How were the visual arts involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain?
The issue at debate here is showing how far the visual arts defined femininity and set boundaries to – or indeed promoted – women’s rights, and the roles women played in society. This brings up other multiple questions along the way which I will attempt to incorporate into the essay. Unfortunately, it is easy to highlight the artwork itself as being repressive or liberating, and arguing that it had a direct causal function to women’s position whilst forgetting that there is a flipside to this. Artists may have simply been trying to show what was happening in society at the time without creating their art as an intended repressive or liberating method of representation.
Throughout this period in Britain there does seem to have been a lot of emphasis among the visual arts in placing negative or stultifying restrictions, values and expectations on women, as society already viewed them as second class citizens. However this was done as a backlash to the very real and supposed ‘threat’ of increased liberation for women that seemed to be coming into focus at the time, and what it would mean for men, society and the family home. Hence as women’s inevitable freedoms increased, the attempts to restrict them increased as well. Issues such as women making a stand and voicing their grievances over a lack of freedom or respect put into light the ‘woman question’, and was a very new and scary thing happening to a society that had never experienced a rebellion of this kind before.
Obviously, with the Industrial Revolution happening at about the same time, insecurity was more prevalent than ever and the need for repression could be argued to have been greater in art. It was deemed necessary by society to ‘put women in their place’, to create more security in an increasingly insecure society, as women were beginning to gain academic freedom through the art–world because of this. Apart from being excluded from painting the nude until 1903 – considered the ‘highest’ form of Art – this extended to access to Academy schools, places of art education run by women, participation in avant–garde circles and therefore increased opportunities in art. Sadly though, education only extended to middle or upper class women, the working class still had little or no rights to this. Another question that comes into play; as art was now the central career for middle/upper–class women because they considered it more appealing that the work of a governess – did this make it the focal point for ‘creative’ repression by society? And if it did, was this largely done by male painters, and to what extent did female painters highlight women’s position? I shall consider next some examples of paintings and how they tried to portray women’s position, either at home or in the professions, to determine how far they were involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in society. These paintings will be a mixture of high and low involvement in this process.
At the time it was genuinely believed that biological differences between men and women somehow ‘proved’ man’s domination over woman. Extending this supposed fact by saying that a woman’s traditional role as opposed to a man’s is inferior, and placing this within the context of art is arguably unfair. Consequently the two sexes were separated into very different spheres, and this lies at the root of common ignorance at the time which still continues to a much lesser extent in today’s society and artwork. In reality though, it was women’s lack of educational opportunities and societal brainwashing of men and women that lead to this common and popular belief.
Paintings were not the only modes of showing women’s supposed inferiority. Caricatures and cartoons poked fun at what a woman student should look like, again a backlash to the threat that by 1871, over 1,000 women were identifying themselves as artists compared to before, due to pressure to earn a living.
The way in which some pictures were painted tried to portray women as an ideal, in an objective light, and as panderers to men. For instance there are two pictures; one shows a working class wife hanging onto her husband’s arm, gazing lovingly into his eyes, and the other a middle class woman comforting her grief stricken husband. The softened facial expressions equally highlight woman’s subservience and supposedly weaker nature.
The visual arts tended to represent the male perspective, and it was not so much that there did not exist a female perspective, more that it was not recognised, taken seriously, or paid attention to. It could be said that because of this, half of art, or half of humanity has been hidden. From some examples of pictures painted of women, such as that of Renoir “The loge, 1874” compared to Mary Cassatt “Reading Le Figaro, 1883”, it is noted that the male and female perspective of the woman tend to be different. A man tended to paint the woman as a beautiful object with little or no emotion, whereas the woman painted herself or another woman with transcendent characteristics and containing personality in her face and body. Contrary to this, and as it was very unusual to acknowledge that there were any talented women painters, critics undermined the individuality of those that did exist by claiming that all women artists had a certain ‘style’ that linked them together, by choosing to paint scenes of domestic life. This is not an accurate claim, as there are women who painted on other subject matters. Some of those that did fit the critics mold managed to defend themselves fairly. For example, a woman painter, Helen Frankenthaler said: “In any case, the mere choice of a certain realm of subject matter, or the restriction to certain subjects, is not to be equated with a style, much less with some sort of quintessentially feminine style.”
