Losing Ourselves: A Greek Woman and a Venetian Painter in Nineteenth-Century Hungary

In Americanah, a novel by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the characters moves from Nigeria to the USA to restart her life after a devastating event. She had been a qualified doctor in her home country, but now she needs to retake her exams while working several jobs to make ends meet. Once she has finally passed the exams and begins to prepare for job interviews at hospitals, she removes the braids from her hair. She had been told that, in the US, the hairstyle she had always worn would make her look unprofessional. Her braids had been part of her identity, but she does it happily nonetheless. As one of the other characters observes, her actions are an example of ‘the exaggerated gratitude that came with immigrant insecurity’.

Call me a monomaniac, but the episode reminded me of a nineteenth-century Hungarian painting: the Greek Woman by Jakab Marastoni (1804–1860). It is one of the best known, and yet most overlooked pictures in Hungarian art: regarded as a facile crowd pleaser, it barely features in art historical narratives, despite its enormous popularity in the mid-nineteenth-century. I think it deserves more: in my interpretation it visualises – or, better still, sensualises – ideas about ethnicity, identity and belonging in a way that few, if any, other artworks do.*

marastoni gorog no

Jakab (Giacomo) Marastoni: Greek Woman, 1845 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Jakab – originally Giacomo or Jacopo – Marastoni was born and trained in Venice and settled in the up-and-coming city of Pest, Hungary, in 1836. He had been living in the country since 1833, having moved to Pozsony (today Bratislava, Slovakia) on the invitation of Palatine Joseph Habsburg, the governor of Hungary. Marastoni was a skilled and successful portraitist with considerable business acumen, and he was determined to make the country his home. Pest was rapidly emerging as Hungary’s new capital, and Marastoni would soon contribute to its burgeoning cultural scene by setting up his successful studio, helping to organise the Pest Art Society, and – most importantly – by establishing an art school that would, throughout its existence, serve as the only institution in Hungary providing systematic and up-to-date foundational training for young Hungarian artists who aspired to study at one of the prestigious art academies of Europe.

Marastoni’s Greek Woman was painted in 1845 and displayed at the annual exhibition of the Pest Art Society that year. The Society purchased one painting each year in order to donate it to the Hungarian National Museum, and in 1845 it chose Marastoni’s picture. The Greek Woman was very popular with the audience – this is also evidenced by the fact that it became one of the most copied paintings in the museum in the next decades –, but many critics objected to the decision. They would have preferred to see another painting, Miklós Barabás’s Romanian Family on Their Way to the Fair, on the walls of the museum. The latter was a larger and more ambitious picture, which depicted a subject from Hungary (well, Transylvania, which was an autonomous province at the time), and critics celebrated it as a milestone in the quest to establish Hungarian ‘national’ art. Marastoni could not be part of that quest because, as one critic argued, his homeland already had a long and established tradition of its own. Hence, he had it easy, compared to the Hungarian artists who had no tradition, no Hungarian academy, no well-established professors to teach them. It was these latter artists, he argued, who needed the Art Society’s support, and not Marastoni.
barabas roman csalad

Miklós Barabás: Romanian Family on their Way to the Fair, 1843-1844 (Hungarian National Gallery)

There were, of course, further problems with Marastoni’s painting. Mid-nineteenth-century critics believed that the establishment of a national tradition of Hungarian art was a serious business; superficial pictures aiming for an immediate effect had no place in it. Even if Marastoni had been Hungarian-born, his Greek Woman would have failed this test. Imre Henszlmann, the most accomplished critic of the time, described it as exhibiting a ‘badly disguised frivolous attitude’, its only purpose being to arouse the viewer by making the woman’s breasts visible through the transparent blouse. And alas, we have to agree: the Greek Woman was, in many ways, the 1840s equivalent of a pin-up, and this is probably the clearest explanation for all those subsequent copies. For students of gender, the painting certainly offers a lot to critique. I will leave this line of enquiry for others to pursue, but not before posing a pertinent question: are sensualised images of scantily-clad women always exclusively meant for the straight male gaze?** Isn’t it possible for their sensual beauty to have a more general appeal? Furthermore, can that alluring sensuality serve as a device to grasp our attention, draw us in, and force us to identify with the picture on a fundamental, almost visceral level?

