Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution

By Sara E. Melzer; Leslie W. Rabine | Go to book overview

11

The Engulfed Beloved:
Representations of Dead and Dying
Women in the Art and Literature
of the Revolutionary Era

MADELYN GUTWIRTH

No one could claim that evocations of dead or dying women were lacking in art and literature before the end of the eighteenth century. An ancient Greek genre of funerary epigrams spreads its imagery of brides perishing in the depths from antiquity to the ages beyond. An epitaph by Xenocritus of Rhodes reads,

Your hair rushes still through the salty waters, oh/
Lysidice, young maid perished at sea ... /

A bitter sorrow for your father, who, in leading you to your groom /
has brought him neither a wife nor a corpse.

Quoted in Chénier, 847

Or there is the doomed Ophelia, found in the "weeping Brooke," whose

garments heavy with their drink/
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay/
To muddy death. /

Hamlet, IV.vii

In France we have only to think of the grandiose death scene of Racine's guilt- ridden, incest-obsessed Phèdre, imbibing the magic potion devised by Medea, which darkens her sight forever, as the light of the world returns (Phèdre, V.vii). A fascination with female frailty certainly recurs in western art with some reliability over the centuries, remaining one of the stock of topoi available to it. But no glut of such foredoomed figures exists in modern times before the waning of the Age of Enlightenment and in the century that copes with this heritage. As we consider the era of Chardin, Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard, to cite only the most celebrated of the painters, we find no brooding preoccupation with female dismay, disease, and death. The literary works of the earlier half of the century, which often explore the tensions of female subordination with some intensity, 1 display a greater range of complexity in their portrayals of women. While Montesquieu's Roxane or Prévost's Manon

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