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  • Description or Prescription?Verbal Painting in Pierre Le Moyne's Gallerie des femmes fortes (1647)
  • Derval Conroy

To represent a painting or sculpted figure in words is to evoke its power—the power to fix, excite, entrance, disturb, or intimidate the viewer—even as language strives to keep that power under control.

(Heffernan 1993, 7)

One of the central issues in the numerous seventeenth-century writings which discuss the Horatian simile, ut pictura, poesis, concerns the respective capacities of the sister arts of poetry and painting to stir the emotions of the reader-spectator. One rhetorical exercise which exemplifies the tension between verbal and visual media is that of ekphrasis. While its modern definition is that of a verbal representation of a work of art, in the eyes of the ancient rhetoricians the essence of ekphrasis is not the subject matter, visual or otherwise, but the ability to move the spectator by bringing a scene or an event to life. It can be defined as a type of speech which "appeals to the mind's eye of the listener, making him or her 'see' the subject-matter." It is a specific type of description, one which involves movement, vividness (enargeia), a "vivid form of narration", defined "in terms of its impact on an audience" (Webb 1999, 11-13).1

Although the term ekphrasis had disappeared from Renaissance manuals of rhetoric, the practice of verbal painting was certainly alive and well. Crucial in its influence was the publication of the first illustrated edition of Blaise de Vigenère's translation of Philostratus' Imagines, the Greek third-century text which provides some of the most elaborate examples of ancient ekphrasis.2 Clearly familiar with the practice is Pierre Le Moyne, for whom, as for many of the Society of Jesus, the image is a crucial pedagogical tool.3 The importance attached [End Page 1] to the visual image is immediately apparent in his gallery-book La Gallerie des femmes fortes (1647)4 given the space accorded to the twenty-one elaborate copper-plate engravings, and the artists and engravers involved: the frontispiece is engraved by Charles Audran, after a painting by Pietro Berrettini (or Pietro da Cortona) while the twenty images which punctuate the text are engraved by Gilles Rousselet (for the foreground figures) and etched by Abraham Bosse (for the background scenes), after drawings by Claude Vignon.5 To each of the twenty femmes fortes in La Gallerie is devoted a smaller gallery, opening with the "double" Rousselet-Bosse image and followed by a prose commentary, a sonnet, an éloge, a réflexion morale, a question morale, and a detailed account of one or two examples of modern women. The prose commentaries, or verbal paintings, which directly follow the engraving, find Le Moyne explaining, describing, narrating the background scene in the visual image: in short, endeavouring to make it come alive for his reader. Now, if ekphrasis hinges on the provoking of a particular effect on the reader through visualization, it would seem that these peintures verbales can be read not only in terms of the image they accompany but rather as a key indicator of the purpose of the book as a whole.6 It is through ekphrasis, I will argue, through detailed commentary of the dynamic etched background scenes, that Le Moyne tries to ensure the "appropriate" reception of his volume and hence fulfil his aim of the edification of women.7 The idea of control is implicit in the very exercise of ekphrasis, as James Heffernan implies:8 there is no doubt that Le Moyne frequently tries to control the reader's interpretation of the image (and therefore to control the reader) through the written word.

In the preface, the moralist describes these verbal paintings:

Je fais une Peinture de chacune [des femmes fortes]: & le sujet de cette peinture est pris de l'endroit le plus éclairé & le plus fort de sa vie. Ces peintures au reste ne sont pas seulement superficielles, & du simple dehors, comme celles de Philostrate, qui s'est contenté de dire ce qui se voyait; & de copier les traits du pinceau, des traits de sa plume. Elles sont principalement de l'interieur, & de cette...


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