy lovers. Mademoiselle Lange had commissioned Girodet to paint her; however, the original piece depicted her as Venus with her faced turned from the viewer. Further, her reflection in the mirror Cupid was holding showed only her ear. Mademoiselle Lange reported the piece to be unflattering, and she refused to pay the agreed-upon price.
Allegedly, Girodet sent the original painting back to her torn, alongside his response–a second painting. This time, he portrayed her as Danae, one of Zeus’s mortal lovers. Notably, the story goes that Zeus transformed into a shower of gold and fell upon Danae. In this second portrayal, Mademoiselle Lange holds her own mirror. Meanwhile, Cupid stares out at the viewer, helping to hold her coin-filled robes. This time, the mirror is cracked. A dead bird lies next to her, strangled. Jupiter’s scepter shoots smoke at her feet. Where we would normally see Jupiter as an eagle, there is a turkey wearing a wedding ring (presumably, this is her husband). Hiding beneath her seat is the face of her extramarital lover with a gold coin for an eye. More flames burst behind her.
By painting her in this light, Girodet balanced two different perspectives of the same woman: she is blessed by a god, but surrounded by undesirable forces. Through these elements, the viewer can detect that the artist saw his subject as greedy and vain.
Sounds to me like a case of eighteenth century evil eye.
What do you think he was hoping for when he painted the original piece of her as Venus? I wonder whether Girodet always viewed her in this way. He simply expressed his opinion more loudly the second time around because he was angry. It is almost as if there were a reflection within a reflection within a reflection between the two of them. He criticized her, she stood up for herself, he criticized her, etc.
Whew, doesn’t that sound exhausting.
Take note of the space of it all. There wasn’t enough room for the both of them. A shadow worker might acknowledge that Mademoiselle Lange’s perceived vanity triggered something in Girodet. What do you think it mirrored back to him? His aggression was passive, and then loud. Was she supposed to just sit there and take it? And better yet, pay for it? Mademoiselle Lange may very well have been vain and greedy (we don’t actually know, because we only see through the artist’s lens). However, we can primarily extract about Girodet’s character here.
Food for thought:
- Do you think his resentment actually stemmed from her? Why did he target her, to begin with?
- What power did she hold over him that her dislike of his painting would lead him to tear it apart? Think: she did not destroy his work–he did. And then, he blamed her for it. Was somebody’s misogyny showing?
- This story calls to mind the ways that we make ourselves small-we take up less space-when we are challenged by other people. What effective tools can we use to reclaim the space we might have given up in order to shrink for someone else?