I had never seen a soap bubble in an old painting before. I naively and unthinkingly believed that the thin film of water that floats on air was an occurrence that came into being relatively recently—an invention that debuted around the time of microwaves or automatic juicers.
That belief popped when I saw German artist Gabriel von Max's 1881 Seifenblasen (Soap Bubbles), which is currently hanging at the Frye Art Museum as part of the show Unsettling Femininity: Selections from the Frye Art Museum Collection. Duh. Of course bubbles have always been a thing.
Bubbles were actually a popular subject in Dutch paintings from the 17th century, from which French artists drew inspiration. For example, 18th-century artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin's Soap Bubbles, which playfully depicts a young man blowing a fragile bubble that catches the light at his window. In another painting by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo—painted 30 years after Chardin's—two onlookers gaze at a bubble being blown before them.
The piece by Max is in the tradition of these paintings. And, as the Frye's wall text notes, bubbles at the time "connoted the temporal and fleeting nature of life on earth."
When viewed within the context of Unsettling Femininity, Seifenblasen takes on a completely new meaning. The show is curated from the Frye permanent collection, bringing together mostly German and Austrian late-19th- and early-20th-century paintings of women. The pieces are curated with the intention of interrogating the act of looking at these portrayals of women and how it plays into ideas surrounding power, gender, sex, morality, and purity in contemporary Western culture.
Organized around four themes (judgment, morality, performance, and artifice), each painting is accompanied by wall text that frames the work within its time and its relation to the theme. While some of the included pieces seem like obvious selections for this show—such as the rather iconic snake-wrapped woman in Franz von Stuck's Die Sünde (The Sin)—there are still others whose lesson is more subtly drawn out, such as Max's Seifenblasen, categorized under "artifice" in the back gallery of the exhibition.
The painting depicts a woman gazing into a mirror, while Cupid is perched on a wall in the background. He is blowing bubbles and making direct eye contact with the viewer. The woman is draped in fine fabric, and between her and the mirror is one of those Cupid-blown bubbles.
In placing the bubble between the woman and the mirror, Max is forcing the viewer to think about her perceived vanity, as Cupid's presence suggests longing for love. The bubble as the fleeting nature of life, her gaze a frivolous obsession. Beauty is but an artifice after all, something that we lose hold of as we march toward death.
And though I'm meant to be thinking about desire, love, and vanity, I'm still caught up on that bubble. It will last forever. It's been here since before my grandparents were born, and it will be here longer than my grandchildren. Despite its value as a symbol of how life goes by quickly, this bubble will outlast my own life. Nestled there, amid all that oil paint!