Woman of the Week: Marie Laurencin

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Self Portrait (around 1905 – Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)

Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) was a contemporary of Picasso and Delaunay and friends with both. Despite the significant role she played in the Paris avant-garde movement, her artwork remained largely uninfluenced by the Cubism being developed by her close associates, and is frequently forgotten today.

 

Marie, illegitimately born to Pauline Laurencin, cited her date of birth as 1885, claiming that ‘the age of a natural child is always mysterious – it is found neither in reality nor in dreams, it is not determined by a date.’ Her father, a tax collector who refused to officially recognise his daughter, visited her rarely.

Marie’s career began officially when she went to Sèvres to study porcelain painting at the age of 18. She soon returned to Paris to study at the Académie Humbert, where she turned her focus to oil painting, one of the mediums she would use most often in her recognisable works. It was there, too, that she first met George Braque and Georges Lepape, fellow students who were impressed equally by the fantastic, whimsical canvases she executed with such apparent ease, and her engrossing personality – ‘my name’s Marie Laurencin,’ she told the curious Lepape, ‘but call me Coco.’

At the age of 24, Marie exhibited at the famous Salon des Indépendants for the first time. She met Picasso, who in turn introduced her to Guillaume Apollinaire, and soon became ensconced in the circle of artists and writers that made up the avant-garde movement and particularly the Section d’Or, which focused on Cubism and Orphism. She began a long-term romantic relationship with Apollinaire, being generally recognised as his muse and particularly as the Tristouse Ballerinette from his 1916 work, ‘Le Poète assassiné’.

Marie married a German artist, Otto von Wätjen, in 1913, causing her to flee to exile in Spain when war broke out a year later, as she had lost her French citizenship upon marriage. She remained there until 1919, finding solace and inspiration in the works of Vélasquez and Goya, and beginning friendships with various new artists, including Gleizes, Delaunay and Picabia, the latter two with which she would later exhibit. She divorced her husband in 1921, and would go on to have various affairs, often with well-known figures such as diplomat Philippe Berthelot and lesbian literary expatriate, Natalie Clifford Barney.

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Portrait de Mademoiselle Chanel (1923 – Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris)

 

 

In this period, Marie made a name for herself as a portraitist, with the famous faces gracing her canvases ranging from ladies of nobility to Coco Chanel. In 1923, Serge de Dhiagelev asked her to undertake the décor and costuming for his ballet, ‘Les Biches’. Her work was received successfully, and ballet costuming and décor became a new facet of her creative expression.

Though criticised for her repetitive subjects and relatively unvaried style, Marie’s work remains highly recognisable for those very reasons. She preferred to depict young girls with dreamy, mask-like features, accompanied by various animals, from unicorns to swans to faithful hounds. Both human and beast frequently have a strong sense of unreality, with figures appearing to undergo transfigurative processes within the image. She focused on themes of femininity, relying heavily on pastel shades of blue, pink and grey which she felt helped to express these themes.

Upon her death in 1956, caused by cardiac arrest, Marie was buried in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery according to her wishes: dressed in, with a rose clutched in one hand and the love letters written to her by Guillaume Apollinaire laid across her heart.

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Watercolour for ‘Les Biches’ (1923 – Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris)

 

 

 

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Woman of the Week: Ada Lovelace (née Augusta Ada Byron)

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Ada in 1840 (by Alfred Edward Chalon)

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is known as the ‘mother of modern computing’, but not by nearly enough of the world. The only legitimate child of the famous poet, Lord Byron, she deserves fame in her own right for her contributions to computing and mathematics, a field vastly different from her father’s.

Ada never knew Lord Byron, thanks in part to his dying when she was just 8 years old, but more specifically due to her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, maintaining a violent dislike for her husband, who she considered insane. Hoping to discourage any similar tendencies in their only offspring, she encouraged Ada to study mathematics and science, which she believed would help subdue poetic (and thus insane) proclivities.

