Saturday, July 01, 2017

A Study of the Resting Bitch Face in 19th Century Portraiture

I’m sure someone somewhere has a PhD. in this.

The term “resting bitch face” refers to the hard-eyed, tight-lipped look many women, especially attractive ones, consciously or unconsciously adopt by way of discouraging unwanted male attention. The meme below, featuring actress Vivien Leigh in character for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind, serves a fine example. 

It’s important to note that this look cuts across social classes; even working class girls do this. It’s likely an innate survival mechanism that goes all the way back.   

Which brings me to this striking portrait from the History & Art Facebook page. What’s striking is that I don’t get the feeling this is resting bitch face. We can’t know if this is due to a) the painter, Vittorio Matteo Corcos, disliking his subject, and therefore painting her in an unflattering manner, b) the painter not being very good at what he does, and therefore making this anonymous young lady look like a malevolent she-demon by virtue of his incompetence with shading about the eyes, or, c) this young lady actually looked like this, and may God have mercy on our souls.

That a bird trusts to rest on her shoulder while her dark eyes glower threats of death and other unpleasantries is even more jarring. Perhaps it whispers in her mistress’ ear of the whereabouts of her rival for the young lord’s attentions, reporting the status of her plan to destroy that poor woman in body and soul. Seriously, this young lady is not someone I would turn my back on as I approached a descending staircase. I would decline all offers of food and drink. Upon encountering such a creature, I would back away with forced smile and an “excuse me” and pray she never learned my name, or where I lived. 

If indeed “the eyes are the windows to the soul” then what is the nature of the darkness there on the other side, so thick that it pushes out from around the panes, denying all but the faintest light between brow and cheekbone?