There's romance and then there's Romance. This painting just happens to include both. But what exactly is the difference?
The Romantic era (the kind with a capital "R") began in France and Great Britian in the early 19th century as a reaction to the Enlightenment, or as it was also called, the Age of Reason. Art of the Enlightenment favored rational order, logic, and Neo-Classicist ideals. But with the chaos of the French Revolution, artists began to insert emotional intensity and imagination into their work. This new kind of Romantic painting could manifest itself in a variety of ways: in a sweeping landscape with tumultuous weather, in a violent shipwreck with no savior in sight, or, in this case, in a portrait of a woman who's not looking out at the viewer, but who is engrossed in her reading with her head in her hands.
In this painting, Isabella Wolff is contemplating a figure of the Delphic Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel ceiling in a book of prints. The Delphic Sibyl was one of several created by Michelangelo, all of whom represent priestesses of classical legend who made mysterious judgments and prophecies. Sibyls were frequently depicted in exotic costumes and Mrs. Wolff's turban, shawl, and Asian textiles might just equate her as the present-day embodiment of Michelangelo's (or the artist's) feminine ideal.
And this is where the other kind of romance comes in. If you look at the credit line below, you'll notice that this painting was created over the course of 12 years. In 1803 when it was started, Isabella was the wife of Jens Wolff, a wealthy Anglo-Danish timber merchant and shop broker. Then it was left unfinished in Lawrence's studio for 10 years. When he took it up again in 1914, the couple had separated and Mrs. Wolff was living with one of her sisters. Over the course of this period, Wolff and Lawrence maintained a friendship and were thought to have had an affair. Did he idealize her because he was in love with her? Romance or romance or both?
Either way, wishing you whatever kind of romance you prefer this Valentine's Day!
Image Credit: Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mrs. Jens Wolff, 1803–1815. Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball Collection.
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