A Reactionary Suggestion
GOING, one morning in early June, while the horse-chestnut and acacia blossoms were still making an outdoor fête in Paris, to the Louvre, to pass a consecrated hour or two with the pre-Raphaelite masterpieces on the walls, it was my unexpected fate to be started off in a train of thought entirely foreign to the occasion. The company of the pre-Raphaelites is usually the most soothing in the world. One loves these early Italian masters, not because they make one think, but because they make one feel. It was therefore not only surprising, but disappointing, on this brilliant spring morning, to have all my previous experience of their influence flatly reversed by a faded, partly defaced, and generally overlooked fresco by Botticelli, or by the pupils of Botticelli.
This fresco is not in the Salle des Primitifs, where the works of Sandro and of his school naturally belong. It hangs instead at the head of the great staircase known as the Escalier Daru, and it came, together with its companion piece on the opposite side of the landing, from the Villa Lemmi, near Florence. The subject is allegorical, being the presentation of the youth Lorenzo Albizzi to the Liberal Arts, who are personified, after the fashion of the period, by seven female figures.
Never was allegory conceived under a more delightfully natural and human aspect. Gazing at the group of lifelike and life-size figures, one is tempted to believe that they must have been revealed to the painter in a prophetic vision of the nineteenth century. The sedate, graceful, charming person placed on a raised dais to the right, as you face the picture, might be sitting for an idealized portrait of the dean of a modern female college. Her figure, as she bends earnestly but gently forward, is hidden under a scholar’s gown, probably a doctor’s, hooded and heavily trimmed with fur. On her head is a cap, an eminently scholarly cap, yet at the same time such an individual, appropriate, preëminently feminine one that it is in no wise marred by any suggestion of its having been borrowed from a wearer of another sex. It is of purest white, with a curtain falling lacewise about the throat and veiling it. And over the cap, around the crown of the head, is wound a heavy tress of plaited hair, which passes under and gracefully catches up and loops the long, veiling curtain. Nothing could ornament a woman’s head more effectively than this lovely band of plaited hair. Its owner’s right hand is raised in a gesture of exhortation, as of a lecturer who would enforce a point. Between the fingers of her left hand, which rests in her lap, is held what seems to be a slender branch of palm. At her knees and feet are grouped, three on either side, her feminine dons. They also are gowned in scholarly fashion, but they appear without caps, en cheveux, as the French say, with the exception of one, who by the Eastern burnous twisted around head and shoulders, as well as by the crab and wand in her hands, would seem to be the professor of astronomy. The youthful professor of music wears a delightfully dreamy inspired air, while the holder of the chair of mathematics is plainly not oblivious of the decorative value of elaborately woven locks. To this presence enters from the left of the picture the young Lorenzo, led by a grave-eyed but lightfooted girl graduate.
It was the surprisingly modern note in this graceful composition of the Cinque Cento which irresistibly connected it with one of those disturbing contemporaneous questions that ought to lie comfortably dormant in the mind, in the serene presence of an old master. " Has the movement for the higher education and equal rights of women after all really improved the sex from an allround point of view ?” I futilely asked, and still sometimes ask myself, when I happen to look at my framed photograph of the fresco from the Vida Lemmb
Sociologically — yes, no doubt. But with an appreciably increased number of reasonable beings and of competent workers, are there in the world to-day as many adorable wives and mothers and sweethearts ? In lieu of the charm of the emotional, instinctive, intensely individual woman, it is not easy to accept mere reasonableness and usefulness. While women think as clearly as men, and act as promptly as men, side by side with men, who is left to appeal to the imagination, the chivalry of mankind ? It is undeniably much to help, but it is assuredly still more to inspire. And therefore I now and again irrelevantly wonder if the female graduate is likely to furnish an ideal for the poetry and romance of the future, and if an artist will some day be inspired by a female college president to place on canvas a figure as charming as the pretty Dean of the Liberal Arts in the Louvre.