GENDER [/victorian paintings...]
I would like to consider how womanhood was represented in Victorian paintings for this section. The reason why I will concentrate on the representation of femininity in Victorian paintings is because it seems that paintings in this period reveal stereotypical gender values. Men and women are, of course, genetically different. However, the most interesting thing for me is the meanings that have been culturally and socially attributed to the physical and genetic differences between males and females throughout history. Thus, in order to clarify the concept of femininity during the Victorian era, this part is divided into 4 different themes; images of Queen Victoria, ideal women, women at work, fallen women and children.
Looking at images of women portrayed in Victorian paintings, an examination of how Queen Victoria was represented in visual images might be significant. Indeed, whereas Queen Victoria was depicted as a person of the highest political power in many paintings, it is more likely that the expression of her feminine appeal as an ideal wife and mother for the Victorians was dominant in the pictorial images of the Queen. Although this artistic trend might be interpreted as effective propaganda put out by the Empire State of England , (Casteras, 1987, pp. 19-26) it is also possible to suggest that the concept of ideal femininity being both support and comfort to men as well as affectionate education of children was established during this period.
" Victoria , however, was a flesh-and-blood individual and not a fictional fabrication, yet in some respects she was forced to function as both real and fantasy, woman and national symbol." (Casteras, 1987, pp. 19-26)
Sir George Hayter, State portrait of Queen Victoria (1837-38)
It could be interesting to point out that the painter seems to pay attention to the depiction of the Queen's beauty and youth as a young lady, rather than as a person in highest political power. Although the sense of intimacy in this painting results partly from the characteristics of Victorian paintings in which "homely sentiments" and "scenes of familiar incidents mostly on a small scale and painted with humour, homespun philosophy and an eye for incidental detail" (Treuherz, 1993, p. 17) are dominant, and partly from the lack of ability of Victorian painters "to paint grand or elevated subjects with conviction" as the painters of previous generations had done, (Treuherz, 1993, p. 9) it is obvious that the Queen is depicted as a beautiful, but approachable woman. Considering the fact that the nature of women was generally thought as innately affectionate, (Casteras, 1987, p. 50) it is possible that the painter of this portrait lays stress on the expressing of the Queen as an attractive woman.
Sir Edwin Landseer, Windsor Castle in Modern Times (1841-45)
It may well be that this painting also reveals the representation of the Queen as the embodiment of an ideal woman. The Queen affectionately giving a bunch of flowers to her husband who came in from hunting, reflects the Victorian wives as comforters for their husbands. Comparing with Thomas J. Barker's Queen Victoria Presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor painting the formal scene in which the Queen is presenting the Bible to a diplomat from Asia, it seems to be obvious that the painter of the former painting intended to effectively express an aspect of the Queen as a loving wife within her private life.
John Calcott Horseley, A Portrait Group of Queen Victoria with Her Children (c. 1865)
In this painting, the Queen is painted as a powerful person in ceremonial garb and jewels. Nevertheless, her maternal function is clearly portrayed through both her pose of tenderly holding the young Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and the existence of her children at her feet. In addition, a melancholic expression on her face reminds the viewer of the death of Prince Albert in 1861 by implying both the physical absence of the Prince, and at the same time, his existence in the Queen's mind. (Casteras, 1987, p. 24) In other words, through expressing the Queen, who is grieved at her husband's death, accompanied with her innocent children, it may well be said that the painter succeed in representing the Queen as a model of ideal womanhood. This painting can therefore possibly be interpreted as a reconciliation of the public and personal aspects of Queen Victoria .
Thomas J. Barker,Queen Victoria Presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor (c. 1861)
The phrase of "angel in the house" originating in The Angel in the House: The Betrothal written in 1854 by Coventry Patmore (1823-96), is generally thought to indicate the Victorian concept of ideal femininity. Women were naturally thought of as weak and inferior to men, and as a result, femininity was thought as a suitable subject for domestic spheres. At the same time, as British society was industrialised and commercialised further more, the concept of domesticity as a protective shelter from social evil was established. These paintings displayed here seem to reflect this concept of a woman as an angel in the house, who should provide a shelter from the harshness of reality with her spouse and her children.
