Art history is filled with works of art that leave you with a lot more questions than answers.  As a student of art you’ll come across things that you may want to un-see. The painting above is a 1797 portrait of Count Franz de Paula Graf von Hartig and his wife Eleanore. I think you would agree that it’s an extremely weird choice for a couples portrait. The artist Barbara Krafft has successfully left us with the feeling like we just interrupted a really private moment.

Roman Charity. Peter Paul Rubens. 1612

Here’s the short scuttlebutt behind the painting. The couple in the painting is attempting to portray one of the stories of Roman Historian Valerius Maximus, which tells of a woman named Pero who offers her breast to her father Cimon after he is incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. The story was considered at the time as an example of true Roman honor.

This portrayal is of course not new.  Many artists have portrayed the scene throughout history, but probably not as an example of “Roman Charity”.  More likely  they chose it for some other reason. It’s alright to use your imagination at this point.

Jan Janssens. Roman Caritas. 1620 – 1625

Caravaggio depicted the same scene in his painting “The Seven Works of Mercy”.  We can see breast milk dripping from Cimon’s beard as he suckles his daughters breast.  Surprisingly enough church officials at the time didn’t seem to mind because it told the story of a “Pietas”.

Breastfeeding seems to always get someone’s goat even when there’s just a baby involved, and this in our so called “evolved” society.  We still hear about women and their babies being told to cover-up or to go someplace private to breastfeed.  I can’t believe that this is still going on today.

Now breastfeeding a fully grown man is another story.  I know it creeps a lot of you out.

Was the “creepy” feeling felt by the viewers in the 1600’s and 1700’s too?

Most likely.

Certainly a portrait painter like Barbara Krafft might have found the request of Count Franz de Paula Graf von Hartig more than a little odd if one looks at the other portraits she painted over her lifetime.

Caravaggio. The Seven Works of Mercy (detail)

Roman Charity continues as a contemporary subject as demonstrated in Russian erotic surrealistic photographer Max Sauco’s photograph called “Romana caritas”. Is the fact that the image is a photograph disturb the viewer more and is it erotic or just surrealist?

Once an artist creates a work of art and it goes on public view pretty much any interpretation can happen.

If  depictions of the “Roman Charity” were meant to teach the masses about the “Pietas”, does the same imagery have the same impact today?

I’ll let you decide.

Max Sauco. Romana Caritas 2011.