How were the visual arts involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in late 19th century and early 20th century Britain?
During the period between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the visual arts were expanding and becoming highly influential in defining the feminine. With the popularity of the Pre–Raphaelite painterly brotherhood, who wished to instil morals into contemporary Britain, visual arts were increasingly used to dictate the roles and virtues of women. During this period the roles of women were becoming increasingly separated from those of men, as the domestic and industrial spheres were separated, it is hence important to study how the visual arts were influential in demarcating the role of women in their domestic sphere. A particular target of the period, during an era of political unrest was the prostitute, becoming a myth through the creation of the visual arts, the “fallen woman” served as both a warning and an object of scorn and pity for women in the Victorian age. Progressively however, the political climate changes as we see the rise of the suffragist movement, and the use of different media in the visual arts, both by and against the female suffragette to model and define the woman of the period. The importance of the visual arts is exemplified by the vandalising of the “Rokeby Venus” (see figure 1) in 1914, by a suffragette who opposed the defined image of women portrayed in this painting of the mythical goddess of love: Venus. With this intensity of passion aimed towards the visual arts, I wish to distinguish whether the images of the period made a distinct impact on contemporary women and how the definition of femininity crafted by art affected the social stringencies on female character, passions and actions.
The late 19th century was a period of rapid industrial growth and it was in this environment that the perceived roles for the middle class woman were changing. The noisy and corrupted urban environment was a frightening development for many of the British public, and the male provider increasingly sought refuge in the confines of his home. The visual arts of the period reflected this notion in many genre pieces, like Philip Calderon’s “Woman’s mission: Companion of manhood” (see figure 2). In this image we see the idealised woman of the period, comforting her husband to the left. The painting’s setting shows the domesticated living space, and indicates the wife’s fulfilment of her household duties.
This “lived in” impression created in the painting is crucial in recognising the enforced roles on middle class women of the late 19th century, as idleness was seen to be a road to immorality. The dependence of the woman on her male provider is also seen defined in this image, intended to act as a role model for the feminine to abide. Although supporting her grief stricken husband, her reliance and obedience is seen in her posture; leaning on his shoulder she gazes up towards him, the height difference between the two figures lending the male a clearly higher status in the image. This definition of femininity enforced in this image gave to the male a standing of success and social position. The painting defines the feminine further by the woman’s modest and simple fashion. Her gown is a muted brown, concealing her from her neck to her feet, with minimal shape at the waist to express her figure. Instead her femininity is projected in the curvature of her neck, leaning dependently on her husband’s shoulder.
The defining of the female in her domestic sphere was not isolated to the middle classes. Although the lower and upper classes were seen as more susceptible to the corruptions of the new industrial age, we can see evidence of the visual arts demarcating also the role of the lower class wife. An example of this is in figure 3– George Elgar Hick’s “Sinews of old England”. In this image we see represented a supposed typical working class family; a husband, his wife and a young child. The male looks resolutely out of the painting, assumedly to the working wo his sphere. His frontal image is contrasted by his wife’s side profile, as she looks directly at her husband and her responsibilities as a woman. Similarly to “woman’s mission” the lower class wife appears to be reliant on her husband, on whom she leans echoing the above image by Philip Calderon. However the role of the lower class woman was different from that of the middle class wife; put by Lynn Nead in “The Magdalen in modern times: the mythology of the fallen woman in Pre–Raphaelite painting” as:
“The working–class model was defined in terms of her piety, thrift and conscientiousness, but, above all, she could not display aspirations above her class in either her personal or domestic adornment.”
In this image we see the visual representation then of the defined working–class feminine. The female attire, contrasting to that in “woman’s mission”, is that designed for hard work with rolled up sleeves and a shorter skirt allowing more movement. Her domestic duties are again represented in the background of the image, yet her living space appears much more humble.
The most distinctive link however between these two images is the submissive nature of the woman to rely on her male counterpart. Even though the working–class woman is industrious; apparent by her attire; it is clear in her posture that she is required to be submissive, defenceless and reliant on her husband. This demarcation of feminine power in society played a key role in actually defining the feminine, and it was women who; under the cruel hammer of fate; experienced life without a partner, who were both feared and pitied during the period of the late 19th century. Such women were often governesses or seamstresses but the most highly depicted visual image of the grief stricken woman was that of the prostitute.
During the period, Britain was fighting to control overseas colonies, the fear and unrest created by these confrontations caused a mass fixation upon the morality of the nation, blamed for the political turbulence of the era. At the centre of this was the prostitute, who was at first feared, and then pitied for her immorality. The visual arts, in particular the Pre–Raphaelite brotherhood were heavily involved in creating and defining the ‘mythology’ of the prostitute in the late 19th century. In order to control fears of the possible economic manipulation of the prostitute, the visual arts defined the cult as that of a desolate, guilt ridden woman, desperate to reclaim childhood innocence to no avail, who would surely take her life to end her suffering, by jumping off a bridge. This common theme is seen in the image by George Frederic Watts “found drowned” (see figure 4).
