Sunday, January 10, 2016

Shame: "After the Misdeed", c1885

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Isabella reporting,

Although Loretta and I live hundreds of miles apart, we often (very often) talk on the phone, and one of our recent conversations centered on how frequently shamed and fallen women appear in 19thc art and literature.

The reasons for this are, of course, so many and varied that I can't possibly address them all successfully in a mere blog post. (The Foundling Museum  in London recently held and exhibition devoted to the myth and reality of The Fallen Woman, and the exhibition's web site still has a number of good links to explore here.) The morality of the time was behind much of it. The perceived "frailty" of women and the need for them to be protected by Good Men, husbands, fathers, and brother, also meant that women were equally susceptible to unfortunate choices, seduction, and ruin at the hands of Bad Men.

In art (if not in life), the women who became fallen were usually young and beautiful, adding a salacious edge to the tragic morality tale. Not surprisingly, the Bad Man - the rake, the bounder, the seducer - rarely merits a painting of his own.

All of which led Loretta and me to this beautifully dramatic painting. (As always, click on the image to enlarge it.) The artist is a Frenchman, Jean Béraud (1849-1935), who was a contemporary and friend of the Impressionists, and best known at the time for his scenes of Belle Epoque Paris. But he also painted his share of genre and morality pictures. His most over-the-top one is St. Mary Magdalene in the House of Simon the Pharisee, which introduces both Jesus Christ and a well-corseted and repentant Mary Magdalen into a group of wealthy 19thc Frenchmen; I particularly like the unimpressed fellow lighting his cigar to the left.

By comparison, After the Misdeed is subdued. The woman's pose, her face buried in shame against the sofa, leave no doubt that she's sinned. Nineteenth century viewers would be certain that the misdeed she'd just committed must be sexual. Her beautifully fashionable clothing could either show that she's a well-bred lady who has wandered - a pampered daughter rejecting a proper suitor for a cad, or an adulterous wife, instantly filled with regret? Or is she a demi-mondaine, a woman who sold her virtue in return for that elegant fur tippet and bustled dress? The lush red velvet sofa could also represent luxurious excess, a symbol of the woman succumbing to passion.

But Loretta and I aren't 19thc gallery-goers. Despite being Nerdy History Girls, we're firmly in the 21stc, and we couldn't resist considering less momentous possibilities for After the Misdeed. Did this distraught lady arrive at a party where the hostess wore the same dress? Did she use the wrong fork at dinner? Did she leave the parlor door open so that the family dog made a mess on that velvet sofa?

What would you guess her misdeed to be?

Above: After the Misdeed by Jean Béraud, c1885-90, National Gallery, London.


Nancy said...

Her best friend got the guy and she's left doomed to life as an old maid (at least until the next fellow comes along).

We moderns, without the background of art history, would probably miss the details that you helpfully provided to read the painting as a contemporary would. Thanks for the details.

Nancy. (ndmessier @,

pdxknitterati/MicheleLB said...

Wrong note on the pianoforte.

pdxknitterati/MicheleLB said...

PS: The Mary Magdalene painting is fascinating! She's dressed modernly; Jesus is, well, Jesus. is that Mary's gorgeous red (plaid?) cloak on the chair to her left? There's something sparkly on top of it, too. So she's dressed in penitent virginal white, her cloak is sinful scarlet...what are we saying here? And all these men are judging her...

Georgie said...

The Mary Magdalene painting seems to have several "real" people in the background, including Alexandre Dumas Jnr & Marcel Proust's father. I wonder how they were chosen to feature.

The Sinner painting is interesting to me (because I'm shallow) because the colours clash - at least on my monitor. The Sinner's dress is a blue (oh - the Virgin's colour - just noticed that!) that doesn't tone with the deep crimson of the sofa at all. Maybe that's to make it recede, and become subliminal? Also, I can't remember seeing any Victorian furniture quite as opulent as that before. Most sofas were upright so that it was easy for the corseted figure to rise from them. So maybe this is a sofa of easy virtue - a gentlemen's sofa.

Thanks for sharing these paintings - fascinating!

MLM247 said...

