Cherry Ripe!

There is a garden in her face
Where roses and white lilies grow;
A heav’nly paradise is that place
Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.
There cherries grow which none may buy,
Till “Cherry-ripe” themselves do cry.

The above is the first stanza of Thomas Campion’s poem “There is a Garden in Her Face,” a paean to a beautiful virginal girl. How do we know this? We must first put it into historical context. Cherry vendors in England traditionally used the call “Cherry ripe!” to let people know that cherries were ready to buy. If we apply this fact to the poem, we see that the man is describing a girl that, while beautiful, is not yet ready to be “bought”—that is, she hasn’t quite reached sexual maturity. Campion admires this girl for her sexual purity, which he acquaints with spiritual purity. Here we have a basic explanation for the Victorian cult of the girl (which followed Campion by a couple hundred years): girls, because of their perceived innocence and sweetness, were considered above all other natural human groups to be the closest to God, so long as they maintained their virginity, hence British society’s horror of the underground culture of girls being kidnapped and deflowered—brought to light by W. T. Stead’s series The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon, and likely highly exaggerated therein—which compelled Britain’s Parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16.

In terms of cherries being associated with young girls and virginity, many people seem to be under the impression that slang terms like cherry, in reference to the hymen, was invented by their generation, or at least the generation before theirs. In fact, this is not so:

cherry […] Meaning “maidenhead, virginity” is from 1889, U.S. slang, from supposed resemblance to the hymen, but perhaps also from the long-time use of cherries as a symbol of the fleeting quality of life’s pleasures.”

There we have it. The slang term dates at least to 1889, but I suspect the association of this particular fruit with virginity dates further back than even Campion’s poem, which was first published in 1617. And we are also given another, older, symbolism for cherries in the above etymology: they stand for the fleeting quality of physical pleasure. This too can be tied into sex, but also to childhood, which is itself fleeting. This symbolism is the Western tradition, but even in the East the cherry (and more specifically the cherry blossom) are also associated with maidenhood/virginity. We are more concerned with the Western mode here, but I do find it interesting that such disparate cultures can arrive at a similar symbolic representation, don’t you?

Back to the poem. We get the impression from the final stanza not of a full-grown woman—worldly and self-assured—but of a nervous girl being approached by potential mates, as if she is a wary doe being stalked by wolves on the hunt.

Why am I bringing all of this up? It is to lay the foundation of context for one very interesting painting, that painting being Sir John Everett Millais’s “Cherry Ripe”, a deceptively simple portrait of a little girl in a white dress with pink highlights sitting on a log in the forest . . .

John Everett Millais – Cherry Ripe (1879)

Wikipedia: John Everett Millais

Millais was a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and like most of the Pre-Raphaelites, he loaded his art with symbolism. First, the semiotics of color. White was of course the color of purity. Children, particularly little girls, were often dressed in white for formal portraits. Moreover, the child is placed against a dark and shadowy forest from which any wild beast could emerge and snatch her from her perch; unlike most portraits, which are set safely indoors or illuminated spaces, this one is actually a bit edgy. More likely than not this was intentional on Millais’s part. I have mentioned before that semiotically a white figure against black backdrop stresses the figure’s vulnerability or purity—or, in this case, both—in a morally nebulous world. Pale pink, which is traditionally associated with young girls, is also the color of cherry blossoms, and the child’s flesh is also pinkish. Here we have a figure composed almost entirely of white and pink. The lone exceptions are her eyes and hair and the black gloves, but as they were a conscious choice, it is the gloves that draw our attention.

The gloves are black. The color black has many symbolic interpretations, but here it screams sexuality. Look closely at the girl’s hands: they are placed in her lap and closed together prayer-style, only inverted. The gloves are fingerless, V-shaped and adjacent to her hands, inevitably funneling one’s attention right to the girl’s fleshy, exposed fingers, and (as more than one art critic has pointed out) those fingers happen to resemble a vulva.

