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About the Painting
Wharton is believed to have painted Elizabeth Reclining shortly before he migrated to Paris in 19-, while living in Westfordshire City with relatives of his then-fianc__e, Agnes Marlston (who later became famous in her own right as a journalist during the Great War). During his stay in Westfordshire City, Wharton disclosed his homosexuality to Marlston and ended their engagement. It is unclear whether this occurred before or after he painted Elizabeth Reclining (and its two companion pieces, Elizabeth by the Fire and Elizabeth at the Hearth). What is known is that he had completed all three paintings upon his arrival in Paris; he sold all three to private collectors within a year of his arrival. Marlston's journals indicate that Elizabeth was a friend of her family and that she later became a close personal friend of Marlston herself, but further information on her relationship to Edward Morton is lacking. Morton himself does not appear to have ever commented on his subject.
Elizabeth Reclining depicts its subject resting nude on a couch in an otherwise-empty sitting room. She is gazing to the viewer's left, presumably out a window as the light on her body suggests bright sunshine. Her facial expression is one of comfort and even naughty pleasure with her body being on display, an interpretation further supported by the fact that her hands lie at her sides, making no effort to shield any part of her body.
The most notable feature of Elizabeth's body is her abundant pubic hair, which is very thick and covers a much wider area than seen on most female nude paintings of its era or any other. This has led to widespread criticism of the painting, as well as debate about its accuracy. Art historian Chris Winstrow recounts that Elizabeth Reclining shocked viewers when displayed at Wharton's first show in Paris in 19-: "Debate raged through the hall: is it a joke? Is she wearing a wig down there? Is that giddy look in her eyes really one of pride, or is she struggling to overcome embarrassment at her bizarre appearance? But the painting sold for a princely sum all the same."
Elizabeth's very hairy pubic area, and her evident pride in it, have inspired debate among art critics ever since the painting's unveiling as to how - and indeed whether - to interpret it. Winstrow reports that a consensus emerged among "serious critics" during and after Wharton's life that it was a reflection of his struggles with his sexuality. "Clearly he was trying to appreciate a woman's body but not quite succeeding," Winstrow concludes, "But for all that, he gave the art world one of its most idiosyncratic erotic beauties. One must nevertheless wonder what the real Elizabeth might have to say about being portrayed in such a way! Alas, Morton never commented on her real identity, and she remains lost to history."
Feminists and more progressive art critics often argue for a different interpretation of the painting. Noted critic Liz Crymzyck argues, "The very fact that a woman with natural - if unusual - features has inspired so much consternation in itself says a great deal about why this painting is so essential. Elizabeth, whoever she may have been, is clearly presenting herself to the world in an unapologetic, warts-and-all invitation to appreciate her as one would any woman and her natural beauty. Decades of male critics have utterly failed to do so, while others see her only as an erotic joke. In reality, she is neither erotic nor a joke. Rather, she is a blunt confrontation with the unreasonable and often unrealistic views the art world brings to all women's bodies - a confrontation most men are not up to enduring.
Despite causing a great deal of controversy at the 19- show in Paris, Elizabeth Reclining was sold to prominent banker Thomas d'Estaing, and was displayed in his (and later his son's) parlor for decades.