Woman in a Turban: Domenichino’s Sibyl, Staël’s Corinne and the Image of Female Genius

Barker, Emma (2022). Woman in a Turban: Domenichino’s Sibyl, Staël’s Corinne and the Image of Female Genius. Word and Image (In press).

Abstract

The heroine of Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, or Italy (1807) makes her first appearance in the novel ‘dressed like Domenichino’s Sibyl’, wearing an Indian shawl wound into a turban. The aim of this essay is to illuminate the contribution that the tradition of Sibylline iconography made to the characterization of the heroine of Corinne by locating Staël in a long line of artists, writers and patrons, particularly female ones, who adapted and appropriated this iconography for their own purposes over the previous two centuries. A crucial breakthrough was made in the early seventeenth century by Domenichino, who provided the prototype for later generations of artists by painting a free-standing picture of a generic (not, as often said, the Cumaean) Sibyl wearing a turban. Domenichino’s composition nevertheless remained exceptional in its insistence on the primacy of Sibylline inspiration, which helps to account for its role in Corinne as well as for its appeal to other early nineteenth-century writers. Staël’s direct predecessors included the artists Angelica Kauffman and Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, both of whom portrayed female sitters in more or less Sibylline guise, but the most important was Emma Hamilton, from whose famous attitudes Staël almost certainly derived the motif of the turban fashioned out of an Indian shawl. Staël herself adopted the turban as her characteristic headdress, as did other literary and artistic women after her; its great advantage lay in the way that it enabled them to lay claim to Sibylline authority whilst also disavowing any such intent.

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