Now some questions arise. Was this accidental or deliberate on the part of Millais? I suspect the answer is somewhere in between. And what exactly is Millais saying with this painting? Perhaps he is wrestling with the Victorian notion of the asexual girl-child, and suggesting that it may be a tad more complicated than that. Maybe he’s being ironic. After all, despite the title of the piece, the little girl is clearly nowhere near being “ripe”, and indeed some of the cherries lying at her side belie the title as well. Then again, maybe it is entirely coincidental, but I doubt it.

There is one other possibility I can think of. Millais was a friend of culture/art critic John Ruskin, who was married to Effie Gray at the time they met and became friends. But Ruskin had been married to Effie for several years and had yet to consummate the marriage, owing to, it was rumored, his mortal dread of pubic hair. Ruskin, like Lewis Carroll, had written a book for his beloved when she was still a child. The book was The King of the Golden River. Unlike Carroll, however, Ruskin was eventually able to marry the girl he had eyes for, although Ruskin and Effie were only nine years apart in age whereas Carroll and Alice Liddell were twenty years apart and of different social classes from one another. Anyway, Millais and Effie eventually fell in love, the marriage between Ruskin and Effie was annulled, and Effie remarried Millais, with whom she had eight children. (Side note: The oldest Millais daughter—also called Effie—was even one of Lewis Carroll’s photographic subjects.) Now, Ruskin was a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, but given the embarrassing situation between Ruskin, Millais and Effie, it is little wonder that Ruskin began to condemn Millais’s post-marriage work, ostensibly because it was of lower quality according to Ruskin, but in reality it is more likely that Ruskin felt slighted and used his power as a critic to avenge the loss of his mate to Millais the best way he knew how. Is it possible, then, that Millais, with the painting “Cherry Ripe,” was publicly mocking Ruskin and his supposed pubic hair phobia? Probably not, but it is worth considering.

And speaking of Lewis Carroll, perhaps the next most famous artwork featuring little girls and cherries after the Millais piece is Carroll’s photo of the Liddell sisters (Edith, Lorina and Alice) in which the oldest girl, Lorina, is feeding Alice a cherry. Alice stands with her head cocked and mouth slightly agape, like a baby bird waiting to be fed by its mother. And, of course, Alice would be the one to be fed, given Carroll’s ongoing fascination with her.

Lewis Carroll – The Three Liddell Sisters (“Open Your Mouth”) (1860)

Wikipedia: Lewis Carroll

The above was one of several Carroll works that Polixeni Papapetrou created a tribute to.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Cherry Group

Polixeni Papapetrou (Official Site)

One step removed from this, cherries—really any fruit, but apples and cherries in particular—can represent transgression, as in the story of Adam and Eve, in which children stand in for the first humans and the crime that brings on their downfall is theft.

Fritz Zuber-Bühler – The Cherry Thieves

Wikipedia: Fritz Zuber-Bühler

Carl Larsson – Forbidden Fruit

Wikipedia: Carl Larsson

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Pickers

Wikipedia: Frederick Morgan (painter)

Note the coy and mischievous expression on this girl’s face:

Charles Amable Lenoir – The Cherrypicker (1900)

Wikipedia: Charles Amable Lenoir

Cherries can also represent intimacy, both romantic and familial.

Paul Hermann Wagner – Idylle mit Atelier (1889)

Lord Frederick Leighton – Mother and Child (1865)

Lord Frederic Leighton: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton

Franz von Defregger – Kinder beim Kirschenessen (1869)

Wikipedia: Franz Defregger

Cherries can become an amusement for little girls playing at being women.

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Earrings (1)

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Earrings (2)

Frederick Morgan – The Cherry Gatherers

Georg Rössler – Mädchen mit Kirschen (1901)

But mostly cherries were just colorful eye-catchers that helped to emphasize the vibrancy and ruddy healthiness of youth . . .

Emile Vernon – The Cherry Bonnet (1919)

John Russell – Little Girl with Cherries (1780)

Wikipedia: John Russell (painter)

Friedrich von Kaulbach – Kirschen (Cherries)

Wikipedia: Friedrich Kaulbach

Fritz Zuber-Bühler – The First Cherries

Finally, a couple of curious contemporary artworks in which girl meets fruit; to be honest, I’m not sure exactly what to make of these.

