Sappho by Charles-August Mengin (1877). Oil on canvas.
Wreathed in black cloth and weeds, Sappho is dressed for mourning in this painting, although her particular nudity is intended to be an erotic element. All through the nineteenth century, Sappho’s image was up for great debate as interest in the Greek classics surged throughout Europe, resulting in many works being translated and retranslated.
In an effort to make her poetry more palatable for the masses, some translators proposed the idea of ‘two’ Sapphos existing in the same time period, insisting one was a poet of purely platonic love and the other was a courtesan who sparked such offensive Lesbian rumors. Many attempts were made to purge her works of any impropriety, including changing many feminine pronouns to neutral or masculine.
There is no proof of the ‘two Sappho’ theory, but in passionate counterpart, authors such as Charles Baudelaire, the Marquis De Sade, and A.C. Swinburne produced various works using her character that plunged into sadomasochistic behavior and hedonism.
Baudelaire’s work Les Lesbiennes was eventually published as the famous Les Fleurs du Mal, containing several poems that portray Lesbos as a colony of Sappho’s acolytes, seeking out all manner of dark pleasures in one another. In de Sade’s L’histoire du Juliette, the group calling themselves ‘the followers of Sappho’ are bloodthirsty tribades, while A.C. Swinburne’s Anactoria portrays Sappho as an ardent and possessive masochist.
In reference to the era of Decadence, critic Douglas Bush summed up the movement as, “the Sappho of Anactoria is not merely the descendant of Libitina and Priapus, she is the daughter of de Sade.”
"When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings."
— Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love (via observando)