Whether due to her mother’s grooming or her own natural talent, Ada’s zest for innovation and learning manifested at an early age. When she was just 12, Ada was designing wings to allow human flight, using her anatomical observations of birds to determine the size, shape and materials that would best achieve her goal.

Her education was enhanced greatly by the opportunity of having Mary Somerville, one of the first known female scientists, as a tutor. Becoming close friends with the Scottish mathematician, it was Somerville who both encouraged her studies in higher mathematics and who would eventually introduce her to Charles Babbage in 1833. The 17 year old scholar quickly gained his respect and began an extensive correspondence with him in which they discussed mathematics and Babbage’s invention, an early calculator he called the difference machine. Babbage clearly respected his gifted protégée, coming to refer to her as the ‘Enchantress of Number’.

Ada shed her famous father’s name in 1835, upon marrying William King, later the first Earl of Lovelace. Fortunately, King appears to have supported her scholastic pursuits, and together the couple enjoyed the society of various known academics of the time including Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens. Family life didn’t prevent Ada’s continuing endeavours – in fact, her most famous contributions were made only after the birth of her third and last child.

In 1842, Ada started translating a French work describing Babbage’s newest computational concept, called Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage. However, the notes and algorithms that she added to the basic translation were so abundant that by the time it was published, the work was largely her own.

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Though not visually impressive, the Bernouli algorithm is recognised today as the world’s first computer program

There remains contention regarding whether Ada herself wrote an algorithm intended to compute Bernouli numbers, widely considered to be the first known computer program. While it is certain that she worked on it, some scholars believe that the actual calculations were performed by Babbage, with Ada only editing it and specifically correcting a major error made by the older mathematician. Regardless of the exact details, it was remarkable work for the 26 year old that gives Ada and Babbage every right to their titles as the ‘mother and father’ of computer programming.  In addition, Ada is credited with being the first to recognise the wider application of using algorithms for any sort of information, such as music or language, by converting the data into numerical form. Today, this concept seems meaninglessly abstruse or glaringly self-evident: at the time, it was revolutionary.

“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations…” – (notes on Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, 1843)

Sadly, from 1843, Ada’s health declined and she began to drink heavily and rely on opiates prescribed as painkillers, causing her moods to be erratic. Her habit of gambling resulted in huge debts after she tried unsuccessfully to devise a mathematical model allowing for large wins, and this minor scandal was exacerbated by rumours of affairs with various men. She died tragically young in 1852, aged just 36, from uterine cancer.

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A portrait of Ada in 1836, jokingly described thus in a letter: “I conclude [the artist] is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jaw bone upon which the word Mathematics should be written.” (by Margaret Carpenter)

Woman of the Week: Desirée Clary (née Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary)

Desirée Clary (1777-1860) was a woman who knew how to climb the social ladder. Born the daughter of a reasonably wealthy silk merchant in Marseilles, she ended up being the Queen of two nations and a political informant within the French government. That begs the question – well, how? The answer is simple, as technically all she had to do was marry the right man, but the story is far more interesting.

It starts just after the French Revolution, when in 1794 Desirée became engaged to a young soldier from Corse called Bonaparte, but the arrangement was broken off so that Desirée’s older sister, Julie, could marry him instead. A bad deal for Desirée? Not really, considering that the change was suggested by Bonaparte’s younger brother, who had his eye on Desirée himself – another soldier, very recently elevated to the status of general, whose first name just so happened to be Napoleon.

In another turn of events that ended up being a blessing in surprise, Napoleon soon abandoned Desirée to become involved with Josephine de Beauharnais, a wealthy and influential widow in the Parisian ‘set’. Throughout his life, though, he maintained a respect and affection for his one-time fiancée that would give her a unique position within the inner machinations of the French government.

Returning to Paris after a sojourn in Italy with her sister, Desirée soon found herself romantically linked to another French general, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who she married in 1798. Bernadotte was already a well-known and well-liked figure in the military before Napoleon’s rise to power, and was seen by many as the ideal alternative to the despotic Bonaparte. As the wife and ex-fiancee of these two powerful rivals, Desirée had to contend with both factions trying to use her as a political pawn.