Rene Lynch – Wonderland: Cherry Picking (2005)

Rene Lynch (Official Site)

I will say one thing about this final piece: Pay attention to how the little nude girl unwittingly mimics the lithe erotically posed woman in the magazine her mother is holding.

Tatiana Deriy – Little Cherry

(Editor’s update, 2015/11/06: There is a larger image of Little Cherry on Tatiana Deriy’s website.)

Eye on Alice: The Muse

So, this post will be kicking off a series that will focus exclusively on the theme of Alice in Wonderland, the most famous—and most published—children’s book ever.  The book, the full title of which is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There were the brainchild of Oxford professor and clergyman Rev. Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll.  Carroll was not only a mathematics professor and scholar, an author and a church leader (as if those things weren’t enough), he was also a brilliant photographer—one of the best of his day.  Carroll’s favorite subject—in life and in art—was the little girl, and many of his extant photographic works are of young girls, including the one who inspired him to write his famous book.  That girl, Alice Pleasance Liddell, is this month’s ‘Eye on Alice’ topic, and why not?  After all, she was the one who started it all.  Helen of Troy’s face may have launched a thousand ships, but Alice’s face has launched millions, maybe billions, of adventures into those realms dreamt up by Carroll over a century ago, and inspired some of the most amazing art by thousands of artists since its initial publication.  That Carroll may have been in love with little Alice (and fraught with sexual feelings for young girls in general) has been surmised by many a scholar, and I’m inclined to agree.  What I don’t believe is that Carroll was ever anything but a proper Victorian gentleman in the presence of the girls he adored, including Alice.  Nevertheless, he did manage to capture for posterity several images of his infantine muse and her sisters, the girls who accompanied him and a friend of his on a boat trip on the day that the story was born.

(Note: before I launch into this proper, I would like to point out that there is simply so much subject matter about Alice in Wonderland that I cannot even come close to doing it justice here.  It deserves its own blog, and indeed there are several I’ve encountered in my own journey across this digital wonderland called the Internet, though ultimately none have captured the full breadth and depth of artistic styles, incarnations and visions inspired by the literary source.)

As I’ve already mentioned, Carroll took several photos of Alice Liddell, though the best known one is “Portrait of Alice Liddell as the Beggar Child.”  Francine Prose describes it in her book The Lives of the Muses:

“The child is exceptionally beautiful.  The bright black coins of her eyes, the unblemished pale flesh ever so lightly grazing the rough, mossy stone, the perfect ankles and feet, the slightly prehensile toes curled among the nasturtiums, the ragged costume nearly comical in its carnal suggestiveness, the crisp regularity of her features, the gleam of her hair, the naturalness of her posture, the confidence of that crooked elbow and the hand at her hip, the artistry of this composition, the graceful pose that seems so integral and ideally suited to the photograph–the cupped hand, the beggar child’s supplication, not extended toward us but staying within the picture plane, more ironic, knowing, and withholding than importuning–a pose so apparently effortless that we take its elegance for granted until we compare it with another photo of Alice in the same beggar’s rags, a more frontal and literal-minded shot in which the girl’s hands, joined before her, resemble a baby seal’s flippers.”

“Finally its the gaze that holds us and makes the photo seem so unlike any other portrait of a child–or an adult.  It’s the subtlety and complexity of Alice’s expression, the paradoxical mixture of the sly and straightforward, the saucy and serious: the intense concentration that Alice brought to Dodgson’s portrayals of her as a child, the boldness that singled her out of family groupings and then disappeared, subsumed by self-conscious melancholy, as Alice passed the age at which the child-friends ceased to interest their attentive adult companion.” (Prose, pp. 66-67)

charles-dodgson-alice-lid

charles-dodgson-alice-in

Charles Dodgson – Alice in a Verdant Setting (1860)

charles-dodgson-aliceinpr

charles-dodgson-alicewrea

charles-dodgson-edith-lo

charles-dodgson-alicefern

Wikipedia: Lewis Carroll

Wikipedia: Alice Liddell

Some excellent Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll web resources:

Lenny’s Alice in Wonderland Site

Lewis Carroll Society of North America

The Hunting of the Snark

Victorian Web: Lewis Carroll

The entire original version of Alice in Wonderland can be read here.