Sunday, April 13, 2014

Loved and Feared: Mucha's Maids and Females in Fairy Tales

As I may have mentioned once or twice, spring has been springing her for quite some time now and I'm loving it.

No matter how often I see the flower shoots coming up in late December, no matter how often we're surrounded by blooms here while my eastern friends are digging themselves out of blizzards, our early spring never stops feeling magical to me.

And this year, to add to the charm and magic, I'm in a new home and have a yard for the first time in... forever. I have no knowledge of what the previous tenants planted so each growth that springs forth from the earth or blooms out of what looked like a weed is both a mystery and a surprise to me.

Dress: Soprano ; Tights: Reitman's; Boots: Ecco; Cape: a gift; Earrings, and necklace: vintage; Right hand diamond ring: Birks; Diamond solitaire: heirloom; Barrettes: Stylize
When Beau and I take photos for Sublime Mercies, I can't help but pose in front of (and beside, and behind, and under) all these flowers, in my yard and in my neighbourhood.

By Mucha
When I came home and looked at these photos, I couldn't help but think of paintings and illustrations of late 19th and early 20th century idealized "nature girls," as exemplified in the works of Alphonse Mucha.

(In putting this post together, I tried my best to find the names of all the artists I used but I wasn't always successful. I should say also that not all of the images here come from the period I'm discussing, but they do presage or echo that period and, thus, I chose to use them. If you can give me dates and artists' names where I haven't done so or where I've made a mistake, please do.)

Unlike the real women of the day, in their corsets and fussy outfits, these women were natural and free, dressed in vaguely Grecian gowns, often in forests, and always surrounded by or even wearing flowers. They weren't just in nature, they were a part of it.

They were desired, mysterious, lovely, and often associated with the ancient and the magical.

By Florence Harrison
When young and beautiful, they were often gentle, ethereal, and nurturing.

By Edward Robert Robert Hughs
All the wee-folk loved them, whether the wee-folk were fairies, or elves...

By Warwick Goble
... or dwarves.

By Mucha
They were the stuff of ancient legends and fairy tales, revised every few generations by those who painted, wrote about, and drew them.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, they were something of a pin-up girl.
By Mucha
This pin-up girl was used to sell everything from cookies...

By Mucha
... to cigarettes.

And, as with the idealized images of women in magazines today, her look was impossible to achieve in real life...

... though there were certainly women who tried, just as women try to achieve physical "perfection" and whatever version of beauty is trendy today.

By Michael Frederick Howard
In older literature, she can be the witchy woman, the banished girl, the frightening fairy, the nymph, and she shows up over and over again, from the dangerous sirens of the Odyssey, to Titania in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, to Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

You remember Titania, right? She's the queen of fairies who, through an enchantment, is tricked into loving an ass, a foolish man with a donkey's head. It's funny and it's fun but I can't help but think that it's also payback for the power she wields both in the world of magic and in the world of men.

When I was looking for images of her online, I found mostly images of her asleep, being enchanted, or being made a fool as she fawns over her beloved donkey man.

I found very few images of her in her full power...

By Arthur Rackham
... even though she is very powerful, as evidenced in this wonderful depiction of one of her encounters with Oberon.

Note the few streaks of grey.
Not unlike today, even as a powerful and sexually free woman was desired and even admired, she was also feared.

Her power was frightening. What chaos would she bring?

Her mystery made one uncomfortable. What did she know? What would she hide? What would she reveal?

By John Gilbert
This fear of the witchy nature woman transformed into revulsion and hatred if the woman was old. Now, she was the hag, the sorceress, not to be trusted, and certainly not to be desired. Who better exemplifies this than the weird sisters in Shakespeare's Macbeth who have generally been portrayed as ugly and even vile?

But, really, what do the the three witches do wrong? They simply tell the truth in such a way that a power hungry, murderous couple misunderstand them and start what is to become a bloodbath of, yes, epic proportions.

Old legends, epics, and fairy tales repeatedly give the same message: Watch out for those older women of magic and nature, all swathed in cloaks and mystery.

I was born in 1970. At forty-three, I would very much qualify as one of those frightening and vile hags of lore.

What powers might I have?

What nefarious deeds might I inflict on the world?

Who knows what older, nature women are up to? They just have too damned much power...

... with their magic and potions and crystal balls and magic wands.

By F. Juttner
And here's where it gets even more nasty. More often than not, these women are depicted as bitter and cruel, no longer desired by men, and jealous of a young, innocent, beautiful girl whom she tortures, banishes, and afflicts with all kinds of nasty enchantments, poisons, and potions.

