Literary and Artistic Portraits of the Eighteenth Century Oriental and Occidental Woman

An iconological Approach

Master's Thesis, 2001

55 Pages, Grade: 10

Free online reading


Argument for a Synchronic Interpretation

The East and the West landscape and man – nature and love

The Literary and Artistic Portrait of the Chinese Woman

Representation of the Feminine Beauty in English Painting and Literature

Work Techniques in the East and the West


List of Illustrations in order of their appearance

Argument for a Synchronic Interpretation

At a first glimpse, a comparative study upon Eastern and Western culture could seem as lacking the argumentative background, because it is known that the two cultures have always had a different perspective upon the world, social relationships, love, and last but not least, arts. However, I took the risk of a synchronic analysis of the Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, written by the Chinese writer Cao Xue Qin and Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, making appeal to the visual element, as an intermediary between the author and the interlocutor, with the purpose of facilitating the decoding of meaning and revelation of the common elements of the two literary texts.

In this approach I decided to focus on two feminine portraits Lady Graham and Lady Sheridan, by the English painter Thomas Gainsborough and a work of art belonging to the Chinese space, entitled Spring Morning in the Han Palace, by Qiu Ying. The comparative approach is supported by the theory of intertextuality, which could allow a better understanding of the two literary texts, perceived as a common structure.

Although the two literary texts belong to two different cultures and have been obviously elaborated independently from each other, the synchronic study allows us to swing between the two cultural dimensions, thus, finally, to sketch an overall image of the culture, at the end of the eighteenth century.

Trying to discover a set of relationships unfolding between the author and the text, author and artistic work of art, by making appeal to the visual text, a term coined by Pierre Francastel, in his Realite figurative, could be interpreted as the first step towards an understanding of cultures at a global level.

It is probably an attempt to argue the need of the Romantic individual to evade beyond the geographical borders of the European continent, to explore and assimilate philosophical theories, artistic techniques, landscapes, that could later on be adapted to the demands of the westerners and interpreted as an argument for the evolution of the occidental man.

If we admit that influences can operate also on the level of visions, significances and literary or artistic motifs, we can draw a very thin line between the Eastern and Western mentalities, which could develop into a common trunk, that is the same all over the world, and which can allow us to understand the literary text as a sort of vibrant transformer of intellectualities.

We should also mention the fact that, although Qiu Ying’s works of art do not belong to the eighteenth century, his artistic force influenced the artistic moment that we are talking about, through the vision and power upon the feminine portrayal, through the focus on detail and its decorative style which shocked the entire Europe at the moment of its entrance on the continent.

For this comparative approach I have started from the words of René Étiemble, shocking at the moment of their appearance, who states that “from the fifth to the eighteenth century, in China, there have been elaborated, starting from the hagiographic Buddhist themes, preached in the spoken language, with the purpose of converting the masses, an entire literature of realistic and magical tales – the so called xiaoshuo – which, through a process of agglutination, multiplication and contamination, have created the great Chinese novels. Or, they are synchronous with the first European novels, such as Gil Blas, Tom Jones, Moll Flanders”, and I would add Pamela and Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, which belong to the same literary period and represent the main point of interest of our research. “More than that – and here the things become really sensational – European novels present a scandalous similarity in spirit, technique and tone with the Chinese novels, created undoubtedly away from any western influence”. (Étiemble, 1968, p.36)

Each of the two cultural environments are represented with the help of a visual and literary text, in which we can decode a multitude of symbols. Juan Eduardo Cirlot, in his dictionary of symbols, remarked one of the most common errors of the symbolistic theory, both in the spontaneous interpretation, but also in the occult and dogmatic interpretation, according to which, the symbolic and historic elements are opposed to each other.

In the present study we will try to remove the temporal barriers and understand literature and arts as two entities, loaded with symbols, coexisting on a structural level. Symbolism offers value to an object, which in the present case, is represented by the literary work of art, but of course without losing part of its historical value. Cirlot, citing Mircea Eliade suggests that “it must not be thought that a symbolic connotation annuls the material and specific validity of an object or action. Symbolism adds a new value to an object or an act, without thereby violating its immediate or “historical” validity. Once it is brought to bear, it turns the object or action into an “open” event: symbolic thought opens the door on to immediate reality for us, but without weakening or invalidating it; seen in this light the universe is no longer sealed off, nothing is isolated inside its own existence: everything is linked by a system of correspondences and assimilations” (Cirlot, 1971, xiv), without affecting its validity or authority.

In the present case the transmitter and the receiver of the influences are not in direct relation but separated firstly by the linguistic barrier. However, the intermediaries are those which, along the time, assumed the role of mediation and coverage of certain cultures, completely unknown in Europe, before those times. Thus, we can assume that the experiences of the oriental travels and of the journals inspired by these initiating approaches, had exactly the purpose of circulating forms of expression, that were characteristic only for a specific cultural environment. Through influences we understand the unconscious imitations “able to present the artist as creating a work of art that is essentially individual”. (Grigorescu, 1997, p.67)

Although imitative arts of the East are completely codified, for the European viewer, a certain opening of the horizon becomes visible starting exactly at this moment, as we can no longer explain the artistic developments, encompassing these times, on the old continent. We will reach, at the end of the nineteenth century, such a high level of codification of the visual text, which will make possible the visualization of similitudes between the Japanese art and Van Gogh, Edgar Degas or Paul Klee’s works of art. The arts of the two cultural environments should be perceived as a passionate dialogue, reaching a universal scale, where aspirations and knowledge are happily united.

The East and the West landscape and man – nature and love

A comparison between the East and the West should definitely start from the different visions upon the world, both in point of rapports and sensibilities.

The West has always been focused on the development of the intellectual means, on a certain stylization, which in the end will turn into a complete encoding. Western arts were under the pressure of breaking the barriers of the affect and started focusing on the exact data, of those data intellectually controllable, making no appeal to the senses, while the East was able to focus on the sensory functions.

