I went to the Victorian exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art a few weeks ago and couldn’t take my eyes off one of the paintings (click to enlarge): What you’re seeing is unmarried, dowry-less women being auctioned off to the highest bidders in an ancient Babylonian market. The women have been lined up according to their beauty—the most beautiful woman is standing on the platform; the least beautiful sits on on the far right. According to Herodotus, whose writings on the market inspired the painting, the money earned from the purchases of the beautiful women was used to pay men to take the least beautiful women home. Examining the figures and their interactions in this masterpiece is like watching a movie—from the faces and gestures of the men in the crowd to the reactions of the women at being put in the order they were, there’s a wide variety of attitudes and thought processes happening here. That the painting is the size of an entire wall made it easy to live in the scene for a minute or two, asking myself (as a coincidentally unmarried, dowry-less woman) what it would feel like to be placed somewhere in that line. I saw a little of myself, at one point in my life or another, in each woman.
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