As mentioned above, Marastoni grew up in Venice – then part of the Habsburg Empire –, and studied there at the Academy of Fine Arts. He was taught by a professor named Natale Schiavoni (1777–1858) – an artist whose name rarely comes up today, but who was a true star of exhibitions in mid-nineteenth-century Central Europe. He had perfected and popularised the genre of the so-called ‘ideal portrait’: half-length pictures of alluring young women representing certain emotions, character traits or ethnic groups. Despite the objections of strict critics like Henszlmann, Schiavoni was very popular with the audience in both Vienna and Pest. For his pupil, Marastoni, the emulation of Schiavoni’s example was a self-evident career strategy. The Greek Woman was directly based on one of Schiavoni’s successful compositions: The Odalisque. The poses and faces are very similar, only the costumes differ.

Schiavoni’s pictures, along with many other ideal portraits, were exhibited in many cities in the Empire and beyond; they were duplicated by the artist himself, copied by others, and transformed into new compositions by eager followers such as Marastoni. In the course of these travels, the pictures were subjected to the gaze of different audiences – they moved around the Empire, just like the artists themselves. The majority of Schiavoni’s pictures were meant to represent Venetian women (the Odalisque was one of the few exceptions) and followed the centuries-old Venetian tradition of pictures of ‘beauties’: they represented Venice, wherever they went. Venice, however, meant different things in different places. In Venice itself, it meant home: the tradition everyone called their own. In the nearby rival city, Milan, it meant familiar, noble artistic competition. In Vienna and Pest, it meant a much admired, somewhat exotic place, whose past was more glorious than its present, but whose artistic tradition was enviably continuous and unique. Furthermore, in European popular imagination, Venice was often eroticised as the city of courtesans and earthly love. As they travelled along the exhibition circuits of the Empire, the bodies of Schiavoni’s beauties were enveloped into these romantic notions in the impassioned minds of their admirers. Their painter, in turn, capitalised on the excitement that his hometown evoked in susceptible minds.

If the same artwork – the same woman – can appear as familiar in one place, and exotic in another, is it still the same woman? Ideal portraits represent identity, no doubt, but they represent it as malleable, subjective, and prone to change. Schiavoni regularly visited Vienna – was he still the same artist? When Marastoni moved to Hungary, was he still the same painter, the same man? When we travel, move abroad, visit, depart, emigrate, do we remain the same people? It is tempting to answer yes without further thought: yes, yes, yes, of course. We learn, we adapt, but we are the same. But the sense of dislocation, the insecurity, the disorientation we experience suggests otherwise. We take out our braids. We hesitate to wear the clothes we used to, the ones we feel (used to feel) comfortable in. We second guess ourselves constantly because words seem not to mean what we thought they meant, and there are nuances we find hard to grasp – that, for instance, in American English ‘I’m not sure’ means ‘I don’t know’, as Americanah’s perplexed protagonist discovers. We are painfully aware that our history – the life we left behind – is similarly hard to decipher for our new friends. The feeling is powerful enough to make us question all that we are.

And yet. The Odalisque is able to transform into a Greek Woman just by changing her clothes. In contrast to Romantic nationalists, who conceptualised national identity as unchanging and exclusive, these pictures visualised it as something that can be chosen, switched, and even mixed; something that is constantly in flux. Furthermore, it is largely in the eye of the beholder. A closer look at the Greek Woman reveals that her costume is not really Greek. Her headdress, the fez, was worn throughout the lands of the Ottoman Empire, and in the 1830s it was canonised as part of the newly invented Greek national costume known as the Amalia Dress. But her transparent blouse is just a general white blouse, and her shawl is a cashmere shawl of the kind fashionable throughout Europe. We see her as Greek, because that’s what the title tells us, but she may just as well be a woman of any nationality who has playfully donned a fez. Nationality, in these images, is both a choice and a projection. But whatever we wear, whatever others project onto us, however we change our clothes – we are still us.

