Painting VicesIn today's world, we don't often think of painting as having much to do with morals unless, that is, some English artist steps on some hypersensitive mayoral toes. For the most part, painting in recent years has been so wrapped up in contemplating its own navel, that any immorality it might convey might best be described as the sin of self-indulgence. Whatever morality or immorality depicted in the arts has, by now, moved on to more viable artforms such as movies or television, leaving painting largely amoral in context. However that has hardly been the case in the past. For centuries painters carried with them in their paint boxes a strong moral code both when they were bought and paid for by the church and in later years when the content of their secular work tended to reflect Judeo-Christian ethics largely taken for granted (officially at least) by the upper classes in society who bought and paid for it.
In the past, most painters taught morality by presenting positive role models, often straight from the Bible. Even when painting mythological subjects, no matter how erotic, there was always a story with an implied moral lesson. However, morality can also be taught using negative models. And though this method has not been nearly as common, many artist have seized upon it to entertain and enlighten the public as to the wages of sin and various social evils. They have often used satire, humour, proverbs, puns, signs, and symbols to illustrate the evils of various misdeeds such as drunkenness, loss of virtue, gambling, infidelity, vanity, profligacy, and foolishness. The Dutch artist, Quentin Massys in his The Ill-Matched Lovers (c. 1522) for example, paints a lecherous old man behaving foolishly with a young lady half his age who, as she toys with his affections, also lifts his purse and passes it to a devilish looking cohort behind her. A fool and his money are soon parted.
Jan Steen, another Dutch painter some one-hundred years later explored The Effects of Intemperance depicting a drunken mother, her children stealing from her purse and feeding dinner to the cat while a young maid servant tempts the family parrot with a glass of wine. Parrots symbolised the idea of learning by example. On the steps lies a half-eaten loaf of bread resembling a skull, adding a vanitas element to the list of other symbols suggesting the family's eventual fate. A century later, English artist William Hogarth did a whole series of amusing paintings, later reproduced in mass quantities as etchings, in which he explores the hypocrisy of an arranged marriage between two families feeding upon one another, willing to ignore all moral elements as they attempt to shore up their social and financial status without regard for the young couple.
The French artist, Jean-Baptiste Greuze used the symbol of broken eggs to suggest a loss of virtue as a young miss sits desolated while her suitor attempts to console her mother and reassure her of his ultimate good intentions. A young boy, perhaps the girl's brother, attempts to patch back together one of the broken eggs. In the nineteenth century, the egg involved is Augustus Leopold Egg, another English artist, who paints a husband, gazing down sadly at his wife, prostrate on the floor at his feet. Beneath his foot lies a love letter to his wife from another man. In the mirror over the fireplace, a door is seen standing open, indicating that he has the right to cast her out. On a chair in the background, their children build a house of cards suggesting the frailty of the family unit because of their mother's adultery. The work is entitled Past and Present, No 1. The stakes have been raised. The immorality is adultery, prostitution, and gambling. No one is laughing. Today, when art deals with such themes, as in TV and the movies, in many cases the immorality is that there is seen no immorality - implied or otherwise. Perhaps it's just as well painters have long since been bypassed by the burden of any such moral judgements. Most of us wouldn't have the stomach for it.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
1 May 2001