Vashti's Tail by Richard McBee

Richard McBee

Vashti's Tail, 1996, Oil on canvas, 172.72 x 172.72 cm, Collection of the artist, © Richard McBee; Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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A Persian Burlesque

Commentary by

The opening chapters of Esther describe how—after months of lavish drinking banquets—the king sent his eunuchs to fetch his queen, Vashti, that he might display her beauty to the men he had gathered around him. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the book’s opening is captured in this painting by Richard McBee—while the grandeur of the king’s court is also hinted at: white cotton curtains, marble pillars, porphyry, mother-of-pearl, and coloured stones picked up in the pinks and blues of the composition.

This unusual and complex interpretation of the Vashti vignette appears to project the King’s fantasy, for in reality (as the text tells us) Vashti refused to come. A naked Vashti, adorned with little except her tiered crown, a sparkly belt, and possibly a veil, performs a cabaret-style dance, for the implied male gaze of the king and his guests. Her intended objectification as described in the text is here suggested by her representation as an animal with a tail. And she is not just an animal, but a domesticated one—turned into a pet for the King; harnessed, obedient, and performing.

Vashti’s tail, clearly evident in this painting, derives from a collection of rabbinic midrashim that present Vashti in a negative light, implying that she had licentious intent when she organized her own banquet at the other end of the king’s castle. According to an associated tradition, the angel Gabriel came and fixed a tail to her (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 12b). God intervened in various ways to prevent Vashti from heeding Ahasuerus’s request. Thus God directed matters so that Vashti would be deposed and Esther would reign in her stead.

The intriguing second figure in the painting—a naked female ‘hiding’ in the shadows on the other side of the wall—may be interpreted in more than one way. She might be the real Vashti of the text who refused to come forth and be paraded before the men—rejected, isolated, and cast out; stripped of royal status for her refusal to obey. Or she could be Esther, the young woman who would soon be paraded before the king and win his favour.

 

References

Berlin, Adele. 2001/5761. Esther, The JPS Bible Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society)