Starting from the dictum Ex oriente lux, I will try to argue the possibilities of the western arts, which are under the impact of the oriental artistic feeling, even if the instruments are not always the same. Going beyond the main meaning of the aphorism, we have to understand that the western world had a double function: first of all, it was a pole of civilization, and in this sense, we have to consider the capacity of the western man to travel, explore and finally to put a print on the places and people, and secondly, we are talking about an initiating function, performed by this adventurous European man.

The exposure to a culturally new environment, with a new philosophical and ethical system, obviously had psychological consequences. We can mention in this respect the different techniques of survival, not only physical, but also emotional: anxiety, anger, depression. This culture shock had an impact on the artistic sensibilities of the Romantic period. And if we are to talk in Sverre Lysgaard’s terms of the U and W curve of culture shock, after getting in contact with a new cultural environment, for a certain period of time, it will definitely impact your mental and social interaction, and upon return, the individual will feel the need to replicate the experienced environment.

Both the Orient and the Occident attempted in probing the reality: while in the East, the elements of mystery, fantastic and imaginary were hiding in shapes, the Western man, at the end of the 18th century discovers mystery revealing out of those shapes.

The West always searched for the body, showed a high level of curiosity, to know what is behind the thick garments, and this curiosity is argued with the help of the nude study, which in the East is completely inexistent. The East struggled to protect the soul, through a careful scrutiny of the sensibility and emotions. European exoticism opposes to oriental esoterism (Goodrick-Clarke, 2008, p.14), which seeks for the shape, and not for the matter. But both the oriental and occidental men reach a common point, through the harmony with the nature, which pulls the individual’s personality into a secondary plan; in the present case we are talking about the painter or the writer.

The Chinese environment reveals us a world of women belonging to the secret bedrooms, as she is hidden from the common view. At the same time, her portrait reveals us an exotic paradise, full of harmony, where the olfactive senses are exacerbated, while the sounds are turned into a whisper of the leaves, similar to the silk undulation.

This exoticism represents in fact the pillar of a special mentality, which does not want a rapture with the nature, but more of a divorce from the human nature. Sometimes we can observe similar feelings in the western art, particularly in the creation of the revolting artists, lacking contact with the immediate world, under the influence of narcotics, such as opium, but who in fact, aim at a deep understanding of the human condition.

The fact that in both cultures we are talking about the high class, as the main aim of study, we can suggest that there are certain similarities of perception and point of view: imperial concubines or empresses, whose physical characteristics are hidden behind a thick layer of paint or makeup, but whose sensibility and delicacy represent the main point of interest. It is not the salon that moves in the garden, or in the immediate vicinity of the forest, but the nature which enters the palace gates, with the help of the painter’s workshop.

At this point we have to draw certain observations related to the park arrangements, which are raised, during Romanticism, at the highest levels. Once westerners start exploring the East, a large number of botanists start studying different exotic plants which they try to adapt to the European climate. A well-known collector, Robert Fortune, sends from China and Japan an entire collection from the most famous exotic flower gardens: anemones, azaleas, chrysanthemums, gardenias, jasmine, honeysuckle, different varieties of prunes and decorative cherry trees.

The garden or the park becomes an environment of reverie, where the individual can isolate himself from the outer world and can experiment the most contradictory feelings. They reach such a level of specialization in architecture, basing their ideas on the principle of shapes’ harmony, where palaces are built, only to be equipped with the most exquisite gardens and parks, but what is really impressive, is the fact that they are organized according to the principles of the oriental garden.

Thus, appear gardens where the temptation of the East becomes the key for deciphering the space, which most of the times were inspired by the travel literature. Here are the roots of the English garden, which will be later on the source of inspiration for many European royal houses. We can mention in this respect the Pena palace gardens, at Sintra, Portugal, which is considered by Lord Byron a glorious Eden.

“Be it a descendent of Burligton’s neoclassicism, accompanied by the idea of an enlightening liberty, the English garden was the one which mediated the appearance of the exotic and picturesque architecture, in a Romantic sense, stuffed with symbolic, historical and poetic significance. These architectures, objectified as pavilions, kiosks, or temples of different kinds, fountains and artificial grottos and ruins, will spread all over France and Germany, from Ermenonville and Le Raincy to Worlitz, Luxemburg, etc”. (Mărginenau, 1990, pp.22-23)

The poetry of landscape is supported by the idea that nature is the source of all stimuli, corresponding to the artist’s feelings, which he defines and communicates through his work of art. Herbert Read suggests that “the relationships which connect the natural forms in nature are not accidental, and what we call natural life is in fact a relationship between forms, so unrelenting, that without it, this natural life could not exist. The same thing is happening with art: a work of art has at its bases Universal order”. (Read, 1971, p.37)

Leonardo da Vinci appreciated that all the things in the Universe are drawn in the spirit of nature, so there is a connection, a continuum supporting movement and it is able to restore the balance. It is exactly this nature, in perfect balance with the human nature, which becomes the focus of the work of art, both of the visual ones and of the art of the word.

In China it is not the man, but the nature, as the measure of all things. Decorative plants, floral arrangements, gardens and pavilions of the Imperial palaces are all animated by the breath of Heaven and Earth and live according to the rhythm of Yin and Yang. Through the beauty and harmony offered by nature, it is able to participate in the civilizing deeds of the Man.

In his dictionary of symbols, Cirlot cites René Guénon, who considers Yin-Yang as a helical symbol, representing a fragment of the universe, where the opposing elements attract each other, generating perpetual movement, metamorphosis and continuity, in those situations considered contradictory. The vertical line piercing the Yin-Yang couple represents the mystical center where there is no rotation, no impulse or pain. It corresponds to the Hindu symbol of the wheel of life, or transformation, or the so-called exit from the labyrinth, as it appears in the Egyptian culture, or even in some parts of Europe.

Painting glorifies the sensual presence of nature, in the immediate vicinity of the woman, exactly for the purpose of highlighting characteristics such as: genuineness, delicacy, fragility, and above all, love. (Cirlot, 2005, p.380)

The shapes of the Chinese architecture – the pagoda and the pavilion – are integrated in the landscape perceived as décor, contemplated as a plastic structure, and not lived as a spatial volume. In the spring edition of the Chinese Literature – Fiction, Poetry, Art, Zong Baihua realizes a study in Chinese painting, that he opposes to the Western one. It is very interesting to see the reverse perspective, from the East to the West, where the researcher talks about the contrast between “the live expression of the states of mind”, “control of the brush and ink”, “abstract versus concrete”. If we consider the occidental critical approach, the West is considered the civilizing unit, able to manage elements such as: shape, harmony, mimesis, unity in complexity, feelings, all those elements that we can find in Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings. (Baihua, 1987, p.177)

In Chinese art, the fundamental element, animus as Carl Gustav Jung calls it, and which is perceived as the amount of psychological qualities, does not represent a copy of reality, and is not the direct result of an individual’s need to look at infinity. What stays at the fundamental basis of Chinese painting is the fusion of soul and natural infinity.

The fact that the entire Chinese art is infused with the Taoist philosophy, turns it into a world, dominated by inner peace. Chinese art concepts are: space, peace, depth of the soul and not of the surface.

In the West, the surface of the work of art requires preparation; it needs a first support layer, before the painter could start his masterpiece. At the same time, in the Western art, perspective is the key element, which is completely unknown for the Chinese artist. The Chinese painter arranges objects or characters in the same plane as nature, having no knowledge of space or depth, which in the West can produce shadows or color hints. “In the Chinese painting, the unpainted background is not represented by void, but by a flow of the universal spirit, of the spirit of life, which is the source of all phenomena”. (Baihua, 1987, p.178)

In painting, and I am referring here not only to Chinese painting, emotions represent the raw material for the human interaction. The West made appeal to romantic or even allegorical connections, in order to create the illusion of the infinity, while in China, nature represents the key of life, and the allusions are completely useless, in a simplified society, but so complex at the same time.

The reading and re-reading of the Chinese painting is for the Western man completely sealed, because we cannot discover the major themes, which we used to connect to human feelings: romantic love, passion followed by hatred, exuberant youth. Characters neither express sadness, nor joy, frivolity or total darkness. The sates of mind of the man are kept in balance. Man is present in this world of nature, but a different code for understanding is necessary, leading to an externalization of feelings, that man in general has for his fellows.

The Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber is created around the preestablished connections between wood and stone, on the one hand, and gold and jade, on the other. In his study, Archetype and Allegory in the Dream of the Red Chamber, Andrew Plaks talks about the so-called bipolar complementarity, between the above mentioned four elements. (Placks, 1976)

In Chinese culture, wood is a symbol of spring, nature growth, plants’ development, while in the novel it symbolizes the efflorescence of the relationship of love, while gold is a symbol of the falling leaves, of the autumn, both as a natural phenomenon, but also with a view to the erosion of the soul. The meaning of the name Lin Daiyu is “the trees of the forest”, while Bao chai ’s surname is Xue, which in Chinese means “snow”. Thus, through agglutination and accumulation, the two characters, forming a couple, put themselves under the sign of Yin. (Rolston, 1990, p.332)

“According to Chinese doctrine, Nature is divided into two parts – Yang and Yin. Yang is light, warmth, life, the Heavens, and Yin is darkness, cold, death and the underworld. Yang is the male principle and Yin is female. According to the Chinese classics Yih-King, Heaven is jade, is gold”, and the two components, are able to charge with energy the persons that swallow them. In other words, they have the power to intensify the forces of the soul. (Mackenzie, 1996, p. 82)

If we are moving back to European arts, and refer to Thomas Gainsborough, we have to say that he is considered one of the few European painters, whose feminine portraits seem almost fabled, soulless, lacking life and intensity of human feelings. The mastering of this technique is reached with the help of an artifice: bringing the nature inside the artist’s shop, allowing the canvas to fill in with the painter’s feelings.

Gainsborough’s eye has the capacity to organize light, sometimes exaggerating the color the lines of a jaw, or the posture of a hand, but everything with the hidden aim of creating a studied portrait, where women appear as if they leave the space and time.

This is the exact moment, when the two artistic environments interfere. By placing the feminine character in the imperial garden, or in the park of an imposing English castle, her characteristics are highlighted, and a really autonomous human being is defined, very familiar with the place.

In general, painting very rarely approached feminine physiognomy, considering it less vibrant, and the painter, always a man, studying his feminine model, used to retain more of the beautiful shapes and the regular features, than the deviations from the ideal of beauty.

The Chinese novel takes place almost entirely in the gardens of the imperial palace, “out of which characters decide to leave, only to die” (Roznoveanu, 1983, p.262). A disappearance from this garden, considered the center of gravity of human existence, is equivalent with a total disappearance from the novel.

The narrative performance of the Dream of the Red Chamber (1791), written by the Chinese writer Cao Xue Qin, read in the key of realism, is in fact a presentation of the failure of miming a transcendent world of absolute beauty. Nothing is perfect, apart from the nature, surrounding people. The flowers, the whisper of the bamboo trees, the quiet sound of the willows, surrounding women’s pavilion, all these elements are clues towards an understanding of the eroticism, of the secret thoughts, towards the real existential path.

The English park, where the feminine character, Pamela, seeks for the peace of heart, represents a mirror where the fragile soul of the haunted woman, suffering personal dramas, finds its reflection. What the two heroines, the one in the Chinese literature and in the English novel, have in common is represented by the trauma provoked by the unfulfilled love, which finally results in a marriage in the West and death, in the Oriental space.

The Literary and Artistic Portrait of the Chinese Woman

Written in the final part of the 18th century, more specifically in 1791, the novel Dream of the Red Chamber belongs to the literary period called Qing-Ming dynasty, or the Manchurian Qing dynasty. It represents a conversion of an ancient fairy tale, being considered both a realistic and an erotic and fantastic novel, if we have in mind the key that the reader needs, for an appropriate decoding of its meaning. For many generations, literary critics tried to decode the hidden significances of the wordplay, names, anagrams, metonymies and lyrics of Chinese oral literature, that appear again and again along the novel.

The same as in the case of the Chinese ideograms and of painting or calligraphy, the novel needs a detailed decoding. On a vertical line, it is created on bands of meaning, as Arno Schmidt calls them, which are superimposed, for the purpose of creating a tridimensional perspective.

In painting, meaning is created by using the same dimension for all plans of the canvas, the horizon being placed unusually high. The image obtained is similar to a multilayered pavilion, richly ornamented. At the basis of the edifice we will find the tragic love story of the heroes: Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai, Baoyu being considered the main character, by literary critics. But instead of narrating events in a superficial manner, the author decides to penetrate the consciousness of the characters, in order to reach the real tragedy, that of social origins, hypocrisy, Chinese feudal society harshness, at its final stage.

The fact that Baoyu is forced to hide his feelings of love for his cousin Lin Daiyu, from the family, who already planned his marriage with Baochai, makes the union of gold and jade and the separation between wood and stone to take place not as a result of the character’s actions, but under the pressure of the moral set of values guiding his life and that of the people around him.

The novel transcends the barriers of a tragic love story, collecting scenes of social life, conflicts and ultimately, predicting the tragic faith of the Chinese feudal society. It represents a harsh criticism of the Chinese feudalism, with all its ethical and moral implications, with a view to the cruel act of planned marriages, based on family interests, and not on the feelings of the young couple.

“The author overturns the rules referring to the social status of the man and woman, in the context of the family. This fact is requested by the lack of honesty. Sincerity is the nucleus around which the entire epic ceremony of the Dream of the Red Chamber unfolds”, the core around which the feminine character of the English novel also gravitates. (Hogea-Velișcu, preface of Qin’s novel, 1985, p.6)

The essence of the human being is in nature. The man and nature become a single homogenous unit, where science and objectivity no longer exist. Chinese man lives in nature as a result of the balance that is developed between the two of them. There is an invisible line, which positions the individual on the border line between Heaven and Earth, thus creating the universal equilibrium between Yin and Yang.

The novel has three keys in which it needs to be decoded: first of all we can talk about the love story between Jia Baoyu, who has to choose as a wife one of his two cousins, Lin Daiyu and Baochai, secondly we are told about the decline of an important Chinese royal family, the Jia family – and here we are faced with a set of elements related to the moral and immoral values and actions of the Chinese high class – and last but not least, we are told the stories of the twelve feminine characters, that appear along the novel.

In his study, entitled Men and women in Qing China: gender in the Red Chamber Dream, Louise P. Edwards explains the fact that the twelve feminine characters, Lin Daiyu, Xue Baochai, Shi Xiang yun, Wang Xifeng, Qin Keqing, Jia Yuanchun, Jia Yingchun, Jia Tanchun, Jia Xichun, Jia Qiajie, Adamantina and Li Wan, represent the twelve beauties, Shier chai. The choice for the number of these characters is not accidental, as in the 6th century, the poet Wu Dixiao (502-557), uses a metaphor symbolic for the beauty of the twelve feminine characters. Along the novel, Cao Xue Qin unfolds the tragic story of each of the twelve characters.

The point of convergence between the two literary texts, one from China and the other one from England, refers to the common ideology referring to the sexual problems, the perception upon the differences between sexes, and the conclusion that we can draw is that, in spite of the differentiating cultural element, human relationships appear as natural and normal all over the world, woman’s status being perceived in the same way, the social code and the level of civilization of a society, at a specific historical moment being the one that makes the difference.

As Louise Edwards observed, drawing a comparison between the western mentality and the oriental one, with a view to the problem of the distribution of privilege and power between sexes would seem almost ridiculous, because social inequalities are obvious in the Chinese society of the times. (Edwards, 1994, p.2)

I would rather focus on highlighting the common elements of the two cultural environments, with regard to the way women are represented in literature, the analytical apparatus used by writers when characterizing women, the delicate way in which they are portrayed, and which, of course, is filled with symbolism on the Chinese space.

A second layer where we can glimpse a similar approach is the placement of character between sacred and profane, a contradictory association between the notion of purity, chastity and ultimately virginity, with that of a defamatory space – the house of Mr. B and the garden, or more specifically the Chamber of the Celestial Fragrance – out of which the woman either evades victorious, by acquiring a status, or dies, acknowledging her own error.

Lin Daiyu, who represents the perfect feminine model in Chinese culture, shows an outstanding sexual morality, accepting a painful death, perceived as a passive suicide, letting herself be dominated by a disease which will ultimately kill her, after she learns about the marriage plans of Baoyu. She is in fact the victim of the Earthly passion, who does not benefit from the Taoist mercy. We have a set of dichotomies, between real and surreal, natural and supernatural, human and divine, which are completely inexistent in Western literature. The guidance of the human beings upon the divine ruling is stronger in the Orient, where compromises, concessions or unwanted marriages are completely unacceptable.

The Chinese writer values the feminine character who would rather die, instead of losing her dignity, honor, chastity, as she does not respond to the man’s challenges.

Such an ideal representation of the woman makes us believe that in Chinese culture, in spite of different philosophical orientations, present along the centuries, male privilege is the ruling element, woman being just an alternative for masculine self-veneration, and thus, justifying the argument that considers the male character as the main point of interest of the novel, around whom the entire set of events unfold.

In this respect, the novel should be viewed as a bi-dimensional entity, similar to the Chinese painting, as an oscillation between real and surreal, where the main characters, the man and the woman, become prisoners of the personal dramas. (Edwards, 1994, p. 58)

As in the Western culture, during the Qing dynasty, in China, women were judged according to their level of chastity or purity, and Qin’s novel does not make an exception form this rule. His women are separated into two categories: the pure ones, the unmarried, virgin girls, the two main feminine characters, and as in a mirror, the married ones, who are seen as carrying the stigma of vice, seeking for power and able to develop feeling such as jealousy.

Very interesting is the fact that in Chinese culture, the ideogram for married man is called qu, while the woman is called jia. Qu is a word made up of two significances: the above part means to obtain, while the bottom one means woman. Women’s status of inferiority is highlighted also by the fact that the woman is placed at the bottom of the ideogram. Jia is also made up of two components: woman and house, placed on an equal position, marriage being understood as a possibility and chance for the woman to find a home.

In Chinese traditional culture, daughters are perceived as temporary members of the family, who will find the real home in a different place. Confucianism sees the woman as responsible for the marriage, a humble subject, under man’s ruling. She represents an instrument for the perpetuation of the species, showing obedience to her man.

The same theory is applicable in 18th century western world, where the man is his wife’s master, who uses the name Master, when addressing to her husband. In China, the same form of address exists – laoye – which has the same meaning, of master.

Pamela is an example of this type of relationship, as she chooses to marry her former master, Master B. Before marriage, she fights for her chastity and dignity, but once marriage is consumed, she accepts all conditions imposed by the marital contract.

If we now move on to the artistic level of our study, in China, we will observe that the Chinese artist covers different layers of the landscape, covering not only buildings and trees, but also human nature, hiding behind the immediate world.

In the painting Spring Morning in the Han Palace, (approx. 1510-1550), the artist Qiu Ying removes the roof of the pavilion in order to gain access, on a vertical line, into the secluded world of the secret chambers of the women, and as he does not use the raccourci technique, which implies a minimization of the sizes of the studied object, the Chinese artist offers his characters and objects the same dimension.

Along the centuries, the pavilion had a multiple function: “we don’t have any famous mountain without a pavilion, no river or lake without a pavilion, neither park, nor garden without a pavilion” (Junzhen, 2002, p.2). Landscape artists suggest that during the Ming dynasty, in China, the park and pavilion arrangements reach the highest level of artistic mastery, in point of form, structure, function and social implications.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Qiu Ying, Spring Morning at the Han Palace (1535), colored ink on silk, horizontal roll, h. 30.6 cm, Taichung Palace Collections (Taiwan)

The Chinese artist creates the portraits based not on what he sees, but on his knowledge about the objects, so he has a physio-plastic perspective. Because the scene, placed in the women’s quarter of the Imperial Palace, offers details of daily life: a painter accomplishes the portrait of the Empress, or maybe of an imperial concubine, while the servants, similar to a bird flock – the bird being a powerful symbol for feminine beauty and sensitivity – offer a spectacle of their submission to the master. Nothing reveals the real feelings or thoughts, everything is created to reveal an artistic splendor.

It looks as if it is made up of three different masterpieces, in which the two flanks converge to the center of interest, represented by the main feminine character, who lets herself painted, by the painter himself. It looks as if it is a bipolar composition, in which the two flanks need independence, in order to offer a double force to the main character. (Arnheim, 1995, p.147)

The two glass screens, which allow the viewer to guess the entire scene of the women’s pavilion offers the possibility of a dialog between the two parties, which seem as if they study each other. The two groups of women on the left and on the right, with the eyes towards the painter’s masterpiece who is finishing the portrait of the empress are separated by a vertical line, made up of the painter and his object of study, who looks as if she is petrified. We are faced with a sort of game of the states and movements.

When describing the main feminine character, Qin uses soft and simple words, using a large variety of colors, full of delicacy, that turn the woman into a tiny porcelain figurine, carefully decorated.

It is exactly at this point that the welding between the literary portrait and the image is created. The secret that it hides is represented by the discreet beauty, hidden behind a wall of artifice – sometimes a thick layer of peach like makeup – which endows the woman with a power to shine through her simple presence in the space. It is a sort of repetitive artistic canon, while the individualization is determined by the décor.

Chinese colors are unbelievably subtle, being in a consensus with the symbolism offered by spirituality. Red, considered the fundamental symbol of the vital principle combines with the fertile and harmonious yellow. Thus, clothing or the bridal beddings appear colored in yellow, as a symbol of imperial power, center of the universe, similar to the sun, which is at the center of the solar system. The empress appears as the center of power of the painting, that supports the entire artistic edifice.

The garden is the place where most of the events take place; it is the place where feelings of love or despair are expressed; it is the place where the main masculine character’s madness unfolds. The garden expresses the states of mind of the characters involved in the novel’s action: either joy and joie de vivre or complete sadness, disgrace or sexual attraction.

In his dictionary, James Hall talks about the garden as a symbol associated with the idea of an enclosed space, surrounded by fences, hortus conclusus, as a symbol of a purity and sensitivity almost divine. (Hall, 1980)

Almost always Chinese art makes appeal to the nature in order to highlight the beauty of the woman. Thus, sometimes the woman is placed near a river or a mountain, under a blossoming cherry tree branch or in the immediate vicinity of a bamboo bush. Cirlot, in his dictionary of symbols suggests that the woman was associated in anthropology with the passive principle of the nature.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Qiu Ying (Chinese, about 1494–about 1552), Harper Player in a Pavilion, Chinese Ming dynasty, early 16th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

When accomplishing the feminine portrait, we have to start from an external narrative instance, in order to reach the essence of the matters. The portrait is created according to the principle of finery, which is able to complete a portrait. Very often these external details mean assigning hierarchy and social status: the headpiece is an indictment of a princely family, while the paper fan, in a certain position can make the difference between an imperial concubine and the future Empress. Clothing, full of color, high coiffures, richly ornamented fans, excessive makeup, are all elements of the spectacle offered by the Chinese woman, to a world of westerners so desperate to absorb exoticisms.

Because of the Yin-Yang dualism, Chinese painting prefers groups of two or three elements, which reduce the composition to the minimalist principle of a very small number of elements. The same principle is used in our study, where the painter concentrates significances, offering in fact the key for its decoding. Isolation of the characters in groups placed laterally, has as a main purpose the development of a wide space, for the unfolding of the events in which the two main characters will appear: the painter and the empress.

The horizontality of the silk, the surface used as support of the painting, does not offer any depth, thus the painter is forced to create a lateral plan, which creates space and air between characters. The only qualities of the canvas able to offer a decorative effect is the dual dimension, the relationship between surfaces, artificial color and repetition of motif, reaching a stylization able to suggest plasticity.

The space is plain because in China we are in a world of shadows, floating in a void. If the artist had introduced a third dimension, the things and people would have been extremely far from the real action, reaching the so called external world, which is in a complete disagreement with the idea that the human being should be in a consensus with the nature.

The vanishing point of the painting, that one where the imaginary perspective lines unite, and which is able to create the feeling of space, is placed extremely high, on the border line between the feminine characters and the two men placed at the forefront of the composition. This is the only possibility that Chinese art has, in order to create a feeling of space and dimension: the multilayering of characters.

On the other hand, the symbols that appear in the painting are of great importance. On the one hand we have the castle, or the fortress, which begins to be represented in art starting with the medieval times, and which is a symbol for the transcendent soul.

Then we can talk about the fan, which is connected with the idea of air or wind, and according to specialists it was used to bring to life the spirits of death. In the painting, the fan is in the shape of a heart, and the feathers highlight the connection with the aerial, celestial element. It is an attribute of the high class in the Asian world, having a great cosmic significance. (Cirlot, 2005, p.347)

What really delimitates the oriental mentality from the occidental one is our impossibility to feel the emotional intensity of the Chinese environment, because we cannot detect the deep sensibility, romantic love or physical beauty of the exotic woman. For us, Chinese world appears as an encoded theatre, that we are almost incapable to decipher, with the help of the feelings soaked in modernity.

George Rowley suggests that Chinese characters are neither happy, nor sad, neither frivolous, nor somber. Physiognomies are simple, even during the crises, when they are able to perform with ritualic movements. (Rowley, 1958, p.135-138)

This principle is valid for Chinese literature either, the novel being an entity which creates itself from inside and is not necessarily supported by characters.

In the Chinese novel eroticism surrounding the characters is determinant for a society whose intellectuality could be confused with the pleasures of primary life. In other words, there is no difference between the feelings resulting from admiring a blossoming branch and the beauty of an exotic woman, as it means living synesthetic eroticism, spirituality and aesthetics. (Roznoveanu, 1983, p. 252)

Representation of the Feminine Beauty in English Painting and Literature

Once the novel Pamela, by Samuel Richardson appeared, we can talk about a new literary genre, which in the 18th century represented an innovation, a step forward towards an understanding of the developing personality, which becomes superior to the bourgeoise values and social privileges.

From the very beginning of this century, English narrative becomes extremely preoccupied with the self, personal experiences, unfolding a diversity of characters, similar to the exuberant canvas of Thomas Gainsborough.

Madame de Stael observed in 1820 that along the history of literature, women’s status was determined by the misconception of her inferiority, as well as a result of the fact that the world paid very little attention to the human interaction between the man and the woman.

As Ian Watt observed, beginning with Samuel Richardson we can talk about a courtly love, as it can be understood, beginning with the 11th century. It is about a literature of fantasy, which speaks about the noble woman, as well as a world where violence, adultery or religious sanctions are not taken into consideration.

What is extremely obvious in the novel is the conflict between the social classes, the fight between the sexual instincts of individuals and their moral code. Until a certain point we can observe a similar situation in the Chinese novel, where love is defeated by social class differences, while the programmed marriage destroys the harmony of the couple. (Watt, 1957, p.138)

Pamela, defined by Watt as the novel of courtship, represents the moment when the redefinition and specialization of the aesthetic values of the society take place, when terms such as: virtue, decency, modesty, delicacy, purity become important for a social group.

If the marriage between Pamela and Mr. B, in spite of all social and economic mismatches, can be considered a victory of the weak sex, in the case of the Chinese novel, we are faced with a defeat of feminine sensitivity, who has to cope with undeniable principles of life: family responsibility, promised marriage, deadly sacrifice.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Etching by Hubert François Gravelot, on the 3rd edition of Pamela, 1742

In its surface structure, the novel is perceived from the point of view of the feminine character Pamela, who is also the author of the letters that she addresses to her family. She does not determine the unfolding of the events but reacts to them. The subtitle, Virtue rewarded should be understood as a gain of a social status once her feelings towards Mr. B are revealed.

The deep structure of the novel probes the events narrated from the point of view of the masculine character, who determines the events and waits for Pamela’s reaction.

Terrence Dawson, in a Jungian approach of the novel Pamela, supports the idea that the two characters develop a psychological relationship, where “class differences, gender stereotypes and sexual domination are all aspects of a complex psychology” (Dowson, 1997, p.266)

As in the case of the Chinese novel, here we are faced with a break of the social barriers, based on the perspective of the two social classes. Similar is also the rhetoric of the characters, perceived as a scrutiny of the forces that determined the individuals to be what they are. The fact that the male character Baoyu chooses to follow the tradition, in spite of the real feelings of his soul, makes him a different character from Mr. B. In fact, in both cases, the story is about the conflict between the public and private life, between appearances and acceptance of a condition, which the western world is able to successfully cope with.

The melancholic temperament of Gainsborough is the result of the creed that a society can be portrayed, with its positive and negative characters, at the highest level of elegance. His feminine characters, very little shaped, are extremely powerful through their look, which becomes the subject of interest in the great majority of cases, while the posture of their heads, blue, orange or green dress, represent artistic impressions, as Mayoux calls them. Everything suggests a total freedom of thought and brush.

Although poetic and full of life, Gainsborough’s art looks as if it is broken from the immediate reality, showing the personality of a restless man, stuck in his world, the painting shop, a world that could be characterized as a poetry of the impossible.

Gainsborough dedicated his entire career to the mastery of the portrait, permanently seeking the ideal creature of his dreams, the ideal of perfection, that became an obsession, until the end of his life.

Samuel Richardson is the painter of a powerful woman, who tries to make himself heard, respected and win the trust of the others, in a world full of cynicism and appearances. Chinese world, on the other hand, is dominated by strict rules, and the woman seeks support to open her personality, the same way the flower opens under the sunshine.

Pamela’s drama is similar to Lin Daiyu’s drama, a search for the clues of feminine beauty, enrolled in the cultural tradition of the world, the essence of the two stories being in fact psychologic realism.

The entire ammunition at Pamela’s disposal: clothes offered by Mr. B, after the death of the master, sheets of paper, pen nibs, wax for letter sealing, basic clothes that she tailors herself, the little straw hat, all these elements create an atmosphere of anticipation: energies accumulate, so that they erupt as a volcano.

Multiple returns to the clothing details are in fact accumulations of emotional states, identical to those presented on canvas by Thomas Gainsborough. His portraits are the proof of a change of style, under the influence of Van Dyck, who manages to strengthen the meaning of colored vibration of matter, be it silk, veil or sky, where his temper can be observed.

By studying his portraits of women, we can observe the evolution of his models, from personalities that look from an outer space, to gradually turning into autonomous human beings, familiar to the places, technique which is accomplished with the help of the background nature, so that in the end, by increasing the visible part of the model, they are able to integrate in the social category that they belong to. Clothing details are the ones betraying the time and space that the model belongs to, while Gainsborough is the master in this respect.

Mrs. Sheridan and Mrs. Graham, the two paintings that I decided to stop to, for the purpose of the present study, as the most representative portrayals of Pamela, are the two situations of her existence, synonymous with simplicity, virtue, sumptuousness and finally vanity.

The two paintings, belonging to the 1770-1780 period, when Thomas Gainsborough was in Bath, in an extremely fashionable environment, maybe one of the most exquisite in the England of those times, answering the orders of the most fastidious and full of style society.

The most important aspect to be discussed about the two works of art refers to the problem of the nodal points, a point of view offered by Arnheim in his study. Human body has the capacity to offer a series of nodal points, full of expressiveness and poetry, and everything is due to the position of the body, head, chin, curve of the shapes, etc. (Arnheim, 1995)

In the case of Mrs. Sheridan, the composition is based on the counterpoint between the hands in the lap, with the palms open towards the exterior and a straight head, with the chin pushed a little up. This opposition, between the exposure and reserve of the model represents the key of the main character’s antithesis. Tension is the general characteristic of the painting: the legs bent over one another, hands clasped, chin a little up, long neck totally revealed, and everything makes us believe that the model is in a state of abeyance, a moment filled with tension.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Sheridan (1783), oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

If earlier before we were suggesting that the Chinese painting does not make use of the third dimension, in the case of Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings, this third dimension appears. With Mrs. Sheridan, the depth of the landscape surpasses the flat character of the canvas, and this is due in fact to the eye of the observer. “Because the eye vector meets vertically the painting’s plan and struggles to continue in the same direction, in order to permeate the depth dimension. The look endows the pictorial position with a supplementary axis, which strengthens any vector targeted at the depth, for example by the central perspective. Which means that only by looking at the painting, the viewer endows the structure of the masterpiece with a higher depth than it really has”. (Arnheim, 1995, p.73)

Mrs. Sheridan suggests a feeling of nature, an overwhelming melancholy, related to the nature. Without any exaggeration, we can talk about the sublime element that is inserted in the work of art, foreshadowing in a way the romantic taste for nature and the feeling of restlessness.

This mature work of art demonstrates the artist’s knowledge about feminine sensitivity, as he carefully studies the states of mind of his character, wretched by the feeling of love. Her chest hops with pain, the veil on her chest floating with the falling wind around the delicate woman. The orange of her dress is in tune with the decomposing nature, with the warm dusk of the early autumn.

Besides the symbolism of color, an important role is played by the tree, as a symbol of the cosmic life: consistency in life and evolution, perceived as a regenerative process, turns it into a symbol of eternal life.

If we are to draw a comparison with the Chinese world, it becomes a symbol of longevity and fertility, being always associated with the flower – particularly the cherry tree flower. This is an obvious element in Qiu Ying’s paintings, in the feminine characters’ attire decoration, and not only. In the Chinese culture, there are three symbols frequently appearing: the bamboo, the cherry tree and the pine, seen as the three friends. (Cirlot, 2005, p.347)

If we return to the English painting, we realize an abundance of chiaroscuro, of insecure tones and contrasts between light and dark, all those inciting effects for the individual sensibility, endowing it with a restless aspect. Thomas Gainsborough’s feminine characters, appearing in his works of art offer us a clue about the social class that they belong to. Most of the times arts had a tendency towards criticizing or favoring the fashion of the period, sometimes exotic, some other times bizarre, and most of the times traditionalist.

The male character of Richardson’s novel, Mr. B, tries to lure the young Pamela with the rich clothing of a mistress, the attire being in fact an adornment that states the social status, a sexual instrument, that sets the social class that the owner belongs to. In the same way, in China, the dressing code of the imperial concubines, or of the simple girls abused by the Emperor, goes beyond the barriers of the social class, being a disguise, full of erotic implications.

Once Thomas Gainsborough’s artistic style evolves and matures, he develops a set of more sophisticated feminine portraits, as Mrs. Graham and Mrs. Sheridan, who look as if they are some real goddesses. The erotic feeling provoked by their appearance, full of sensuality, is translated on the canvas in the shape of a richly ornamented dress, delicate lines of the neck, or the delicate smile on their faces.

Gainsborough’s women are surreal goddesses of nature, because they are always placed in the middle of the nature, covered in an aura of mystery or hidden behind a Doric column, in a state of ecstasy or reverie. This atmosphere is accomplished with the help of artifices, as the background of nature, “which communicates dramatic effects of shadow, foretelling Romantic painting”. (Grigorescu, 1989, p.277)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Thomas Gainsborough, The Honorable Mrs. Graham , 1775, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

The pleasure of feelings, offered by Gainsborough’s paintings allows us to affirm that they belong to the category of the sublime, beyond the limits of the natural and of the transcendent contemplation, towards the area of the visual and tactile effects.

Work Techniques in the East and the West

Although in point of techniques, there are huge differences between the two cultural environments discussed, which are mainly determined by the artistic taste of each and every society, as well as a result of the cultural canon imposed by territorial limits, we have to admit that the artistic representations have a common point of view: the woman and the world surrounding her beauty.

Social hierarchies create a woman belonging to the high class in England and China, a social status that is acquired naturally or artificially, as in the case of Pamela, usurping a social rank, and becoming an outcast in a world of snobbery.

The technique of the colored inks, specific for the Chinese world, is extremely fluid, and the color penetrates the surface of the paper, coloring it, while oil painting covers the canvas, being rejected by the support material. The ink is an extremely subtle and spontaneous technique, because once put on the paper, there is no possibility of adjusting details. It represents a final work of art, which proves the perfection of the Chinese world.

China was tributary to this technique from an exacerbated traditionalism, but also because the oil color was a European discovery of the Van Eyck brothers, in the 15th century.

Oil colors have the capacity to bring light even in the darkest corner of the painting. This technique is the result of the oil, which can be found between the tiny particles of color. It offers depth, that ink or water colors cannot produce, and as color and light influence our feelings, we can conclude that without them, our souls would be empty. They are in tune with our states of mind, and significances are universal. Thus, the orange in Qiu Ying’s painting or on Gainsborough’s canvas are symbols of a distinction of the human; the dusted pink of Mrs. Graham ’s dress is a clue of elegance, freshness, but also weakness of her soul.

Red, present in Chinese art, corresponds to a process of assimilation, symbolizing warmth, force, but also excitement; all over the world, red is the symbol of harmony and communion.

Delacroix used to consider colors as the music of the eye. Color is the cause and factor for all emotional reactions of the individuals confronted with a painted work of art, but it can also determine the shape; it is the unifying element, completing man’s vision towards the work of art.

In his volume on English Art, referring to Thomas Gainsborough, the Romanian literary critic Dan Grigorescu, speaks about a mixture of transparent and opaque colors: “sometimes the juices, unexpectedly appear on the chalky surface, the painter intervening with charcoal, color, varnishing fragments of drawing and adding wide brushings or blurring the profile with the sponge. The illusion of light and materiality is extraordinary in Gainsborough’s case”, as he is a poet who refuses any change of his subjects into literary characters. (Grigorescu, 1989, p.277).

Chinese, in George Rowley’s opinion, admit the fact that man differs from the rest of the material world and from the minor forms of existence, because he is the subject receiver, the only capable to realize everything around him, and that is why the landscape inevitably became the major theme of the Chinese art and, as it happens in the English space, it turns into a frame for the unfolding of the characters.

The Chinese applied the principle of contraries’ unit, not only in painting, but also in the compositional structures. Non-existence in painting originates in the neutral backgrounds of the early art (Song dynasty, of the 13th century). In western art, that neutral nothingness is replaced with the space, represented by the blue skies, clouds and atmosphere in general.

As a main characteristic specific for both cultural environments, painting has always aimed at representing man in harmony with the nature but highlighting the importance of the human personality. “If compared to us, the westerners, Chinese are so different in distinguishing personalities, the difference is emphasized in the particular case of exterior emotions”. (Rowley, 1982, p.43)

The thematic diversity of the West had as an immediate result the representation of love, joy, sadness, fury, courage, generally those states which man experiences at the highest level. In China, no matter how strong emotions may be, they are not represented, they are not publicly expressed, as this is perceived as a sign of weakness: only the decent aspects need to be showed in public. That is why, occidental emotions are replaced in the orient with frames of mind, or moods, which are lower in intensity. Western painters constantly made appeal to poetic, allegorical and romantic connections, in order to create an illusion of the evasive, subtle state of mind. By contrast, the Chinese artists had a real vocation of the superior harmonies, of the natural reflections, while the allusions were plentifully inserted here and there, in order to codify the visual or literary text.

Gainsborough is for the Western world the artist who develops a new taste for nature, developing through painting a new conception upon the relationships between portrait and the surrounding world, highlighting the idea according to which the natural frame of his characters cannot and should not be the salon or the historical scene décor but, as it happened in the Orient, man should be placed in the middle of the nature, a nature represented in all its changing and harmonious manifestations, in a continuous alternation of the seasons.

As René Berger suggests, we have to try to detach from ethnocentrism, and try to see culture outside hierarchies, in order to be able to feel coherence, and discontinue considering that everything has to be either inferior or superior. (Berger, 1978, p.290)

It is a basic exercise, requiring the common will of a group of individuals, eager to accept the change. “As far as acculturation is concerned, the term signifies an assembly of phenomena resulting from the direct and continuous contact between the groups of different individuals and cultures with the subsequent changes from the cultural typologies of one of the groups. All these things take place through: interaction, change, resistance and tension. Along the history each and every society suffers a process of interculturality and acculturation at the same time. Its result represents the cut out offered by the world map”. (Berger, 1978, p.291)

We can talk this way about a contamination of different cultures, which became the aim and target of the Romantic century, and which only at the end of the 19th century will reach the maximum level of intensity, interference and assimilation.


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List of Illustrations in order of their appearance

Qiu Ying, Spring Morning at the Han Palace (1535), colored ink on silk, horizontal roll, h. 30.6 cm, Taichung Palace Collections (Taiwan)

Qiu Ying (about 1494 - 1552), Harper Player in a Pavilion, Chinese Ming dynasty, early 16th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Etching by Hubert François Gravelot, on the 3rd edition of Pamela, 1742

Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Sheridan (1783), oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Thomas Gainsborough, The Honorable Mrs. Graham , 1775, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

55 of 55 pages


Literary and Artistic Portraits of the Eighteenth Century Oriental and Occidental Woman
An iconological Approach
University of Bucharest  (Faculty of Letters)
Comparative Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
The Master's Thesis, was very appreciated by my coordinator, Prof. Dan Grigorescu, PhD, who graded with maximum of points. Upon graduation he invited to write an article, based on my thesis, for a special issue of iconological studies, published by the University of Bucharest. The article entitled "18th Century Woman in the East and West", published in the volume entitled Metamorfoze: Imagine Text – Studii de iconologie, coordinated by PhD. Professor Dan Grigorescu and PhD. lecturer Alexandra Vranceanu, Bucharest University Publishing House, pp. 33-46, ISBN: 9735756242, 9789735756248.2002.
Chinese and English woman, iconological approach, visual portrait, exoticism, influences
Quote paper
Ana Mihaela Istrate (Author), 2001, Literary and Artistic Portraits of the Eighteenth Century Oriental and Occidental Woman, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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