In her infamous speech at the British Museum last year, writer Hilary Mantel described Kate Middleton, future queen of England, as a “shop-window mannequin” whose sole purpose was to look pretty and give birth. “A royal lady is a royal vagina,” she declared.
What exactly we see when we look at a queen is now the subject of BOW DOWN: Queens in Art, a historical survey at Smith College. Its prints, drawings, and photographs of women ranging from Marie Antoinette to Queen Victoria suggest that our perception of royal ladies may rely more on how they are depicted than it reflects who they actually are.
But who controls and owns that image? On the museum’s blog, curator Maggie Kurkoski explained that the show’s impetus came from Andy Warhol’s Reigning Queens series, two screenprints of which were donated to the museum by the artist’s foundation. In Warhol’s series, four monarchs — Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Ntombi Twala of Szaziland, and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark — are fixated in the public eye. Like faces on a postage stamp, they are devoid of personality. As the show’s press release states, “[These women] may reign over the masses, but their image and their person become, paradoxically, public property.”
Most of the queens represented were historically relegated, as Mantel writes of Middleton, to procreational roles. However they actually looked, they were depicted as great beauties — like the aristocrat in Jean-Michel le Jeune Moreau’s 1789 engraving, La Dame du Palais de la Reine, who parades like a regal peacock through a room of admirers.
As for those who were actually powerful, well, they had to walk a trickier line. “When women such as the long-reigning British Queen Victoria and Queen Marie de Medici of France did gain power, they were careful to represent themselves as both royal and maternal, in keeping with the gender norms of their time,” Kuroski writes. In a 1900 photograph of the aging Queen Victoria, for example, the black-clad monarch could easily be the portly, British cousin of Whistler’s mother.
It can be painful — for us and for them — when powerful women don’t live up to our expectations of how they should appear. Hillary Clinton was once criticized for not being motherly enough, and we all remember how matronly Kate Middleton looked in her official oil portrait. Sunday Times writer Waldemar Januszczak pronounced it “old” and “dour” — a peculiar break from her flirtier paparazzi snapshots, and entirely unbecoming for a “royal vagina.”
Take a look at some images from the show.
BOW DOWN: Queens in Art is on view at Smith College Museum of Art (20 Elm Street,
Northampton, MA) through January 4.