"She thus created a safe haven of domesticity that was both a zone for male recuperation and a sanctuary for the moral edification of children and others." (Casteras, 1987, p. 50)
George Elgar Hicks, Woman's Mission: Companion to Manhood (1863)
This picture shows the duty of a woman as a wife to comfort her husband, as its title suggests. This painting is the second and central scene of a triptych entitled "Woman's mission"; the first scene entitled The Guide of Childhood expresses the role of maternal support for children, and the last scene The Comfort of Old Age depicts the scene in which an old man served faithfully by his daughter is waiting his death. It is obvious that this painting Companion to Manhood lays stress on the depiction of the selflessness of the woman who devotes herself to consoling her husband who has received bad news; possibly the sudden death of a familiar person had come as a shock to him. The elaborate interior of the room and the elegant clothes which this couple wear reveal that the man is successful in his business as befits an ideal husband who was generally expected to be the breadwinner of the family. On the contrary, the clean and sophisticated room suggests this woman's outstanding ability to housekeep as a good wife should. (Casteras, 1987, p. 51)
George Elgar Hicks, The Sinews of Old England (1857)
This picture also expresses the ideal image of womanhood, although it depicts a lower-class family. It is obvious that this woman looking up at her husband in rapt admiration completely relies on his manly powers as the financial and mental supporter of the family. The simple, but clean and comfortable interior of their house and the neatly dressed child suggest that the woman is perfect enough to keep their house properly both as a wife and as a mother. Considering that the shape of the frame of this painting is reminiscent of medieval religious tempera paintings, it could be reasonable to think that the painter intends to represent the domestic happiness of the family depicted in this work as a sacred scene.
Michael Frederick Halliday, The Blind Basket-maker with his First Child (1856)
This picture also depicts a middle-class family. As this title indicates, the husband is blind and he earns money by making baskets. A violin by the window and a cat clinging to his legs imply that he still has a keen sense of hearing and touch. He is about touch his first child for the first time. His wife leads his hand to their child. It is apparent that this brave woman, who has never given up their wretched circumstance, is literally the supporter and comforter of this blind man. Nevertheless, through intentionally placing this family in the man's basket-making workshop, it may well be suggested that the painter make it clear that the breadwinner of this family is this blind man. Within this context, it is also possible to point out that this woman seeming to willingly cast herself in the supportive role of her husband is depicted as the embodiment of the Victorian ideal woman. In addition, the shabby but neat room and their simple but clean clothes show that this woman is a perfect wife and mother. Thus, it is reasonable to think that the painter expresses this scene as the paradigm of domestic peace.
Ford Madox Brown, Waiting: An English Fireside of 1854-5 (1855)
Although Madox Brown portrays his own wife Emma, whom he married after she gave birth to his child, it could be thought that the composition of the mother holding her baby on her lap in this painting helps the painter to depict the ideal relationship between an affectionate mother and her child, when compared with the traditional iconography of Child Christ and Mary Virgin. (Barringer, 1998, p. 91) The woman sitting by the fireside devotes herself to sewing. Her ability to housekeep as an ideal wife should is illustrated in this simple but delightful setting. It is also likely that the woman on the hearth symbolises domestic comfort which was commonly idealised during the Victorian period. (Casteras, 1995) However, as the title, and the portrait miniature lying on a pile of letters on a desk at her side suggest, this woman is waiting for her husband, an soldier away at the front in the Crimean War, which started one year before Brown began this painting. Within this context, it might be possible to conclude that the blood-like effect of the fire's deep red reflection on the baby's nightgown warns of their future tragedy. (Barringer, 1998, p. 91; Casteras, 1995, p. 159) In addition, the infant's death-like pose and his or her long, white gown like a shroud, seem to suggest the extremely high infant mortality of that time. (Barringer, 1998, p. 91) It is reasonable to think that these ominous suggestions exaggerate the woman's solitude, and at the same time, help to depict her as an ideally patient woman who is purely waiting for the safe return of her husband.
It may well be said that in the Victorian era femininity was generally thought to be connected with both maternal and wifely functions in a family. In other words, women were generally expected to devote themselves to provide their husbands and children with a shelter from the exterior world. On the contrary, within this context, women at work were commonly thought as quite unusual compared with women whose usual existence was limited to the domestic spheres. Thus, women who had to earn money for themselves were not generally acceptable to the Victorians. Therefore, it seems that painters of women at work intend to lay stress on depicting these women's wretched situations, and as result, evoking sentimental sympathy for such abused women.
