Portrait of Mary Shelley - Caught Between the Moon and Candlelight (1797 - 1851)

Barbara Sparhawk

Carmel Valley, United States

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Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, Writer, Poet, Shooting Star. Oil on canvas.
The author (at 18 years old) of FRANKENSTEIN. A woman of such profound personal courage, of stunning highs and lows, it boggles the imagination. Mary, I adore you.
A rebel who dodged convention, whose parents were famous free-thinker free love radicals, whose mother died giving birth to her, who was sent to Scotland at 15 for a good education, and who ran off to live with two of the most famous, revered, dangerous, and notorious wild-men poets (when poets ruled) Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. It had to be like setting up housekeeping with Mick Jagger & Lou Reed.
Ostracized for romping through English tradition, she and Percy Shelley eloped to France, then moved into a castle on Lake Geneva with Lord Byron, proceded to practice Latin & Greek, write, live, and outdo each other. The very good looking bad boys were notorious for debts, affairs, abandoned children, sexually extravagant lives, and a trail of broken hearts. But they wrote gorgeously. Percy Shelley & Lord Byron remain two of the finest poets of the English language.
In what she called “a waking dream” teenaged Mary Shelley started to write Frankenstein, and published it finally under her own name, producing one more shock that an English woman could conjure stirring horror. She and Shelley traveled, changed countries like you’d change socks & became increasingly famous. Mary was pregnant many times, but six children miscarried, or heartbreakingly lived, to die as toddlers. One boy survived adulthood. She was in and out of depressions, trying to keep Shelley happy and produce her own original work. In rough Italian seas near LaSpezia, the accomplished sailor and non-swimmer Percy Shelley drowned. He was 29. Mary was 25, and felt her life ended.

The extremes of drama that populated all their days astonishes. Lord Byron and a friend made a pyre on the beach to burn Percy Shelley’s corpse when it washed ashore. One of the two cut out Shelley’s heart (not an uncommon impulse at the time) and after arguing over who should keep it, decided to send it in a box, unannounced, to Mary.
At a time when women had limited rights, freedoms or possibilities, she turned her back on what she was told she must do, with gusto. What is, after all, an ideal life. She risked far more than her peers ever dared. She did not have an easy time of it. But she chose not embrace the comforts or society that would have driven her mad. It’s more than fair to say this woman really lived. Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin Shelley was dead at 53.

ABOUT THE PAINTING: There are only 2 or 3 exisitng portraits of Mary Shelley, and one, painted by Richard Rothwell in 1840, was my reference. It is a peculiar painting of her, age 43. When tackling historical figures, one has to account for rigid art standards of the times. I tried to eliminate what might have been purely the painter’s imposition. Along with what I suspect was a purge of her wild history and monster story telling (making her nice, & vapid) he gave her features considered beautiful then: a long oval face, an extraordinarily high brow for heightened inteligence (same things the Greeks did with that full flesh at brow level) thin lips to prove a lack of avarice, matronly to suit her widowhood, and shoulders in such a drastic slope they deny a skeletal structure. (The Rothwell portrait is on Wikipedia under Mary Shelley’s name). All that seemed an exaggeration, his portrait does not look real to me. So I left in her high cheekbones, softened the oval and lowered the forehead a touch, gave her a fuller mouth, kept the deep eyes. I painted Mary Shelley as the 18 year old who wrote Frankenstein, with thoughts of ghoul and goblin fleeting across her eyes, sensing terrors to come, uncertainty in the present, having to rely primarily on herself, an active imagination, great mind and fabulous story teller.
I have her between the moon and candlelight because it seems to me that’s where she lived.
The Hawks Perch

Artwork Comments

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