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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Victorian Female Artists

"Now then," sneered he, "we must have a confiscation of property. But first, let us peep into the studio." My painting materials were laid together on the corner table, ready for tomorrow's use, and only covered with a cloth. He spied them out, and putting down the candle, deliberately proceeded to cast them into the fire--palette, paints, bladders, pencils, brushes, varnish--I saw them all consumed--the palette knives snapped in two, the oil and turpentine sent hissing and roaring up the chimney. He then rang the bell.

"Benson, take those things away," said he, pointing to the easel, canvas, and stretchers, "and tell the housemaid she may kindle the fire with them; your mistress won't want them any more."

So read the words of Anne Bronte in her Victorian novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published in 1848. The heroine, Helen, sees her dreamed-of art career literally going up in smoke as her irate husband trashes her studio. It was a typical Victorian view of the woman's place in the grand scheme of things. Any form of profitable endeavor on the part of women in Victorian era England was considered by society, especially its male members, as being little short of disgraceful; an indication that a woman's husband either couldn't adequately provide for her himself, or was so weak-willed as to be unable to stop her. Needless to say, neither scenario painted a very flattering picture of the husband.

A hobby earning extra income.

So, how did the dozens upon dozens of female artists of the era learn their trade and come to ply their skills? Well, fortunately, not all Victorian husbands were as intolerant as Helen's was. In quite a few cases, they actually welcomed the extra income...theirs to oversee of course...though they usually considered their wives as mere amateurs at their art, amusing themselves between episodes of childbearing, with a hobby that might be somewhat profitable at times. In other cases, they were widows supporting themselves and small children through their labors; and in a few other cases, they were forthright women who had never married, or had divorced their husbands (or been divorced by them) now working to make ends meet at whatever trade they might possess...barely a step above prostitutes, in other words.

Henrietta Ward, 1909. She lived to be 92.
Quite often these women came from art families, Henrietta (Mrs. E. M.) Ward for example (her husband's last name was Ward also), were often taught their skills by their fathers, uncles, mothers, or brothers. Watercolor was the common medium of choice. And despite impressions to the contrary, it was really not all that difficult for women to receive formal instruction in painting, usually in the form of private classes, or with small groups of other like-minded girls. A professional artist, was always interested in picking up a few extra pounds for what often amounted to little more than a paying audience as he worked. Actual instruction varied from quite attentive to total silence as the instructor did his own thing. And from the 1850s on, women could receive a free art education at a government school of design...learning to design and decorate ceramics, textiles, and other household industrial products. But even with such training, the more comely a woman's presence, the more difficult it was for her to find gainful employment, inasmuch as any would-be employer could anticipate losing her to marriage, pregnancy, and a family in a very short time. Presumably, the less marriageable had a better chance.

The Secret Message, 1873, Henrietta Ward
After the 1860s, women were admitted to Royal Academy schools, but it wasn't until 1893 that they were permitted to sit in on classes drawing the nude male figure. Even then, the classes were optional, and special efforts were made not to offend their "delicate sensibilities." The model might be undraped except about the loins. He was to wear bathing drawers, and a cloth of light material nine feet long by three feet wide which was to be wound around the loins over the drawers, passed between the legs, and tucked in over the waistband. Finally, a thin, leather strap was to be fastened round the loins to insure that the cloth remained in place. What! No suspenders? No matter, in Victorian England, there was little, if any, market for paintings depicting the male nude (or grown men in diapers)...regardless of the sex of the artist.

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