"A true lady was not supposed to work, especially for pay, and Victorian society obviously accorded respect to the inactivity and economic nonproductivity of middle- and upper-class women" (Casteras, 1987, p. 103)
Richaed Redgrave, The Poor Teacher (1844)
One of the most common occupations for women was to be a governess. This painting depicts the scene in which a governess received a letter possibly informing her of the sudden death of her father or elder brother who would normally be responsible for her financial support. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the painter portrays this forlorn governess as a pale, but clearly beautiful and intelligent young woman. It therefore could be reasonable to think that the contrast between her wretched circumstances and her feminine appeal effectively evokes pity for her. Indeed, this painting established a basic format for this kind of subject matter. (Casteras, 1987, pp. 115-116)
Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress (1846)
This painting displays the tragedy of a seamstress. The seamstress in this painting possibly stays up all night in order to finish her job. It is nearly half past two o'clock in the early morning, and dawn is coming up, but she still has a lot of things to do. A pitcher, a washtub and dishes put on the shelf underneath a window and a bed suggest a miserable condition in which she cannot afford to pay for more than one room. Stiffened fingers and swollen eyelids might easily evoke sentimental feelings towards her.
Eyre Crowe, The Dinner Hour at Wigan (1874)
Although not only adult people but also a great number of children worked in mines and factories, it is generally said that it was relatively rare to choose these places as material for visual arts. (Holdsworth and Crossley, 1992, p. 53) In addition, as shown in this section, exaggerated sentimentality, to a greater or lesser degree, was dominant in the Victorian expression of women at work. It is therefore possible to say that this painting, which vividly depicts women in a factory as lively and cheerful beings in a very realistic style, is an exceptional example. Indeed, it is known that this painting was found to be unacceptable by the audience at that time. (Casteras, 1987, p. 118)
This part will discuss images of fallen women. It really seems to be as easy to find many examples depicting fallen women, as there are ideal women in Victorian paintings. During the Victorian period women were commonly believed to be innately vulnerable to social evils, and therefore, they needed to be protected in the shelter of home from the dangerous exterior world. In other words, at that time, it was strongly believed that women were innately weak and open to sexual seduction and that the sins of fallen women, who had been once tempted, were inevitably thought to be unforgivable. Therefore, the paintings of fallen women as the counterpart of ideal women achieved great popularity, partly because of the moral lesson of that there is a logical conclusion to the fate of an ethically fallen woman who is idiotic enough to be steeped in vice rather than to conform to socially established norms.
"In an age that was paradoxically obsessed with both virginity and sexual promiscuity, the two extremes were related, one almost at the cost of the other, because of the inordinately high value placed on feminine purity. The stability and sanctity of the home and of the family itself rested to a considerable degree on the existence of prostitutes, to whom gentlemen might resort because of the taboos of gentility and the idealized, nearly sexless purity ascribed to the 'angel in the house.'" (Casteras, 1987, p. 131)
Augustus Leopold Egg, Past and Present(1) (1858)
This painting depicts the scene of a husband who has discovered his wife's adultery. He has found the letters which his wife's lover had sent to her. The oil painting hanging on the left-hand wall depicting the Expulsion from Paradise , and an apple on the floor symbolise both the sin which Eve committed against Adam, and at the same time, the unforgivable sin which this woman has committed against her husband. Whereas she has fallen down on the floor asking to be forgiven, her arms point at the opened door which is reflected in the mirror behind her husband, and it suggests a future in which she will be cast out thorough the door. The house made of cards by her two young children is about to collapse, and it implies that their home is literally collapsing because of their mother's betrayal.
Augustus Leopold Egg, Past and Present(2) (1858)
This painting depicts the miserable situation perhaps around ten years after the children had been reduced by their mother's adultery. They have maybe received the letter informing them of their father's death, which automatically meant that the financial support for them was completely cut off and that they would have no choice but to earn money for themselves through force of circumstance. In other words, the death of their father finally would lead these orphaned sisters to poverty and despair. It is therefore reasonable to think that this painting reflects the common belief that children should be protected by paternal financial support and maternal affection.
Augustus Leopold Egg, Past and Present(3) (1858)
This painting deals with the fate of a wife/mother who committed a sexual sin perhaps ten years ago in No.1. She, thrown out on to the streets, is looking at the moon with her illegitimate baby which suggests her social background as a prostitute. The shape of the moon is same as in No. 2, so these two moons imply that No.2 occurs at the same time as No. 3.
