The Male Gaze (Terry Barrett, Chapter 5, Interpreting Art) by Jeanne Beck

In this chapter, Barrett writes that in 1972, British art critic John Berger presented a thesis (from the 1972 television series and accompanying published book “Ways of Seeing”) that became famous as the identification and explanation of “the male gaze.” Most oil paintings throughout history of women have been painted by men who create them for the pleasure of themselves and other males. Since women throughout most of history have been subjugated, kept illiterate and treated as property, women have learned to be keenly aware of that gaze. To quote some of Berger’s comments cited in this chapter from the book Ways of Seeing: “She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as success in her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another…”

This awareness of male gaze is illustrated in the painting Susannah and the Elders (Jacobo Tintoretto, 1518-1594).


In this painting we join the Elders as spectators who regard the naked Susannah bathing in our presence. The painting makes us aware both of their gaze and Susannah’s awareness of us looking at her. She gazes back in a way that might suggest approval or permission. In fact, the culture is one that does not offer her a choice.

Frequently artists from previous centuries portrayed mythological characters and scenes in their paintings. Agnolo Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (Exposure of Luxury),painted around 1564, captures a lustful moment in which Cupid makes sexual advances to the nearly naked yet passive and willing Venus.


In Barrett’s book, this painting has a cloth demurely covering the woman’s pubic area. While ostensibly the presence of Time in the background and the terrified faces that respond to him might be construed as delivering a meaningful message, the vicarious pleasure of witnessing the youth’s hand carressing the female’s breast is distinctly the center of attention and geared for a male audience.

These paintings might be seen as a healthy and natural appreciation for feminine beauty and a homage to the feminine were it not that throughout the history of Western Civilization the female has overwhelmingly been villified, brutalized and subjugated to the same status as goods and property. It is interesting to note that during the time period of these paintings Western Europe was seized by a 150 year period of torturing and burning thousands of women alive at the stake in witch hunts. Religious and ethnic persecution also flourished and thousands of other people were massacred or died in dungeons.

Author Leonard Shlain in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, attributes much of the history of misogyny (hatred of women) to an imbalance in whole cultures between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Shlain traces the history of the world from the Neolithic era to the present time to pursue his hypothesis that when the hunter/killer left brain functions and values dominate, the right brain gatherer/nurturer values suffer and cultures become misoynistic and violent.

In contrast, in mid-seventeenth century Holland, a quiet Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), created a small body of work (37 paintings are all that have been attributed to him) in which his subjects frequently are women engaged in domestic activities. “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”, below, is one such painting.


The painting illustrates a quiet, contemplative moment as a pregnant woman stands reading a letter. The natural light bathes her in its glow and captures the momentary quiet and reflectiveness of the figure that we can observe in this scene. Dressed plainly and demurely, her hair bound on top of her head, the woman is neither idealized nor sexualized. It is the atmosphere of the momentary privacy with this personal correspondence that create an intimacy and thoughtfulness to the scene. One wonders if this figure may not have been Vermeer’s own wife, with whom he had 11 children.

One of Vermeer’s most famous paintings is “Head of a Girl (Girl with a Pearl Earring)”, in which a young girl dressed in an exotic turban turns and gazes at the viewer.


In this gaze, the female radiates depth, complexity and innocence. The painter seems to have caught this young woman in an unconscious movement. Her eyes are wide and expressive, her lips are slightly parted; her posture and expression have an immediacy and timelessness about them. Vermeer’s paintings offer another view of male gaze, this time a gaze that values the complexity and strength of women’s characters engaged in daily domestic activities.

The 1600’s were a Golden Age in Dutch painting, a time when artists like Rembrandt, Peter de Hooch, Jacob van Ruesdael and Vermeer painted masterpieces. While most other European artists painted for churches, nobles or royalty, Dutch artists painted ordinary people engaged in everyday activities. Dutch businessmen purchased the paintings to beautify their homes.

It could be interesting to visit a local museum and consider a number of other old works there from the perspective of “male gaze.” What might contemporary works reveal about this same topic? Does contemporary art reflect a more balanced relationship between the hunter/killer and gatherer/nurturer hemispheres of our brains? Do women in contemporary culture still carry the lingering ghosts of “the male gaze” in their psyches?

3 Responses to “The Male Gaze (Terry Barrett, Chapter 5, Interpreting Art) by Jeanne Beck”

  1. 1 Alan Fisk September 10, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    If you’re interested, Bronzino’s Allegory is the subject of my latest historical novel, “Cupid and the Silent Goddess”, which imagines how the painting might have been created in Florence in 1544-5.


  2. 2 June August 15, 2007 at 8:59 am

    Lawrence Weschler has an essay in which Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring figures prominently. It’s called something like “Vermeer and Bosnia”, and his thesis is that Vermeer’s insistence upon the individuality of the person in his painting has ties to why Holocaust (and Rwanda and Bosnian genocide) perpetrators must be _individually_ held responsible. It’s too easy, he says, to allow labels and stereotypes to be held responsible (oh — that’s just the male ego; well, the entire German population went mad; etc). The Vermeer paintings, done during a time of terrible wars and genocide in Holland, are a reminder that individuals, not labeled groups, act badly, madly, cruelly. And so it is essential that individuals be tried and held responsible.

    This ties in, it seems to me, with Berger’s reflections about the male gaze, the vision of woman=sex object. Turning all women into single attribute creatures (with exceptions made for mom and the Virgin Mary) allows men to place the ills of humankind on Eve and her ilk. An old canard, one which Vermeer (and Weschler) help dissipate.

    Weschler’s essay is an astonishing tour de force, putting together art criticism and contemporary social problems. The book is called “Vermeer in Bosnia

  3. 3 eileen doughty August 13, 2007 at 6:59 am

    What I find even more disturbing about “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” is that Cupid is Venus’s son.

    In an art history class, I learned that many painters in the Renaissance era were commissioned to create pictures of naked women that the male commissioner would hang in their private rooms. Pre-“Playboy” magazine, I guess… And Caravaggio was commissioned to paint pictures of enticing boys, early in his career. So art does not always aspire to the highest ideals.

    Vermeer and his era are a welcome respite. Still life paintings were very popular too. I think some artists specialized in them – not sure if it was by choice or if guilds required that.

    Regarding contemporary times – a few months ago I went to a very large exhibition of artists from the Washington, DC area. It was multi-media, non-juried and filled several floors of an empty office building. My friend and I noted that there were a lot more photos/paintings/drawings of naked men than naked women. ‘Bout time.

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