Friday, 18 January 2013

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

I've been editing an Arthurian story for Wild Enchantments, so here goes with some Arthurian art!

John William Waterhouse, 1893
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (the beautiful merciless lady) was a short poem by Keats, probably based on a 15th Century courtly poem, that was taken up by a bunch of Victorian artists as the theme for a painting.

Arthur Hughes, 1863
The story goes: knight meets mysterious lady in the forest; they make love (I'm reading slightly between the lines here but not much); he falls asleep and dreams that all her previous dead lovers have come - too late! - to warn him that he is DOOMED; he wakes and she is gone; he loiters at the spot until he dies, because he can't bear to ride away from the last place he saw her.

Henry Meynell Rheam, 1901

It appeals to art-viewers who get a kick from the idea of a irresistably seductive woman who enslaves poor helpless men, bringing the mighty and noble low. In modern terms, femdom.

Robbert Anning Bell (1863-1933)

Waterhouse's picture at top is, to my mind, the best, but this one is probably the most famous:

Frank Dicksee, 1902

Note the near-crucifixion posture.

Walter Craine 1865

For some artists it seems to have been a bit of an obsession:

Another Robert Anning Bell, 1920

Another  Henry Meynell Rheam, 1901 again.
I like the ghosts in that painting. Why the harp-playing girlies represented in the one below?

John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937)
It's probably drawing upon the idea of the Belle Dame as being a fairy lady, rather than a human. The presence of other fairies spying or conniving, as she has her wicked way with a mortal, makes folkloric sense.

In this, slightly later picture, the visual emphasis is less on the sleeping/stricken/dying knight in the foregound than on the lady's sumptuous dress.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, 1926
But note the date of the painting, and the poppies. This is almost certainly a WW1 reference - to the soldiers killed in the trenches. Young men cut down by a power they cannot understand and cannot hope to resist. This is a case of a painting that looks only decorative and sentimental, and actually has a deeper darker meaning.