I spend no small amount of time looking at paintings unhappy women in Western art. Women pursued by undesirable men, women forced to listen to lute-players in an enclosed space, women trapped in a web of inescapable male conversation, women desperate for the release only death can bring them. So it brought me no end of joy to discover a portrait of what I believe to be perfect female happiness during a routine reconnaissance through Wikimedia Commons.
It’s “The Merchant’s Wife At Tea” by Boris Kustodiev, and it represents the highest form of contentment available to women in this imperfect world.
Let us pause and set aside a moment to take stock of just what makes this painting so supremely satisfying.
The woman is alone. Do you know how rare finding a moment’s peace has been for women throughout human history? If you spent the rest of your days alone in a cottage on a solitary Alp, it would not begin to make up for the years your foremothers spent having to listen to men as a profession. (You can tell that this woman is happy because there are no men in this picture.) A woman alone is a beautiful thing.
There is a small beast making itself pleasant to her. You may prefer dogs to cats but surely you can appreciate the pleasure of a small, contented animal leaning slightly against you as it perches on a red balcony.
Her bare shoulders slope elegantly downwards, much like a glacier does when it reaches the sea.
This woman is surrounded by food and fine linens. She is drinking her tea out of a saucer, which is the height of fanciness. She has set before her fruits, charmingly arranged, and panettone, with little pots of jam and cream and an assortment of hard rolls, to be selected and eaten at her leisure. This is a woman whose eyes nor stomach will go hungry today.
The woman is wearing an elaborate headwrap and a gown the color of self-satisfaction. She has dressed up for her own appreciation. She has the greatest dining companion in the world – herself.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.