Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rule No. 1: Naked Queens Are Trouble

Another day, anothing brilliant painting by dead French genius Jean-Léon Gérôme. This one is titled King Candaules, or Le roi Candaules in French.

The story, as Herodotus tells it, is rife with intrigue, betrayal, and high-level espionage. King Candaules -- dude in bed on left -- was bragging to his bodyguard Gyges -- guy in cloak on right -- about the beauty of his wife the queen -- luminous naked woman, center. The queen was so beautiful, said Candaules, that unless a man saw her beauty for himself (au naturel, as it were), he could never comprehend it. Gyges obediently agreed. No seriously, continued Candaules, you should hide in our room tonight and watch when she takes her clothes off, I'm telling you. And to Gyges this seemed like a terrible idea. But the king would not be put off, and Gyges had very little choice, and so here he is hiding in the royal bedchamber while the queen disrobes.

You'll notice, if you look at the queen -- and we should all be looking at the queen in this painting -- that she has her cloak raised, hiding her face from her husband. And that she is looking right at Gyges as he lurks shamefacedly in the shadows.

Because that is what happens: the queen notices Gyges, and realizes what her husband is up to (no self-respecting bodyguard would be idiotic enough to spy on the royal disrobing under his own motivation). She keeps her cool. The next morning, she summons Gyges -- nothing out of the ordinary about it -- and then informs him that she knows he's seen her naked, and on account of this insult to her modesty either he or her husband must die, and she doesn't particularly care which one it is. Gyges, again, pleads for her to change her mind, but she doesn't give in. And so Gyges kills Candaules, and marries the queen -- who is never named, by the way -- and this usurpation is what Croesus must atone for several generations down the line in Herodotus' Histories, which is why he was telling us the story in the first place.

Once again, it is the revelation of the female body that is central -- except here, it is a tragic and not a triumphal moment. The view of the naked queen is the moment that will required Gyges to become either a martyr or a murderer, and will lead Candaules to his self-engineered death; perhaps this is why she has her back to the viewer, who is thus spared the full power of her nudity. Moreover, look at Candaules, our title figure: he's way back in the shadows, screened by some uninteresting folds of drapery -- and he is looking at Gyges. This is clearly a man with a tendency to voyeurism: it is not the sight of his wife's perfect beauty that turns him on, but the sight of someone furtively glimpsing that beauty.

In Gérôme's vision, the brightness and nudity of the queen and her garments find their counterparts in the darkness and concealment of Gyges. The bodyguard seems to carry a darkness about with him, even as the queen seems to illuminate the room. Again as in Phryne we have the blue garment on the left, a white body in the middle, and a red cloth to the right -- just like the French flag, come to think of it. I need to say that again for emphasis: these two paintings are arranged just like the French flag, with blue on the left, red on the right, and a naked woman as the central white bar. Maybe this is why they caused such a stir. The flag-section here is smaller, limited to just the king and queen -- appropriate, since it is they who are the subject of the looming revelution. Gyges almost looks as though he is in a separate painting -- a Goya, rather than a Gérôme. Both he and Candaules are secondary figures; the queen dominates the frame.

Next up: Alcibiades, playboy heartthrob of the ancient world.

1 comment:

Samantha said...

I love your commentary on Gerome's paintings. I'm interested in the 3rd painting with the hidden French flag.