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.