Alfred Elmore, On the Brink (1865)
This painting depicts a woman possibly facing a crisis which might affect her virginity, after having indulged in gambling. Whereas it is generally thought that this painting is based on notorious gambling saloons which the painter himself actually witnessed on the continent, (Casteras, 1987, p. 61) he seems to concentrate his realistic expression on vividly depicting a scene in which the woman gambler uses her body in payment for her debt. It is also obvious that the artist intended to show this painting as a moral lesson for women.
Richard Redgrave, The Outcast (1851)
This painting also depicts a scene in which a seduced woman is outcast from her home. She is holding her illegitimate baby. She is asking to be forgiven, but she will probably be thrown out from the society to which she had belonged before her sexual sin.
William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience (1853-54)
The woman is perhaps kept as a mistress by this rich man. The tune, which her lover and she were singing together at the piano, suddenly evoked her memories of the past when she was sexually innocent. In other words, it may well be that the memories of her innocence aroused the moral consciousness.
Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past (1859)
The accessories and jewellery on the table imply that she is a prostitute. However, as the title of the picture suggests, she is not satisfied with her present situation. It is possible to interpret that she is regrettably thinking about her past at a time when she was totally innocent of the social evils.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Found (1853)
This painting depicts the shocking scene in which a young peasant coming to the city perhaps to sell farm animals accidentally came across his former sweetheart. He also found out ironically that she had become a prostitute. This fate is possibly the result of her innate weakness which allowed herself to be easily seduced by another perhaps rich but unchaste man. Her embarrassment implies that she is feeling shame at her circumstance and that this unexpected meeting with her former poor lover, who truly loved her, haunts her conscience.
George Frederic Watts, Found Drowned (c. 1849-50)
Sexually fallen women, who would never be forgiven, were depressed with their fates and as a result, they often felt forced to drown themselves. George Frederick Watts' Found Drowned depicts such a tragedy. It was quite common that once a woman had been sexually tempted, they would be obliged to choose between killing themselves or becoming a prostitute, because the sexual sins of women were not forgiven within Victorian society.
It was generally accepted that the childhood was the period for preparing to be adults. Indeed, in the Victorian era, girls were generally expected to learn particularly self-indulgence and Christian humility, which were required for their future duties. Thus, some Victorian pictures unconsciously reveal a stereotypical belief about gender in which men work and women stand. Nevertheless, at the same time, it could be reasonable to think that paintings portraying children blur the implications of social concerns, possibly because the concept of children as innocents was established during this period. Therefore, it may well be that Victorian paintings of children were often done with the intention of satirising the established norms to which Victorians were obliged to conform.
William Powell Frith, Many Happy Returns of the Day (1856)
This painting portrays a wealthy family coming together in their living room to celebrate the birthday of their youngest daughter. The fine furniture such as the chandelier, table and chairs, a thick carpet, four oil paintings hung on the wall, a dinner on the table, the elegant clothes which all of them wear, and the maid carrying the packages of presents for the girl indicate the prosperity of this family. The girl placed in the centre of this scene is encircled by a festive wreath with ribbons and flowers to celebrate her birthday.
Furthermore, this painting illustrates a typical domestic scene of Victorian upper-class life. It could be reasonable to think that three women, perhaps the girl's grandmother, mother and aunt, affectionately looking at the youngest girl who seems to be surprised at the mess made by her elder brothers, imply the maternal function of taking care of their children. On the other hand, her grandfather and father sit at the right hand of this scene as if they are indifferent to or in the margins of, this domestic event. There might be evidence to suggest that this depiction of men in this painting reflects the Victorian belief that men should work outside the home to protect their families, as opposed to the women who should support men, inside the house. In short, this painting depicts not only the embodiment of an ideal childhood for the Victorian upper-and-middle class, but also the social belief that children idealistically should be protected directly by maternal love for them within the home, and at the same time, indirectly by paternal financial support for them.
Sophie Anderson, No Walk Today (1854)
This picture apparently depicts a well-dressed pretty little girl giving a longing look through the window, presumably because the rain has postponed her walk. However, the window bars, which confine this girl within the room, imply "the victim of involuntary incarceration, a captive held in her own home by the dictates of society concerning appropriate conduct for little girls" (Casteras, 1987, p. 37) in this case society being the upper-middle class, which her elaborate and gorgeous dress clearly suggests. In other words, this picture certainly shows the Victorian stereotypical gender belief that women should be protected within the shelter of their homes and they should spend most of their time indoors except for brief walks.
