Catherine Deneuve: The Art of Passive/ Aggressive – Artist Jeremy Penn

The Power of Women

As you all know, I am endlessly fascinated by powerful women; forceful females who dare to express themselves fearlessly; and who have a true sense of themselves and complete comfort in their own skins.

In my last blog, I talked about Brigitte Bardot; a woman who exhibited masterful control of her own sexuality; overtly sensual and utterly self-aware. To my mind, she is like a lioness; potent, confident and wonderfully true to herself; regardless of the controversy that surrounded her at the height of her popularity.

However, sometimes sexuality can adopt a different tone. Bardot exuded an almost aggressive sexuality, impossible to ignore (or resist!). In contrast, Catherine Deneuve, another famous female that I return to continually for inspiration, has an elusive sensuality that is harder to grasp; a more refrained, coy appeal that suggests passivity, rather than confrontation. Bardot’s open, kohl-eyed stare is almost a direct antithesis of Deneuve’s demure, sidelong glance; yet Deneuve’s is no less powerful, despite its elegant, seeming-submissiveness.

Dominance vs. Submissiveness

Dominance versus submissiveness is a theme that never ceases to intrigue me. The animal kingdom continually demonstrates examples of it in nature. From the instinctive hierarchies formed in pack animals to the mating rituals of birds; there is repeated evidence of passive and aggressive behaviour throughout the majority of species in the world. When two dogs play with one another; one will inevitably seek to dominate, while the other obediently rolls over and submits to the other.

Humans are no different. Of course, I am not the first artist to explore this. Much of Rodin’s work seeks to exemplify the endless battle for dominance within relationships; with figures pulling against one another in their ceaseless quest to become the ‘alpha male’ (or female). Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ explores dominance from a new angle; as the depicted woman submits to the dominance of the artist himself. Modern art, no matter how abstract, often plays with the theme of passive / aggressive; sometimes even using color itself to express power versus weakness.

Yet occasionally, as Deneuve proves; seeming submissiveness can be a very powerful thing indeed. Hailed by Americans during the 1970s as the ‘most elegant woman in the world’; her refined brand of sex appeal has earned her every bit as much adulation throughout the world as her French contemporary, Bardot.

The Artwork

Painting of Catherine Deneuve
Painting of Catherine Deneuve

In ‘Comme elle regarde vers la lumière’ (As She Looks Towards The Light), rather than painting Deneuve from the front, I chose instead to depict her profile. Now obviously, this was in part to celebrate Deneuve’s spectacular bone structure, which, when lit from above, creates wonderful drama in the lines in the contours of her face. But the choice of position was not merely to celebrate her beauty. As a woman who seems often to resist direct interaction with the camera lens; I wanted to capture her natural reticence and ability to woo the viewer without even making eye contact, like an elusive goddess; seen by many, but truly known and understood by few. I chose to use brushed copper as a canvas; and the solidity and subtle sheen of the surface illuminates her further, literally lighting her from within, as well as from above. The painting is created from a palette of blues; as I wanted to exaggerate her remote, yet also accessible beauty, with a hint of cobalt turquoise to add tone and contrast.

Catherine Deneuve Painting 

Catherine Deneuve Painting 

The very name of this painting is significant. Bardot may be the lioness; but for me, Deneuve is the poised, silently seductive cat; and when she does confront the camera directly, her doe-like eyes are full of quiet, calculating sexuality; claiming her own sensuality with modest confidence.

Just as Warhol’s pop art image of Bardot focused upon the self-assured gaze; elevating his muse to a level of a modern day goddess; adored, beautiful and removed, so I sought to do the equivalent with Catherine Deneuve. Her cool stare radiates from the canvas, yet avoids direct eye contact with the viewer; placing her very much in an exalted position; demure, yet worthy of worship. I created the muted pastel effect with acrylics over a birch art panel, which I later-white washed; lending her features a restrained fluidity and vitality that reflects her personality.

Power is not always about the overt and the aggressive. Sometimes it can come from a more subtle, quieter place, but be no less potent. As we know well; sometimes a whisper can speak as many volumes as a shout. Deneuve exemplifies this to perfection, and this contributes hugely to her worldwide appeal.