Though Bonaparte hoped to end Bernadotte’s military and political influence in 1809, when he stripped the other man of the Marshal’s baton (and rank) that he had bestowed upon him in 1804, a healthy dose of karma helped to balance the scales again. Bernadotte’s benevolent treatment of some Swedish prisoners brought him to the attention of the aging, heirless King Charles XIII of Sweden, who eventually adopted him as his royal heir.

Thus Desirée became the Crown Princess, and inevitably, after the old King’s death in 1818, the Queen of Sweden and Norway. Finding the -20 weather that greeted her upon her first arrival in Sweden to be rather not to her taste, Desirée flatly refused to stay in her adopted kingdom and returned to Paris instead, where she remained for 12 years.

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Desirée as Queen Consort in 1822 (by Fredric Westin)

Whilst there, though her personal relationship with Bernadotte drifted into insignificance, she stayed in close contact with him so as to provide Sweden with the latest political news in Europe and France. By receiving important personages like Talleyrand and
Fouché
, and playing on her lingering intimacy with Napoleon, she helped to mediate political conflicts between the country of her birth and that of which she became Queen, despite a self-professed lack of interest in politics and government.

Though Desirée did eventually move permanently to Sweden in 1823, to remain until her death, the French habits and expectations that she clung to were at odds with Swedish culture, and she never truly adapted to – or was adopted by – the nation with the enthusiasm of her husband.

Woman of the Week: Artemisia Gentileschi

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Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (between 1638 and 1639 – Royal Collection, England)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was internationally famous in her own time, despite the obvious prejudices of 17th century Europe, being invited personally to the court of English king Charles I and enjoying the patronage of Cosimo II de Medici. Today, she is academically recognised as one of the most accomplished painters of the period, but remains largely forgotten, instead of claiming her place in public knowledge among the likes of Rubens, Caravaggio, or even her father, Orazio Gentlileschi. The first female to be admitted to the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, her fame was partly – and rightly – due to her fascinatingly expressive and skilful paintings, but also to her dramatic personal life, echoes of which reverberate throughout her work.

 

With her father already a famous painter who included Caravaggio, known for his introduction of chiaroscuro to the world of Renaissance painting among his close friends, it was natural that Artemisia began painting at an early age, with

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Susanna and the Elders (1610 – Schonbrön Collection, Pommersfelden)

her first major artwork, Susanna and the Elders, marking her debut onto the painting scene. She was just 17 when the canvas was finished, and already making a name for herse
lf with the controversial subject choice as much as her obvious talent. Unfortunately, she rose to notoriety shortly after for a rather more upsetting reason, when Agostino Tassi, a fellow artist hired to the tutor the young Artemisia, raped the still teenaged girl in her own house. The case went to trial, lasting a staggering seven months, and the entire transcription of the proceedings has been miraculously retained. In it, Artemisia states that she threw a knife at her assailant, shouting ‘I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonoured me’. Eventually, Tassi was found guilty, but the experience, unsurprisingly, had a profound effect on Artemisia’s painting.

 

Many of her portraits are now interpreted as intensely autobiographical, with Artemisia favouring strong female characters from the Bible or popular mythology and depicting them with a sense of agency and emotion practically unseen at the time. One of her most famous pieces, Judith Slaying Holofernes, is largely accepted to represent Artemisia as Judith, finally exacting her revenge on Tassi in the form of Holofernes, an infamous general from the Old Testament. The grim determination of Judith as she saws off the head of a screaming but helpless Holofernes is one of the most chilling examples of Artemisia expressing herself, as a female in an incredibly male-dominated world, through Biblical allegory. Artemisia’s deviation from social expectations in her depiction of women shows, quite clearly, how she defied against a culture inclined to ignore her with the most powerful weapon she had – her art.

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Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620 – National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples)