Sappho by Charles Mengin

File:1877 Charles Mengin - Sappho.jpg

Sappho by Charles Mengin (1877) Picture source: Wikipedia

While I was in Manchester on Saturday I called into the Manchester City Art Gallery. Unfortunately my favourite rooms were all closed. The Modern and Contemporary Art galleries are undergoing some major alterations and the room with the Lowry and Valette paintings were closed to the public for the afternoon for a private function* . Although I was disappointed I had a look round some of the other rooms which mainly display more “historic” art.

Given it’s origins, the Manchester Gallery has a particularly large collection of Victorian art. Most of it doesn’t appeal to me, except for some of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures and a few other works. I’m not particularly keen on meticulous, photographic, landscapes, mythological and historical scenes and thinly disguised pornography that typify painting from this period. In general, they’re not to my taste. However, there are some pictures on display that I like. One example being Charles Mengin’s painting of Sappho. I’m not alone. Apparently the postcard of the painting is one of the top sellers in the Gallery bookshop.

Many Victorian era paintings include naked or half naked women. Although they’re usually  part of a mythological or historical scene, there was really only one reason why they were painted – titillation. This painting of Sappho from 1877 was intended to fulfil that same purpose. But I think that it has transcended the original intention. There is no doubt that it is an erotic picture. But, to me, the subject comes across as a powerful woman rather than a victim.

I think that her expression is supposed to portray her sadness at the loss of her lover, but there’s something about it, and her pose, that seems to suggest something else – pity, perhaps, or even contempt. You could read it as a sulk or even a sneer. To me, she seems to be more in control than being controlled.  I’m sure that definitely isn’t what the artist intended, and what do I know. But that’s the effect the work has on me.

I haven’t been able to find anything about Mengin, other than he was born in Paris, painted in the “Academic” style and exhibited at the Paris Salon in the late 1870’s. Sappho seems to be his only painting of note


*I wasn’t happy about the latter, especially as it’s the second time it’s happened when I’ve visited the Gallery recently. A commercial event preventing visitors seeing some of the Gallery’s most popular paintings. A sign of the times? But I’ll not rant about.

4 thoughts on “Sappho by Charles Mengin

  1. Just a suggestion about the popularity of the postcard. Yes the titillation but also Manchester has one of the main gay villages in the area and Sappho has always been an important figure in lesbian culture.

  2. Contrary to your opinion of Sappho, the name of my female cat, which you’re entitled to have, I don’t think the Pre-Raphaelite paintings were painted for “titillation” sake. They were painted to show the beauty of women like most paintings of women have been over the centuries as well as in sculpture. Having studied life drawing, fashion illustration and fashion design in NYC and having been a fashion illustrator in Manhattan the P.R.B. were revolutionary and the forerunners of artists like Alphonse Mucha, the father of graphic design and illustration and Gustav Klimt of the Art Nouveau movement! Am currently working on my own painting of Sappho inspired by Mengin but have made some slight changes and have incorporated the brushstrokes of Sargent. Wish we could find out more about Mengin!

    • Thanks for your comment Brenda 😊 Fair point and I agree that the Pre-Raphaelite paintings often did show the beauty of their models. But I stick by my opinion that some (not all) paintings are intended to titilate with gratuitous nudity, and that would also certainly be the view of some feminist critics. But, hey ho, there are different views on this.
      Good luck with your painting of Sapho. Hope it turns out how you want it 😉

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