This would be true, as male painters too have been preoccupied with one or several recurring themes before – and allowed to be – without being accused of only possessing the capability of a universal ‘masculine’ style. After the 1850s male artists became interested in different topics such as travel, photography, mountains or butterflies, reasserting amateur paintings and thereby taking some of the art focus off of women. This leads us to another mistake sometimes practiced in the visual arts, that is to represent women in paintings – assuming this is how they are in real life – was not only incorrect, but showed the publics fault at large. Art is not necessarily a “direct personal expression of individual emotional experience; a translation of personal life into visual terms” and so could be inaccurate. It does indeed show the considered ideal that women should be subservient, and to some extent shows this forced reality, but it is more a desire than an inherent truth about women. There is evidence of visual material for example, which shows female respectability and highlights a more diverse experience of life for women in the period. This can be seen during the 1870s and 80s when a period of glamour and beauty threatened to tear down the old barriers of women’s repression in the art world.
So, despite overwhelming setbacks, there were some very successful women artists around the time. It is true that these were indeed rare cases, but it still shows that the visual arts were not always against women as some were created by women themselves to actively represent their situation or showing each other in a positive light. Some men too, also painted women in a way that allowed greater imagination for the liberties that would have been granted for women in an ideal equalitarian world. A good example of two successful women are Berthe Morisot and Mary
Cassatt. The Impressionist movement turned away from bourgeois classicism and history painting to genre scenes of contemporary modern life that included scenes of leisure and family life; and these women led their own exhibition society in which they could practice more ‘modern’ ways of drawing upon their direct experiences of family life as subject matter for their artistic practice. Here then, we can see that their art is an example of representational art, and therefore the contradictions that they would have faced in doing so.
Women’s sexuality and their bodies was another fascination in the visual arts, not simply the roles they played in society. Men and women artists and writers too were fascinated by the subject and the theme of puberty, awakening sensuality and young love had (“Psyche”, Berthe Morisot, 1876) had attracted Romantic artists. Cassat is more radical, choosing to paint subjects in this light and highlighting ‘femininity’ as a process beginning in infancy and ending in old age; a social process, not that of true womanliness, which she claimed, was given to women as their nature. Her bold and decisive style effectively changed traditional images of mother female child, for instance. However, instead of being seen as a radical critique of dominant ideologies, she is seen as confirming them.
There are some other examples of art that depicted the idea of femininity and role of woman. Religion, for instance, is incorporated into that of the feminine; the idea of Adam and Eve, of woman being the temptress, the wrongdoer, with the symbolic image of man ‘above’ her and educating her. Or the image of the virgin woman as an ideal is shown in the painting of the ‘fallen woman’’ or the broken prostitute, kneeling in shame at the foot of a previous lover who has chanced to see her in the street. It has been said that this is a direct reaction to the fear of societal change to new laws. Death and suicide were attempted to possibly inject fear into women, showing what could happen to them if they were to commit adultery or lose their innocence. On the other hand, the painting could invoke pity for the prostitute, but it is hard to say what the intention is always going to be in some cases such as these. The meaning is sometimes ambiguous as to whether the artwork is defining femininity or simply raising the question of a moral or individual story of a particular woman.
To conclude, we can see that much of the visual art from around the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain was focused on defining femininity and that this was usually done as a backlash to the threat of women’s increased liberations in not just that of the art–world, but generally. Art also showed itself as a visual representation of Victorian ideals, rather than any inherent truth about women. It defined femininity by a mixture of repression and liberation, which can be seen by both male and female artists, so the question stands as something complicated with many hidden meanings.