The Tarot of Delphi is sumptuously illustrated with neoclassical art. It is a deck curated with fine art paintings by Victorian Era masters. The selections portray diverse emotions and experiences, particularly of women. This may surprise, because a commonly accepted – and not altogether unfair – view is that Victorian artists were obsessed with two types of women: the treacherous vixen and the helpless damsel.
In choosing the images for the Tarot of Delphi, I surveyed over a thousand Victorian paintings and watercolors, so I can say with some confidence that there certainly are trends: sensual, seductive women; despairing, vulnerable women; mythical women; powerful, vindictive women. At times it was frustrating. Did every Victorian painter associate formidable women with menace?
It might have been easy to believe these artists projected a narrow range of expression onto women: vicious in dominance and hapless in passivity. (An obvious exception was Victorian portraiture, in which artists often depicted their female and male contemporaries as dignified, emotionless, and utterly bland.) That, however, would be too simplistic. A more nuanced look at this art reveals a subtle, wider range of expression.
In the Tarot of Delphi there are prototypical Victorian depictions of high drama, sensuality, and opulence. There are vindictive, despairing, and seductive women, sometimes all at the same time. Yet, there is also playfulness, humor, repose, authority, composure, striving, elation, dread, contemplation, comfort, skill, resolve, enjoyment, devastation, curiosity, and affection.
In Victorian neoclassical art, there are a lot of fawning couples, lounging ladies, and blank stares of people bored by luxury. I avoided overpopulating the Tarot of Delphi with certain, common images. In some cases, though, those pictures had an explicit place in the tarot lineup, such as the tender lovers in the Two of Cups and the resplendent, sleeping woman in The Sun.
In Victorian art, and in the Tarot of Delphi, it is helpful to look closely. One luxuriating woman may be bored, another trapped, another self-centered, while yet another is relaxed and truly enjoying her domain. Beyond the calm, composed stares, there are differences – earning, brooding, wistfulness, happiness, sadness, or consideration.
It helps, too, that we view these paintings with modern eyes 100 years and more after their creation. A painting of a vengeful woman too uppity for her own good becomes righteous but lost in her own bitterness, as with Clytemnestra in the Five of Swords. The erotic Andromeda stimulates the desire to be a hero(ine), regardless of gender. And the witch Circe is a competent queen, testing Ulysses’s worthiness.
Victorian artists, of course, had diverse experiences and complex relationships, just as we do. Some of their issues are painfully apparent in their art. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s melodramatic love life bleeds into his portrayals of distant, self-absorbed beauties and morose, trapped women, like Proserpine (1874 oil version) in the Nine of Wands. Simeon Solomon’s work hints at his tragic struggle to express romantic love in a society that criminalized homosexuality.
Victorian artists were predominantly male, and women’s roles in society were limited. While many girls learned to paint as part of a well-rounded education, the predominating belief was that women lacked basic faculties to be professional artists, or professional anything. A working gentlewoman was positively scandalous, anyhow.
And yet… long live the Queen! The most powerful and sacred position in England was held by a women. And there were female artists who broke barriers, including the historical and military painter Elizabeth Thompson. Works by Henrietta Rae, Edith Ridley Corbet, and Annie Louisa Swynnerton are featured in the Tarot of Delphi.
The paintings in the deck are quintessentially Victorian in their combination of heroic drama, tantalizing yet distant sensuality, and flawless, dignified repose. The surface, however, is a diaphanous veil under which simmer deeply felt experiences and dreams.