Saturday, May 4, 2013

Painting of the Day: "Palpitation" by Charles West Cope, 1844

Charles West Cope, 1844
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Considered somewhat scandalous at the time of its creation in 1844, “Palpitation” is as much of a mystery as when it was first exhibited by Charles West Cope. The curators of the Victoria & Albert Museum point out that, “This is an early example of a 'problem picture', in which the subject is rendered in a deliberately ambiguous way to provoke interest and argument among its audience.”

So, what’s the “problem” here? A young woman is waiting for something. It appears to be the delivery of a letter. I don’t know if people get excited about letters anymore. I do. I love finding a letter or a card amongst the usual bills that arrive in the day’s post. But, think about this. Our mail systems—for the most part—are relatively reliable. And, it’s something we’ve come to expect. But, in Britain in the 1840’s, receiving a letter in the post was quite exciting, and still somewhat new. The regular delivery of letters began in 1840. That makes this intense domestic scene all the more topical for the day.

Still, there’s nothing particularly scandalous about that. Is there? Why all the kerfuffle? And, why the title—“Palpitation”? What’s making the young lady so excited?

Well, like all “problem pictures,” there is ambiguity in the meaning of the scene. In this case, it concerns the reason for the “palpitation” of the title. From whom is the lady awaiting a message? Is it from an illicit lover? As the V&A puts it, is it, “a letter she must intercept before others in the household are aware.” Is she trying to hide her lover from her husband? Could be. Let’s look at the clues.

There’s a whip hanging on the stag's horns (themselves a traditional symbol of cuckoldry) and there’s a hat on the table. These indicate a man's presence in the home. These could, of course, belong to a father or brother—even an uncle. So, it may not be a husband. In fact, the sender of the missive may be a legitimate suitor.

Still, there’s plenty of suspense which is all the more heightened by such details as the phial of smelling salts, the bag, umbrella and glove dropped on the floor, and the emphasis on the lock, chain casing and bolts on the door.

She’s palpitating. We’re just not sure if it’s from guilt, fear, or sheer delight. And, that’s the problem.

Cope described this scene as “a young lady waiting for her letter, while the postman and servant are gossiping on the doorstep.” But, there’s a lot more to it than that, and he knew it. I trust he gleefully suffered the scandal, all the while delighting in the trouble he caused with this very handsome work of art.

No comments: