Joan of Arc: The one good painting

Today I’m in bed with some kind of food poisoning.

I submit that any artist’s rendition of Joan of Arc cannot be fully realized unless she looks like she’s somewhere between fainting outright and knifing a guy.


(Boldfaced agitprop - so typical of this motif as to be a distillation - by otherwise sublime painter, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.)


(Jules Bastien-Lepage: at it again.)

In my queasy rumination around portrayals of Joan of Arc and art history, I browsed Google image results to refresh my memory. A few things became quickly apparent:

Joan of Arc paintings are consistently bad. The thought of a girl-child leading grown men is apparently a popular target for projection and trite treatment by a whole succession of male painters. This is a motif repeated so often it could form its own genre: one mainly defined by gauzy nationalism and a stiff femininity requiring the general attitude that one must never leave the house without brushing one’s hair 100 strokes. Needless to say, Joan was never that kind of girl.*

Most obviously, she was a peasant: her family was poor, and she couldn’t read. The burnished armor and gilt-laden swords in most portrayals are saccharine fantasy—propaganda for a state which, during her lifetime, only saw fit to have her burn.

This is where Lepage’s rendition stands out: not only for its framing, but for its content. The barefoot child in the wood is an image more true. Lepage’s Joan is a person clearly at the edge of motion, inculcate and one with their faith, yet perhaps not entirely well either. Her face is mottled by dirt or sun, but glows with youth. Nothing exists but what is real to her. This Joan looks to be someone capable of absolutely anything—and that is precisely how any image of Joan should be.

That’s not all that’s special about this image. The painting is about vision, to be sure, and here we get the sense that this Joan of Arc is one as well as has them—while, specifically, the paint-handling dealt in the background of the image shows Lepage in full plumage.

The background is an illusionistic picture field, an abstracted mirage which seems to imply a profound reality just behind the field of view. Paint does not move, yet the implication of motion—of life just beneath color—infuses the piece. This also signals a sort of unreality; one in which we are never quite sure if what we are seeing is only what Joan sees, or what is truly there. Is she in a garden, or is she in a prison cell—the only garden being her mind? The holy phantasm abstracts in from the left. The scene is painted with a deftness echoed in the virtuosic works of contemporary painters Anne Gale or even Zoey Frank. This is achieved using a method painters call “broken color”, an Impressionist standby, yet put toward—in Lepage’s case—novel ends.

Joan of Arc paintings are simply never this good.

Let’s see it one more time:

Anne Gale

Zoey Frank

I’m off to drink electrolytes and watch The Princess Bride for the millionth time.

In art and dubious pasta consumption,


*Given her penchant for wearing men’s clothing during a period where this was strictly forbidden—a stubborn habit which persisted even on pain of death—and a now-expanded cultural vocabulary around gender, one may reasonably question whether Joan was a girl at all. If she lived today, she may well be trans. To keep things simple, here we've stuck with tradition. Don’t @ me on this.

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