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Women In Art History

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The United States And Europe -Late 18th and 19th Centuries

Assignment for unit #5. Reading from Women in Art History, chapters 12,13. pages 137-155. 

Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic
Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902)

Early Life in the United States
The atmosphere in the United States before women got the vote was similar to that of the attitudes earlier in Europe. Women, having no right to hold property, being isolated in the home, and usually not receiving education, were basically absent from the world of art in the USA. 
One of the major exceptions was the first school of design that opened for women in Philadelphia in 1848, and in Cincinnati Ohio shortly after. 
Again portraiture was the primary focus of women painters of the time, and several gained fame as artists in this genre. 
One of the more interesting biographies of a woman artist was of Lilly Martin Spencer who has been called the United States' "most noted mid-nineteenth century female artist". 

Life in Victorian England

The image of victorian life in England for women is usually one of sexual repression and strict moral codes. Because of this, one would imagine that the careers of women artists would not flourish under such conditions. But to the contrary, the census taken in 1841 show less than 300 women identified as working artists in England, and by 1871 there were more than 1000 women who were listed as artists. What happened in the span of 30 years that drastically changed the situation for women in England?

It is true that a certain class of women were faced with the constraints of victorian society. But this was the bourgeois class, not the middle class that had emerged in the second half of the 19th century.  
The women artists of the middle class rejected the victorian standards of behavior and dress, often wearing simple, black clothing and polarizing identities and society in general. 
The middle class women did not have access to the education and training that the women of earlier European upper classes had, but they did something unprecedented.  Instead of retreating from the art scene they used their lack of training to their advantage. By developing what was called "a cult of expressive genius" they rejected formal training as stunting creativity and used instead a more naive, unadorned style of painting and illustrating. 

It was also during this period that other forms of art became part of the mainstream.  Photography started to appear as an art medium, as did other materials and sculpture. 

The Rosebud Garden of Girls
Julie Margaret Cameron

Julie Margaret Cameron was well known in England as part of the intellectual elite. This is how she was able to receive her training in the arts and literature during Victorian England. She often used photography as an art form, which until then was unheard of for both males and females. 

Free At Last
Edmonia Lewis (1843-1911)

Edmonia Lewis was the first identified African-American/Native American artist of reknown.  She chose subjects for her sculptures that reflected her heritage, and her style of was conisdered to be Neo-classical.  Looking at some of the sculptures created by Lewis one is reminded of the classical Roman and Hellenistic pieces that were created in the pre-Medieval period. 

Recommended reading for Unit #5

Cherry, Deborah, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists (London: Rooutledge, 1993)
Gerrish Nunn, Pamela, Victorian Women Artists (London: The Women's Press, 1987)
Bolton-Smith, Robin and William Truettner, Lilly Martin Spencer:The Joys of Sentiment (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973) 

portrait of the artist
Elizabeth Siddall (1829-1862)

Elizabeth Sidall is one of the more interesting Pre-Raphaelite artists and models. Her life has a somewhat tragic tone and ending, which may be what makes it fascinating. She was a poet, artist, and artist's model, who died of an overdose of Laudanum, an opiate that had gained some popularity in 19th century Europe. 

Things to think about when posting your Threaded Discussion for unit #5

  • What factors do you believe occurred during the Victorian era that allowed so many new women artists to work in England?
  • When considering the lives of artists that you have read about so far, especially the life of Elizabeth Sidall, why do you think so many artists have lived what we might call tragic lives?
  • How do you think Edmonia Lewis was able to overcome the bonds of race to become a well known artist in 19th century USA?
  • What are your feelings about what you read concerning the "cult of expressive genius"? How do you think that concept relates to art as it is today?