The importance of the prostitute mythology in defining the feminine lies perhaps more in its warning to the virtuous middle–class women of the period. In defining the fallen woman, the visual arts set strict limitations on the actions of the feminine woman. Women were shocked into stringent rules about behaviour and modesty by the recurring theme of the fallen woman in the visual arts. More specifically seen in Augustus Leopold Egg’s triptych; “Past and present” (see figures 5–7)
These stark images depict the inevitable downfall of an unfaithful woman to destitution and also prostitution. Femininity was therefore defined by the visual arts as a permanent fixture to the male. Women seen out of the domestic sphere were viewed under suspicion of infidelity, and so the actions of the feminine woman were defined also by chastity and suspicion. However this became more relaxed towards the arrival of the early 20th century, when the virtuous woman appeared on the street performing duties of charity, showing good Christian faith and developing an image of morality outside of the domestic sphere.
Despite this emphasis on chastity the studied period was a time of erotic revival, where the visual arts produced and revived, in great popularity many sexually charged images. An example of such sexually provocative imagery is Lord Frederic Leighton’s “The bath of Psyche” (see figure 8). The image of psyche bathing has clear erotic undertones, as the nude female figure stands in a contrapposto pose, reminiscent of the antiquated classical mythological paintings of the Roman era. The body is turned so as to show the viewer the front of the figure of the clearly beautiful nude. These mythological images were popular by the male consumers who monopolised the art market of the period, as they were designed for the viewing pleasure of men, to engage in a beautiful female nude. This sensual pleasure aimed at the male audience had no such equivalent for female spectators. Again borrowing from Lynn Nead’s essay “The Magdalen in modern times: The mythology of the fallen woman in Pre–Raphaelite painting”, the differences defined in the studied period between male and female sensuality are thus expressed:
“The male sexual urge is thought of as active, aggressive and spontaneous, whilst female sexuality is defined in relation to the male, and understood as weak, passive and responsive.”
The visual arts created a sensuous field for the male viewer, but created no language for the expression of female sensuality, enforcing the belief that women’s bodies were for the pleasure of men, and that a sexual desire was not feminine.
With such clearly defined roles of femininity created by the visual arts, and the distinct limitations placed upon women’s role in society, it is hardly surprising that with the rise of the suffragist movement, the role of the visual arts was to denounce the supposed rebellious females and further enforce ideals of femininity. In the early 20th century female suffrage was a focal point in British politics and the visual arts involvement in defining femininity addressed this new change using the increased variety of media, also developing during the beginning of the century. The most frequented form of media used in the visual arts to ridicule the suffragists was that of cartoons, which could be easily distributed to a large and relevant audience. One such example is “the shrieking sister” published in punch magazine (see figure 9). Although commenting on the more sensible and refined suffragette to the left of the image the archetypal suffragette creation of the visual arts appears to the right of the image. The suffragettes were depicted in the visual arts as unfeminine creatures; with a mystifying almost witch like savageness as we can see in this sketch. The female’s figure is straight, denying any feminine curves and her aggressive posture is a harsh comparison to the defenceless feminism enforced in the late 18th century by the arts. Her appearance is plain at best, as she wears glasses and contorts her face into a scream. This image of a suffragette implies that this type of woman; a woman who is radically, or politically minded; is unattractive and unfeminine. To be more precise, by stereotyping the suffragettes in this fashion, the visual arts attempted to demarcate the female movement in politics, by defining the feminine as the opposite to the suffragist movement.
However the suffragettes also used the visual arts to enforce their own ideas of femininity and the role of women in the early 20th century. Using the WUDS newsletter, the suffragettes created images enforcing the virtuous, brave and feminine ideals of the suffragist movement. An example of this is seen in the image “The forces of evil denouncing the bearers of light” (see figure 9). The female’s pose in the image is reminiscent of the ancient postures of female models, as she leans on one leg, the other gently bent. This reference to femininity is then corresponded with her suit of armour showing strength and ability.
The visual arts of the period concerned can hence be seen as having a hugely influential effect on what it was for a woman to be feminine; by defining the character, actions, and passions of a woman. By dictating what is feminine in this way the largely male dominated visual arts played a definitive role in demarcating women by placing stringent conventions upon which women could feel attractive and effeminate. Middle class women’s actions in the late 19th century were dictated by images of domesticated bliss, enshrining upon the female population a sense of responsibility to maintain a virtuous and tranquil home environment for their working husbands to return to. Defined too by limitations set out by the visual arts was a woman’s character; again to be defenceless and reliant on her male protector. The purity of a woman’s character was also strongly enforced by the visual arts providing harrowing warnings for the fallen woman who would surely walk a path to an agonising early grave. The passions too, the very essence of a woman were quelled and hence defined by the arts, denying the sensual pleasures of a woman, leaving her only with sexual duty, not pleasure. Her political passions too were condemned as unattractive and shameful, as anti–suffragette images mocked and characterised women with a political passion for female suffrage, as unattractive and “witch” like. Although towards the later end of the study period, the arts were adopted by the suffragists and constructed a visual which aimed to emancipate the strong minded female. Hence it was by defining what it was to be “feminine” in such a way that the visual arts actively demarcated the role of women in the period of the late 19th century to the early 20th century.