Indeed, the girl she hates may well be a younger version of herself: the beautiful woman of nature so idealized in art. This younger woman whom she persecutes is, in essence, her replacement.

Think of Snow White.

By Arthur Rackham
Think of Cinderella.

By John Everett Millais.
Heck, even think of Shakespeare's Ophelia, not so much in Hamlet itself, as in Pre-Raphaelite depictions of her. Would she be floating downstream, singing, beautiful in death, garlanded and lovely... if it weren't for the machinations of the powerful, lusty Queen Gertrude?

There are, of course, some exceptions. Think of Ozma in The Wizard of Oz book series -- though, when you think about it, she's really not that old and the youth whom she treats so well is too young to be a real threat.

After all, it's also in the Wizard of Oz books that we find one of the most horrifying and literal versions of this witchy woman in the person of Lady Langwidere. She literally steals the heads of beautiful women so she can change heads each day the way she changes outfits.

Would she want to try my head on for size?

Probably not.

I'm too old.

So let us return to that poor, banished, younger innocent. No matter how entrapped she is, her sweetness and her rapport with nature bring her comfort. Cinderella finds it with the birds, whose freedom she craves.

By Anna Brix Thompson
So does Sarah in A Little Princess when the evil school mistress banishes her to virtual enslavement in the attic.

By Inga Moore. It's interesting to note that, in the book, The Secret Garden, Mary is described as ugly, yet I found virtually not depictions of her anything but very pretty. At least in this illustration, she looks rather ordinary, if not actually ugly
So does Mary in A Secret Garden.

By Emma Lazauski. 
These beleaguered girls and young women are shown the way to a better place.

And that place is generally a place of magic...

... or nature, or both.

When I was a little child, cruelly abused, I could relate to these stories. I could relate to their horror. I could relate to the loneliness of the heroines. I could relate to finding comfort in communion with nature.

Of course I wanted more.

I wanted to find a secret garden too. I wanted escape.

Snow White
I wanted friends.

I wanted to discover how to grow life out of nothing.

I wanted magic.

I wanted power.

By Mucha
And I wanted beauty too. Doesn't everyone?

In my way, I've found all of those things.

They come with age.

No matter what the fairy tales say.

(I'm linking this up to Visible Mondays at Not Dead Yet, The Thoughtful Dresser literary Thursday at My Closet Catalogue52 Pick Me Up at Spy Girl, and Share in Style.)


  1. The first image you posted is Mucha's "Reverie". Mucha has always been my biggest artistic influence, and it should be noted that he painted his fair share of mature ladies with the same conveyance of beauty and emotion as gave his younger models. Grimm's fairy tales were all about instilling control through fear, and doing so in a pretty package. It's ironic that when these ideas were the norm age was respected far more than femininity, whereas now the opposite is true.


    1. I'm a huge Mucha fan as well. I guess we are all sisters separated at birth?

  2. All of the images are lovely, but I was truly taken by how luminous your skin is. I am completely jealous!

    1. Thanks! It's funny you should mention it because I'm actually for once wearing some foundation in these photos. Someone in my previous apartment building was getting rid of some make-up and I took a very light, very pale foundation. I usually never wear foundation because it looks cakey, but I sometimes use this one on the parts of my skin that get red -- chin, nose, etc -- and I think it looks very natural, even close-up.

      When I was a kid, my cousins used to joke that when we played night time hide-and-seek games, they could find me because I glow in the dark.

  3. Thank you for this essay and the beautiful illustrations. I learned a lot about the fear of powerful (mature) women, and I have much to consider! And thanks for sharing the history, and philosophy, with Visible Monday.

  4. I was so nuts about the JNO R Neill (John R Neill) Oz illustrations as a little girl. Ozma always wore the lovely red poppies in her hair, like some of the Mucha women. All these take me back ... illustration art hits me where I live. Narrative. Always narritive!

  5. Beautiful illustrations, and beautiful photography. You look lovely! Very pretty accessories you picked for your fairy-tale-ish post!

  6. The first part of this post connects very strongly with the book I'm reading right now - The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery. The main character transform into just that type of "nature girl" and it scares the crap out of her uptight Victorian family. ;)
    Thanks for linking up with Thoughtful Third Thursday!

  7. I enjoyed reading this again as Beau pointed it out to us today! So thoughtfully written and beautifully presented.

  8. Wonderful post, I love powerful women and autumn as you get closer to spring
    Thank you so much for joining the Share-in-Style family

  9. Your post are so inspired me!! lovely pictures and awesome illustrations!!!