Until recently, I could not have distinguished Jean-Léon Gérôme from Jean-Claude van Damme — unless the latter roundhouse kicked the former in his frippery French mustache. Yet through the miracle of Internet reconnaissance, with all its myriad trajectories and tangents, I wound up along an obscure trail that led me to the following sentence on Wikipedia: “Phryne before the Areopagus, King Candaules and Socrates finding Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia (1861) gave rise to some scandal by reason of the subjects selected by the painter, and brought down on him the bitter attacks of Paul de Saint-Victor and Maxime Du Camp.”
(Note his self-portrait — I was not joking about the mustache.)
Naturally, I wanted to learn exactly what these ‘bitter attacks’ sounded like — but an internet search left me empty-handed. I did, however, find the images themselves. Here is the first:
Phryne was a famous hetaera — translate: courtesan — who lived in Athens in the 4th century BC. She is rumored to have offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes, destroyed by Alexander the Great, on the condition that the resurrected walls then read: “Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan.” Sadly, this verbal middle finger to Alexander was refused.
Moreover, Phryne supposedly charged a customer for her favors based on how much she liked them personally (the king of Lydia paid a national debt-level sum, but philosopher Diogenes of Sinope got his for free) and is therefore a prime candidate for being the prototypical hooker with a heart of gold. (Diogenes is most famous for coining the term ‘cynic,’ thus proving that being cool got you laid even in ancient times.)
This painting depicts the moment where Phryne was brought before the Areopagus as a defendant, and charged with profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries (a common, though serious, accusation). During her trial, Phryne’s breasts were exposed to the court, either by herself or her defender — and she was instantly acquitted.
It is crucial to note the difference between a hetaera and a porne, a common street prostitute with a pimp (yes, ancient Greece had pimps). A hetaera was her own woman, intelligent, charming, and educated as well as beautiful; technically speaking, the word hetaera translates merely to “lady companion.” Your male cohorts would be your hetaeroi, with no — okay, very little — okay, some — sexual overtones. Moreover, a hetaera was expensive enough to be beyond the reach of ordinary men; Phryne was outspoken because she could afford to be.
Look again at that painting. The first bit that grabs your eye is the luminous pale skin of the female figure. If you look closely, you can see that her glowing body is the source of all the light in the room: the blue cloth she is no longer wearing is brighter closer to her body, and the deepest shadows are farthest away from her. The red robes of her judges are vibrant, and flicker as though their wearers have been literally set alight with her undoubtedly erotic power. In fact, the natural sweep of our eyes plays tricks on us here as it moves from left to right over the canvas. First we see the figure and its erstwhile covering, then the flame-like movement of the judges reacting, and then our eye is drawn back to the figure (by its arresting brightness) and it seems as though that cool blue cloak is a sheet of water waiting to douse her like a match dropped on dry tinder. As though she is dangerous.
If you look at the painting long enough, you’ll start to notice that the order of colors from left to right — blue, white, red — is the same as the French flag.
Now, in more detail: Phryne is not entirely naked. She is still wearing a gold bracelet, a necklace, and a small red flower in her hair. Her entire body is exposed both to the court and to the viewer; a normal woman in this situation would be trying to shield her body with her hands. (In fact, the famous Venus statue of Praxiteles, also known as the Venus Pudica or Modest Venus, uses one hand to cover her naughty bits, and supposedly had Phryne as a model.) But our girl is hiding her face: she manages by this not only to imitate shame and modesty — allowing her to seem virtuous when she is anything but — but also to remain aloof and mysterious. You can see either her face or her body, but never both at the same time. This is an immensely alluring, canny gesture on her part.
As for the men watching, each and every one of them wears a different, individual expression. They are mocking, aroused, repelled, fascinated, leering, horrified, shocked, and amused by turns. One man has clapped his hand to his head in the universal (and, apparently, eternal) gesture indicating “WTF!” — another is just as clearly pointing at her ass and discussing it with his neighbor.
There is a shadowy figure who goes unnoticed at the far left of the painting. It took me a long while, staring intently at the digital reproduction, before I realized this person must be the priest who is the plaintiff in this case. And, in the center, balancing Phryne’s own body, a tiny golden statue of Athena (there is an inscription on the pedestal). The heads of Athena, Phryne, and her defender (perhaps the orator Hypereides?) form a line heading down and right, while the heads of the judges form a line moving down and left. The two lines meet just to the right of Phryne’s body; I can’t help but think that this is how at least part of her luminosity is achieved — our eyes slide to her and then slightly away from her, as though she is too divinely beautiful for us to simply stare at.
Phyrne is not in fact our hetaera‘s real name. Her given name was Mnesarete, meaning “virtue-mindful,” which is quite lovely, but not really conducive to success in her profession. Supposedly, the nickname Phryne, “toad,” was given to her on account of her sallow complexion. She is anything but sallow here. I like to think, per Gérôme, that it was in reality her cynical temper and bitter tongue that gave her that name, as well as a large part of her appeal. If she had merely been a beautiful, well-behaved Greek woman, we would never have heard about her. I much prefer to think of her as the Dorothy Parker of the Athenian set, mocking those who deserve it and taking lovers as they pleased her body or her purse, or both.