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May 21, 2006
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.
May 05, 2006
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.
May 02, 2006
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.
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.