Evidence of Virtue transports us to an intimate – if anachronistic – scene of a young girl presenting her chastity. She is isolated, left uncomforted in a space Dumas has rendered with conscious crudeness. Even in the way the layers of paint have been applied onto the canvas, allowing the coarse weave of the fabric to show through, the present work speaks to the raw physicality of the narrative. Here, and is typical of Dumas’s highly regarded works, a female figure is presented alone, set against an unadorned background which reinforces the unflinching and honest treatment of an uncomfortable subject matter. In her isolation, the viewer is left to wonder who the young anonymous figure is, and who she is presenting her chastity cloth to. This lack of pictorial resolution, the suggestion of a presence beyond the confines of the canvas, only serves to heighten the emotional tension of the work.
For a painter who deals so forthrightly with female existence as experienced in the contemporary age, the present work presents us with subject matter more commonly associated with the moral didacticism of the Victorian period. Working largely from photographs, Dumas has continually used historical source imagery to obliquely tackle the issues of the present. By merging past and present, and robbing her figures of a time or a place, Dumas forces the viewer to grapple with the full force of her subject’s humanity. Evidence of Virtue, in its historical force, also speaks to tradition of painting that takes in great paintings of Venus by Titian and Velázquez and perhaps more than any to Édouard Manet’s Olympia. Yet while all these antecedents present young women lying passively on top of a sheet white with purity, Dumas’s figure forcefully takes hold of it. Instead of lying, she is sitting, staring defiantly ahead, not conceding to the male gaze. This is an image of strength as much as it is an incisive remark the outdated virtue of chastity in today’s world.
The strength of its sociopolitical message is echoed and enhanced by the brilliance of Dumas’s handling of paint. Subtle highlights lend the figure form, while her bold use of outline lends the figure an unshakable sense of presence. Rendered with the confident speed of a true master, there is freshness to the work best seen in the way Dumas has balanced the differing textures of the canvas and paint to suggest the lightness of the figure’s chastity cloth. Her technique, so brilliantly refined to suit her subject matter, takes on an almost metaphorical power in line with the subject matter of the present work.
This stunning rendition of paintwork reflects not just Dumas’s stylistic versatility. It reflects Dumas’s engagement with the history of painting; it displays the singularity with which she believes painting’s authority as a means to communicate profound, often moral, messages; it showcases painting’s unrivaled ability to great a pictorial ambiguity that enlivens a work of art. Yet for all this, Evidence of Virtue perhaps most powerfully displays one of Dumas’s unique abilities, the ability to create paintings that speak to women and men in totally different yet equally powerful ways. In her own words: “I have painted more women than men / I paint women for men / I paint women for women” (Marlene Dumas, ‘ Women’, Ibid.).
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