Where are the paintings of Fallen Men? Fallen Transexuals? Fallen Lions? Fallen Ships? Fallen children?
The concept of The Fallen Woman is at the heart of domestic violence. Who is at fault? The woman. Did she actually do anything wrong? No. Who did something wrong? Nobody. Was the atrocity of a domestic nature? Yes. Who is punished? The woman.
The idea is the perpetuation of power over another person.
In these paintings (and similarly-themed novels) men determine that women are immoral and weak. Of course this is false. Both men and women are powerful. Bother men and women are weak. It depends on each individual person.

Drayton Bird said...

What a depressing series of paintings - a tribute to the triumph of hypocrisy.

Actually if you study the history of the Foundling Hospital it is little else, though started with the best of intentions.

Re: Louise's comment: even the briefest study of the law in the 18th and 19th century shows there is absolutely no doubt who held the power. Men did.

AuntieNan said...

Oh, my, what a timely post! I was just thinking of Edith in last nights Downton episode. Most women in fiction in earlier times who had children out of wedlock either saw them wither and die, or died themselves, but definitely didn't live happily ever after with them! Neither of these pictures is 1924, but I was tickled that they echoed my question about what they might do with Edith's character! When I first saw the Misdeed I was instantly taken by the rich heavy satin of the gown, subdued but iridescent, and shaped liked the folded wings of an insect in her pose. (as to an earlier posts question about Victorian furniture, I have a low red velvet 1850s chair, very lush, but with a nice flat back, and a matching tiny sofa, just the right size to stage this shot! So I guess not all chairs were tall and flat.) in the Mary M, there is another woman, but placed to the right, very marginal, the servant holding the water pitcher (echoing that MM washed Jesus' feet with her hair?). I can't decipher her expression - puzzled? Wary?

Thanks for this post! Very interesting!
All the best,
Nancy N

Regencyresearcher said...

She argued with the man she loved over something that now seems trivial. He bowed and left. She is now convinced that her hasty temper has lost her the man she loves.
Poor Mary of Magdela, a rich woman, subjected to being attacked by evil spirits but not a prostitute. Her reputation has been stained for centuries because commas and semi colons were late comers to manuscripts.

MaryJeanAdams said...
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MaryJeanAdams said...
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MaryJeanAdams said...

Georgie's comments on the painting of Mary M. were interesting. My first thought was that many of the men looked vaguely familiar, but I don't know enough about French notables to know who they are. If they are real men, were they particularly scornful of women? If so, that might explain a lot. Jesus might be telling them to show mercy to all, even to women. The fact that it is a representation of the last supper is intriguing as well. He died for our sins, regardless of whether we're male or female. He might be explaining to them that He is going to the cross for her as well as for their hypocritical you-know-whats.

Karen Anne said...

Wow, is that painting of Mary Magdalene annoying, with all those males in judgement. I like the theory that she was Jesus right hand, and the male-dominated church over the centuries has done its best to obliterate that.

Unknown said...

The misdeed isn't hers, it's her husband's.

Anonymous said...

"Pharisee" has come to mean hypocrite, so I'm guessing that is the painter's suggestion of the men in the room, except Jesus who seems to be alarmed.
I wonder if each is a person of the 'time', not just the two mentioned above.

Unknown said...

She just found out that her health insurance premium has gone up by 112%.

Karen Anne said...

Ha, ha, ha, Darth. Well, not so funny at that :-(

Brooke said...

"Did she leave the parlor door open so that the family dog made a mess on that velvet sofa?" -- Not with the way she's burying her face on it! :)

bluefalling said...

The modern equivalent is getting busted for drugs. Much harder to romanticize, being strung up on meth with your beauty destroyed, after breaking into cars for loose change.

The downgrading of sex as public shame tracks very nicely with the upgrade of shame for drugs. By the 1970's was the pivot point.

Look at Sherlock - no shame there. It's a personality quirk, not something to be hidden above all else.

Maureen said...

I just (finally catching up) read the blog and had to comment. I find the painting speaks to me emotionally. I want to run over the put my arms around the woman and ask how I can help her. It is beautiful! The composition is wonderful, contrasting colors, the sumptuous clothing, the comfortable red sofa, the white handkerchief the woman holds to her eyes, the trailing fur, her braided brown hair. Next time I am in London I want to search it out... HIs other works are busy by comparison and do not say as much.

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