Sir John Everett Millais, My First Sermon (1863)
This painting displays a girl who is listening seriously to a sermon for the first time. The mantle, the muff and the hat with the feather clearly show that she is part of a well-to-do family. In view of the fact that in those days "Christian humanity" was on the list of educational priorities for girls, (Casteras, 1987, p. 36) there is evidence to suggest that this pious girl is the embodiment of an ideal figure of Victorian femininity and, whilst also showing the ideal image of an adult religious lady.
Sir John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl (1854-56)
This painting realistically depicts poor children, although some exponents interpret this painting as a religious subject illustrating spiritual blindness. (Hickox and Payne, in Harding, 1995, p. 112) The little girl has to lead her blind elder sister. They take a little rest on the way to the village where they will play music in order to earn money. Although her younger sister notices two rainbows after the rain, the blind girl cannot see them. Their threadbare dresses indicate their miserable situation. However, as a contrast to the ragged clothes which they put on, their features are handsome and their hair is sleek. It is possible to think that their healthy appearance with rosy cheeks, red lips and shiny hair, and the beautiful landscape in the background diminish the impact of their wretched circumstances. As a result, it could be appropriate to think that this picture does not cause a serious concern for poor people but rather arouses a sense of pity for these beautiful girls.
Sir John Everett Millais, The Woodman's Daughter (1851)
This is based on the similarly entitled tragic poem written by Coventry Patmore, a Pre-Raphaelite poet. Patmore's story concerns tragedies which often happened in those days to young women seduced by unfaithful men. However, Millais does not illustrate in his painting the original text describing the fate of a country girl who got pregnant by her upper-class lover, and who finally drowned her baby and herself, but creates for his painting a new scene from their childhood which is not actually dealt with by Patmore. Millais dared to depict a charming scene in which the woodman's daughter first sees her future lover who will bring her misery, and her little lover is about to give her fruits as a little present. Millais carefully represented the vast difference between the social status of the boy, who wears expensive velvet red clothes, and the woodman's daughter, who wears a simple cotton dress. Looking at this picture with the original tragedy by Patmore in mind, it is certainly possible to think that Millais' work implies both the "potential corruption" (Polhemus, 1995, p. 297) of their fates and the predictive tragedy which will happen in their futures. In addition, considering the facts that in those days women were commonly believed to be innately vulnerable to sexual seduction and that the sins of fallen women, who had been tempted, were generally thought to be unforgivable, it might be also possible to say that this painting deals with the common problems of seduced and fallen females.
However, at the same time, it could be interesting to point out that this painting blurs the tragedy told in Patmore's original poem by depicting the happy childhood of the little lovers. It might be certain that Millais lays more stress on depicting the innocence of their childhood in an idyllic setting rather than on their future fates. The girl is about to receive fruits from the boy without any worries, and the boy seems to feel embarrassed at his own action in giving the pretty girl next to him a little present. There are presumably grounds for suggesting that Millais' intention in painting this picture is not to depict the fates of abused women but to imply the "spontaneous goodness" (Polhemus, 1995, p. 295) of innocent children and "a hopeful and pretty bridge over the troubled waters of class" (Polhemus, 1995, p. 295), because, in fact, Millais carefully chose this peaceful scene within the subject matter for his work based on Patmore's tragic poem.
Thomas Gotch, The Child Enthroned (1894)
According to some exponents, the Romantic belief in the spiritual purity of children was developed into "a new 'aesthetic of childhood'" during the Victorian era. (Holdsworth and Crossley, 1992, p. 70.) This painting could be interpreted as an interesting example of this development. This picture depicts an adolescent girl with sleek blond hair. It is certain that this beautiful girl sitting on a throne is portrayed as if she was an object of veneration like a saint or Madonna, because her head is encircled by a golden halo and her dress is reminiscent of one in medieval religious tempera paintings. This picture therefore reveals the fact that girlhood was thought to be "a state approaching sainthood". (Casters, 1987, p. 37) Indeed, it is reported that some people even adore girls as the embodiment of ideal beauty, for example, as Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) loved little girls like Alice Liddell, or John Ruskin fell in love with a teen-age girl when he was in his 40s. (Robson, 2001, pp. 94-128)
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