While looking through my recently-arrived copy of J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, I was drawn to a footnote appended to the description of Waterhouse's work, A Tale from the Decameron (1916). The painting, which illustrates a scene from Giovanni Boccaccio's 1353 collection of novellas entitled The Decameron: Prencipe Galeotto, is among my favorites. I was therefore really surprised to read something about the painting which did not support my visual knowledge of the piece.
The footnote, by Elizabeth Prettejohn, Professor of History of Art at the University of Bristol, England, is as follows:
Some viewers read the rightmost figure as male, but the hairstyle and the design of the sleeve are closer to female figures in Waterhouse's work of this date. The figure may be not quite finished, and the features read as androgynous to twenty-first-century eyes (as do many of Waterhouse's figures of both sexes, particularly in this later period). If the figure is male, then Waterhouse has left out one of Boccaccio's seven women, which seems improbable given his addiction to groups of seven.
"Some viewers read the rightmost figure as male"? Some? Am I really part of the minority when I say that the furthest figure to the right is male?
I think, beyond question, that that particular character is not female, and here are my reasons:
First, to refute Professor Prettejohn, the hairstyle of this figure (#7) is the same as the hairstyle of the decidedly male lute player in the striped hose (#6). The females all have long hair, beyond shoulder length, and though the figure with the crown (#4) has her hair gathered so that it looks like a similar bob, Waterhouse has given her the circlet to accentuate her femininity.
Second, all three figures which I claim as being male are wearing the same clothing. All three are wearing hose, a white shirt, and a tunic. The tunics are all open at the neck, and laced. Figure #7's sleeves, though possibly similar to those Waterhouse painted on many of his female figures, are not specifically female in style. This "puff and slash" motif was used in both men's and women's clothing. The women in the painting are all wearing long gowns.
Thirdly, Waterhouse was a classicist, not a realist, meaning that he idealized his figures. The women all had alabaster skin, rosy cheeks, and, almost always, upturned, pixie-like noses. The men, including figure #7, have darker skin, and Romanesque noses. #7 also has 5 o'clock shadow, which Waterhouse generally did not give to his female figures.
Fourth, the figure is finished to the degree Waterhouse intended. In the second footnote to the painting, Prettejohn references a letter Waterhouse wrote to the collector W.H. Lever, Lord Leverhulme, warning that the painting might not be ready to exhibit at the 1916 Royal Academy. The fact that the painting did appear in the show suggests that Waterhouse had completed the piece to his satisfaction.
Fifth, in the study for The Decameron, Waterhouse had included a sixth female figure in the main grouping. Originally, there was a figure laying on the ground between #5 and #6. Perhaps Waterhouse removed the figure because he didn't like the composition or because she was the model who "defected to the country"† and was no longer available. †also from Prettejohn's second footnote.
Sixth, if Professor Prettejohn's argument is based solely on Waterhouse's fondness for numerical symbology, then it should be remembered that the painting is really about the 7 figures in the foreground. Figures #8 and #9 are so indistinct as to be just props in the background; even the trees are painted with more detail.
Lastly, in Waterhouse's painting The Enchanted Garden (1917), which remained unfinished at the time of his death, the male figure on the right appears to be the same model as #7 in A Tale from the Decameron. The Enchanted Garden was based on the fifth tale of the last day of Boccaccio's Decameron.
Though Professor Prettejohn offers a romantic reason for the occlusion of the tenth figure, I think she is mistaken in thinking the figure on the right is a woman. Prettejohn suggests that the "missing" male alludes to the tragedy of war and all of the young men killed during World War I. It would be a wonderful sentiment, but it is an error to assign this kind of meaning to an artist's work posthumously. I think the professor was probably closer to the mark when she commented in the painting's description about Waterhouse's ailing health as the reason behind the missing tenth figure. The model moving to the country, as mentioned in the second footnote, and quite possibly the deadline of the looming 1916 Royal Academy, were also probable factors in this decision.
What do you think? Are you too in the minority, or do you agree with the assessment that A Tale from the Decameron features 7 women, and 2 men? I'd love to hear your opinions.
When writing this post, I thought it was essential to consult someone with a greater knowledge than I about the costuming in the piece. The most I could tell was that the men were wearing fashions from the late 15th, early 16th centuries, and that the women were wearing a Victorian, romantic representation of medieval clothing. I chose to contact Gail Kellogg Hope, an artist and a seamstress who specializes in period reproductions to ask her for her opinion on the costumes, and her response blew me away. She broke down the clothing by figure, and even gave suggestions as to how she would go about recreating the outfits. In general, the costumes are mixtures of the 1400's and 1500's, with elements from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries mixed in.
All of the figures are very Arthurian in dress, meaning the Pre-Raphaelites made their own fashions. This is very much in the mode for the Artistic Dress Movement, which reached its height in the 1910's.You have to remember that these were impressions and inspirations, rather than 100% correct representations. They picked & chose what they liked and then reshaped it to fit the paintings.
Women's fashion eventually adopted the designs created by the artists, though the clothing was generally more formal. "They never did convince men to adopt the fashions in these paintings," says Gail.
You can see examples of Gail's work at her site, Oakhill Clothiers.