Schiavoni Girl in Oriental Dress Brno

Natale Schiavoni: Girl in Oriental Dress (Moravská Galerie, Brno)

In Pest, critics and the audience projected notions of Italianness onto Marastoni. He was ‘the’ Italian artist, and in some ways that made him an outsider. In other ways, it was an advantage. In the popular imagination, Italy was the land of great artists, a land where true art was born from a long art-historical tradition, kept alive by passionate mediterranean souls. Being Italian was certainly a selling point for Marastoni, and he needed to find ways to adapt his Italianness to the artistic culture of Pest – to make his history comprehensible and useful to his new friends. His art school – ambitiously named the First Hungarian Academy of Art – was an attempt at this. Although it was not really an academy, the school came as close to offering the professional training Marastoni had received in Venice as it was humanly possible in a small, private enterprise that received no external funding. Marastoni travelled to Venice to purchase a large collection of plaster casts (made after the same sculptures he had studied at the Academy there), as well as prints and some paintings for the students to draw from, and conscientiously trained his pupils in the venerable artistic tradition he was part of. He could have made a good living from his school, but he invested a large amount of money into teaching materials and waived tuition fees for the majority of his students. For this reason, the school – and consequently Marastoni – struggled financially up until the painter’s death in 1860. Thanks to Miklós Barabás’s autobiography, Marastoni lives on in art historical memory as a shrewd operator who used his position in the art world for his own gain, but that is far from the truth. In fact, his ‘exaggerated gratitude’ drove Marastoni to offer up much more than what he could actually afford.

The Greek Woman’s generalised ‘Greek’ costume is similar to Marastoni’s decision to set up his academy: it is an attempt to fit in while retaining some signifiers of difference. In fact, her blouse and shawl are very similar to what the woman in Barabás’s Pigeon Post – intended as a representation of the ‘Hungarian Woman’ – is wearing. Does the fez really make that much of a difference? Does the ethnicity of the artists? In terms of eroticism, both pictures are rather revealing, but the Hungarian woman is more reserved, while the woman in Marastoni’s picture casts seductive eyes at the viewer. She is seen from close up; her alabaster-like skin, her sumptuous shawl are inviting to the touch, regardless of our sexual preferences. The painting is made to appeal to us, to have an immediate effect on us, but there is more to it than the frivolity described by Henszlmann. In trying desperately to please, it offers a poignant reflection of Marastoni’s own immigrant’s experience.

Those insecurities, the disorientation, the loss of the self – they are all real. But is insecurity not an inevitable and, indeed, necessary part of exploring something new? Such exploration requires empathy, and when we empathise with others we begin to see things through their eyes. We see ourselves from their perspectives – or at least, how we imagine their perspectives. This makes us realise that our values, our customs, our beliefs, our everyday routines, our ideas of politeness might not be universal. This is, of course, something most people theoretically already know (even if some are resentful of the fact), but experiencing it in action is something else. It is not easy. But the resulting insecurity is also a fertile ground for ideas to spawn, for art to flourish, for new and overwhelming feelings to grow. ‘Pure’ cultures do not exist, cultures always meet and merge, and that process is just as mysterious and inspiring in our little personal worlds as on a larger scale. We need to find ourselves in it, connect our new selves to the old. Emerging from this breathtaking turmoil, we are the same human beings: always imperfect, always insecure, but knowing and understanding so much more.

Nóra Veszprémi

Lukas Zatko

Jakab Marastoni: Woman in Front of a Mirror, c. 1840 (City Gallery, Bratislava)

* This post is based on my new article: Nóra Veszprémi, ‘Ideals for sale: “Ideal portraits” and the display of national identity in the nineteenth-century Austrian Empire,’ Art History 42.2 (2019): 274–303. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8365.12436 On Marastoni see also Kornélia Péter, Marastoni Jakab 1804–1860, Budapest, 1936.

** Carol Ockman’s book Ingres’s Eroticized Bodies: Retracing the Serpentine Line (New Haven and London, 1995) asks this question in relation to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

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