May 05, 2006


Follow-up to a feminism essay from Team Colour

How were the visual arts involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role if women in late 19th and early 20th century Britain?

“Independence is happiness…” Susan B. Anthony

During the late nineteenth century, the political system was subjected to change as the women’s suffrage movement emerged wanting to revolutionise the voting system. As a group of women they held no authority over social or governmental practices as they were deemed second–class citizens with no economic or political power. In this way the visual arts was the one media in which they could publish their message for freedom without imposing on political sanctions they were disallowed. It was an extremely public media that served as a means of mass communication without militant behaviour that would tarnish women as revolutionary and subversive, undercutting the possibility of reformation. However, this communication to the public through a passive resource was also used against women by anti–suffragist groups, therefore making a mockery of their message for liberty but also giving rise to the change of boundaries between the passive woman and the aggressive feminist.

During the Victorian period and running into the Edwardian period, social beliefs about the role of women was that they should be attentive to men and retain femininity through elegance of nature and presentation. This feature was combined into the suffragist visual arts as they strove to maintain equilibrium between politics and art, as well as passion and reason and femininity and aggression. Artistic integrity was represented through the influence of the Pre–Raphaelites whose images of women suffragist artists used as models of femininity for their posters. For example this can be seen in the figure of Edward Burne–Jones’ “Danäe and the Brazen Tower” (1887) as the figure of Danäe is a slim and beautiful woman, modestly dressed and seemingly innocent. This unthreatening image of woman was used by suffragists to present their desire to vote as something that would not jeopardize their authority and would ease the burden of man, as well as the rest of the nation.

Femininity was also preserved through the literal portrayal of women as feminine in the design of suffragist banners. The suffragists used social stereotypes and enforcements in order to protest against the constrictions put on them as non–voting citizens. This is seen in the embroidered suffragist banners as they used the feminine attribute of needlework proficiency as a protest medium. Once again it mixed together femininity with art and politics. It formulates a serious statement but one that satirises the label imposed on them by society, especially as it is an imposition that enables their protest to be so easily viewed. This provides a bold statement about the changing role of women as they no longer hide from such audacious displays of discontent.

This idea of still making women appear submissive to the power of men, whilst having some political aspirations and control, was used to generate the support of men. Yet, other forms about the demarcation of femininity were used in order to attain the support of fellow women. In this poster “The Bugler Girl” the artist Caroline Watts presents a militant woman, based on strong women of the past like the goddess Athena or the martyr Joan of Arc who appears in Pre–Raphaelite works. This early twentieth century image shows a new facet of the suffrage movement and about the role of women in society as it shows a more aggressive and warrior–like woman, therefore contrasting with their image of woman maintaining their position as domestic and caring citizens.

When creating public posters rivalling the conformity of the social structure often female suffragette designers signed their work with initials or maintained anonymity in order to retain their identity, not their individuality but the fact that they were female. This view that the world would not appreciate or pay attention to the work of women artists raises Linda Nochlin’s question of “why are there no great women artists?” One of the greatest fears for men at the time was that if women were given the vote they as men would lose their place in the home as the breadwinner but also the dominant character in the family. This is shown in this 1910 work “Election Day!”, in which the husband appears almost tied to the home as the apron strings appear entwined in the back rungs of the chair on which he is left seated holding babies as his wife walks out, in a masculine dress, as if ready for business.

Although this is a suffrage poster, apparent through the title “Election Day!” and the “Votes for Women” banner, this set–up of a female attired in respectable yet masculine was used to show by anti–suffragist artists to imply women’s recklessness of ‘abandoning’ the home and husband in order to seek enfranchisement. John Stuart Mill captures the mood of the time in his statement that “Everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.” Therefore although some men may have been sympathetic to the cause of women, as shown though the production of suffrage posters by men, they still expected their dominance to prevail and her affection to be unconditional, consequently propagating society’s antiquated beliefs.

Other artists in the late nineteenth century captured the fragility of women’s position in society as the Pre–Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were sympathetic to the plight of women at the time, created works that centred around the fallen woman. In Rossetti’s work “Found” he shows the fallen woman to be crouched on the floor in shame as she is being held by a man who looks on her in a bewildered recognition. In Holman Hunt’s “Awakening Conscience” the female in this painting is made a pitiful character, like Rossetti’s protagonist, as she seems to awaken from her life as a mistress. She seems to wish for a new beginning as she looks out the window at a new day whilst she literally turns her back on her lover who appears to be trying to regain her attention. In this way both artists showed that the women society despised as immoral were in–fact victims of circumstance and not entirely responsible for their position in life. In this way femininity in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was not only defined by men but also women as they also demarcated the roles in life set for them, such as the moral woman being the stable force at home and the immoral woman that should be condemned to life out of society.

In regards to Nochlin’s question of why there were no great women artists, a recurring feature of late nineteenth century and the art that had preceded it was the issue of the spectator. As a general rule the audience for paintings were automatically assumed to be men. Therefore much of the works that were highly appreciated were the produce of male artists for male spectators; although this does not negate the presence of female involvement in producing art that was respected by male audiences. It is with the turn of the twentieth century and the suffrage movement that the presence of women artists became more perceptible due to the impact of female suffrage artists, female British artists like Rosa Bonheur and female French painters like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassat who were making names for themselves as professional artists, not just amateurs who hid their talent in order to conform to social beliefs working women. As Nochlin describes in concern to the professionalism of women in nineteenth century Britain, “…the middle–class woman has a great deal more to lose than her chains.” The role of women was changing not exclusively due to political pressure for emancipation but also through the courage of individuals who successfully pushed themselves forward into the art world, suggesting that women were not in fact without genius or talent but needed a suitable time and courage in order to break forward.

Yet, this involvement in the art world was not purely based on the female artist as, for example, Rosa Bonheur was supported by her artist father establishing a more secure position in art society. Despite this Bonheur’s presence was not wholly accepted as her femininity was challenged due to her dressing in men’s clothing, her “work clothes” and her beliefs about not giving up art for the prospect of marriage or children, thus going against the belief that marriage was the ultimate goal for a respectable woman. It also has to be considered that Bonheur’s work did not stretch social boundaries as it remained inoffensive by revolving around animal studies and not political themes. It is this political involvement that changed the role of women as they became far more militant in their desire to attain their goal, suffering the degradation of imprisonment or force feeding during their hunger strikes.

Gizelda Pollack writes how a “trickle of references to women artists in the 16th century grows by the 18th century to become a flood in the 19th century” . Yet, whilst there was a flood Pollack found that by the 20th century the number of women artists began to dwindle with emancipation and better education creating a sense of absence in the art world after a long battle for their right to be acknowledged as artists but also feminine women. Therefore the visual arts had been highly influential in the changing demarcation and role of women in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century due to the visible surge of female artist, a profession that before would have tarnished a woman’s respectability. Yet, it has to be acknowledged that whilst women managed to create new boundaries both socially and artistically they were often still dependent on the help or appreciation of men and in their fight for emancipation they had to turn to more militant and aggression action in order for recognition of the lengths they would go to in order to win their rights to vote, and also not to be pigeon–holed as persons without worth in more intellectual fields of work and life.

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