a feminism essay
During the nineteenth and twentieth century both male and female artists were responsible for defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in society. Whilst female painters were not given the same opportunities as their male colleagues, it is evident that they made it their mission to achieve the status of a professional artist. Many women depicted subjects that challenged the role of women in society by showing the difficulties women faced and the restrictions placed on them as they attempted to gain a role in public life. Others painted scenes that portrayed women as ambitious, either through their choice of subject matter or their depictions of women as determined characters. Women remained a popular subject among male artists, yet it is important to note that many of the images of women produced by men were ‘not necessarily a reflection of how women actually lived and experienced their lives in the period’ ; they frequently represented women as weak and unworthy of a more active role in society.
Nochlin’s essay, Why have there been to great women artists?, explores the reasons behind women’s lack of success as artists over the centuries. She claims that ‘The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education’ . Women were prevented from participating in life drawing classes until the 1860s, yet drawing from nude models was part of the basic training of male artists. Zoffany’s painting The Academicians of the Royal Academy shows how women were excluded from institutions such as the Royal Academy; a group of men are gathered in front of male nude models, yet the two female members of the RA are not present. Instead they are included as portraits on the wall. Whilst this shows how women were excluded, the painting does suggest that women were gradually breaking down the boundaries and gaining a role in the art world.
The establishment of female art schools enabled middle class women to receive training and support themselves financially. In the 1840s schools such as The Female School of Design were founded to supply training in design for women who had no choice but to support themselves. In 1862 the Royal Female School of Art was founded and the following year Robert Blaine advocated female membership to the Royal Academy. This inclusion of women in the art world signified the breaking down of boundaries, yet success in the art market was a different matter; exclusion from the RA schools prevented women from gaining personal introductions to clients and patrons that were essential for commissions. Emily Osborne’s Nameless and Friendless, exhibited at the RA in 1857, depicts a woman presenting a portfolio to a shop owner. Her black dress suggests she is in mourning and searching for ways to provide for the boy who accompanies her. Earning a living to provide for her family was a new role for women.
It is significant that the art dealer looks condescendingly at the woman, and the men studying a drawing glance up with quizzical eyes to consider her; they offer no sympathy, instead she is an object for male observation. According to Chadwick, the message of the painting is that ‘women have no place in the commerce of art; they belong to the world of art as subjects, not makers or purveyors of art’ . Whilst women were still struggling to gain accepted as artists, they were gradually changing the boundaries in society and creating a new role for themselves; women like Osborne were capable of exhibiting works that stated how women were viewed.
Limitations placed on women by society meant that the subjects of their paintings were often similar. The works of the female Impressionists depict ‘spaces of femininity’ because these were the areas to which women were confined. Although some outdoor spaces were accessible to Parisian women their subject matter was generally limited to interiors. British women were not as constrained and so did not limit themselves to domestic settings; Elizabeth Thompson refused to restrict her works to ‘feminine’ subjects. Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea is a grand manner paining, depicting soldiers after battle, and it gained Thompson a reputation as ‘“the first painter to celebrate the courage and endurance of the ordinary British soldier”’ . Calling the Roll brought Thompson immediate success when it was exhibited at the RA and it proceeded to tour the nation. This suggests the role of women was changing in Britain; women were successfully painting the same subjects as men and so playing an increasingly important role in the art world.
The role that women played in the art world gradually changed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not simply due to the increasing number of professional female artists; women also became connoisseurs and commissioners. Isabella Stewart Gardener filled her home with fragments of Venetian palaces and a large number of representations of women, including a portrait of herself. Sargent’s Isabella Stewart Gardener presents his subject as a woman of authority. Women, therefore, had a new role in the art world; they became women of business, adopting a traditionally male role.
The suffrage movement was an attempt to change the role of women in society by gaining the vote, and the fight for enfranchisement included various forms of advertising to express their message. Posters and banners acted as forms of advertisement with mottos serving as announcements for meetings, calling for the vote and proclaiming key beliefs. Embroidery played an important part in banner making; it had an association with femininity which the women’s suffrage movement believed they could use to their advantage. The campaigners wanted embroidery ‘to evoke femininity – but femininity represented as a source of strength, not as evidence of women’s weakness’ . The visual arts provided the suffrage movement with a distinctive new way of representing women and femininity and, whilst the actions of the militants hindered the cause to an extent, the processions and advertisements proved women could campaign peacefully.
Through the visual arts women began to change the role of women in society, yet men’s depictions of women frequently undermined their capabilities and achievements. Egg’s Past and Present triptych shows the life of a family after the wife’s adultery has been discovered. The only reference to the woman’s lover is the letter clasped in the husband’s hand in Past and Present I, which is an important detail yet easily overlooked, causing all the blame to be placed upon the woman. Egg portrays the woman as weak, as she is the cause of this loneliness and the break up of her family; in Past and Present II the daughters sit alone looking at the same moon as their mother, yet they are not together.
Prostitutes were a common subject for male artists in this period. Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience depicts a man visiting his mistress; the woman is her lover’s possession as she lives in a house he has bought for her, yet the moment portrayed shows her realizing her mistake. Hunt is more forgiving than Egg, suggesting that these women can change their lives, and he acknowledges that the man is partly to blame for the woman’s situation as he has led her to temptation. These images display women’s weaknesses and may have been an attempt to define femininity in a negative light, suggesting that men felt threatened by the changing role of women in society.
In Victorian Britain the political and business arena was seen as a masculine world whilst the domestic world was feminine. This concept of separate spheres was not unique to the nineteenth century but, as some women began to challenge these beliefs, some found it necessary to attempt to reinforce them. Hick’s Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood is part of a triptych that represents a woman at an ‘optimum moment in her life’ as she plays her role as a mother, loyal wife and dedicated daughter. In this particular image the wife provides support as her husband deals with distressing news, yet holding his arm reveals that she is dependant on him. The woman in Hicks’ paintings is his definition of femininity; she represents how women should behave and suggests that the role of women, from a man’s perspective, was to be loyal and devoted.
In conclusion, through the visual arts women were responsible for demarcating the role of women in Victorian Britain by playing an active role in the art world. By exhibiting at the RA and with the introduction of female art schools, women gained the training and audience they needed to become independent and support themselves. With the use of the visual arts the suffrage campaigns were successful in expressing women’s views and defining femininity and peacefully attracting attention. During this period of change men and women depicted women differently as they attempted to define femininity; whilst men often portrayed women as weak and dependant on men, female artists represented women as strong: taking control of their lives and playing a more active role in both the art world and society.