The sculpture ‘Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière’ is also known as ‘The old Woman’, ‘The old Courtesan’ and ‘Winter’. In 1884-85, Rodin modeled it after a 82 year old woman named Caira , mother of an Italian model, because he was fascinated by the inevitable decline of human beings with its different mouldings of ugliness and personality. Like for the model of his ‘Man with the Broken Nose’, Rodin found that what we call “…commonly […] ugliness in nature can in art become full of great beauty. […] In art, only that which has character is beautiful. Character is the essential truth of any natural object.”
Here’s the piece itself:
The sculpture was associated with a poem by Villon about vanished beauty and age that begins (English translation):
“Ah, wicked old age
Why have you struck me down so soon?
[You] have stiffened me
so that I cannot strike
And with that kill myself!
When I think, alas! of the good times,
What [I] was, what [I] have become,
When [I] look at myself completely
And I see myself so changed.
Poor desiccated thin, shriveled,
I nearly go mad!…
It probably works better in French, because I have to say that, in English, it’s not much of a poem. I much prefer the English poems I know that begin with the same theme but then take it in another direction.
The French poem is a lot more straightfroward; the woman mourns her lost youth. Okay, we get it. But here’s Yeats’ “Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop,” which leads us into deeper territory:
I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’
‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.
‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’
And then of course there’s Robert Frost, with his deeply cynical “Provide, Provide.” You may not quite recognize the Frost you know here. But it’s Frost, all right:
The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag,
The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.
Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.
Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.
Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
And why “Abishag”? This is why:
According to the Old Testament, Abishag (Hebrew Avishag אבישג) was a young woman of Shunem, distinguished for her beauty. She was chosen to be a helper and servant to David in his old age. Among Abishag’s duties was to lie next to David and keep him warm; however, David did not have sexual relations with her (1 Kings 1:4).
The theme of tempus fugit is a favorite one for art, and the beauty of the human body is a common exemplar. But clocks will sometimes do:
As for old-fashioned still lifes, they almost always had such a theme, sometimes subtly expressed but sometimes clearly spelled out:
Virtually all still lifes had a moralistic message, usually concerning the brevity of life – this is known as the vanitas theme – implicit even in the absence of an obvious symbol like a skull, or less obvious one such as a half-peeled lemon (like life, sweet in appearance but bitter to taste). Flowers wilt and food decays, and silver is of no use to the soul. Nevertheless, the force of this message seems less powerful in the more elaborate pieces of the second half of the century.
Back then, when it was not unusual for people to die young, it didn’t take as much to remind people of the vanitas theme. They were well aware of it. Fortunately, we have greatly diminished the prevalence of scourges that used to kill younger people so readily, and we have even made old age begin much much older. But time still flies, does it not?
And no, I’m not in an especially morbid frame of mind today. It’s just that when I looked at the photo of Rodin’s “She who Used to Be the Beautiful Heaulmiere” (which I’d never seen before), Frost’s poem immediately popped into my mind. That’s how posts sometimes begin—with a connection between two seemingly disparate things.