Saturday, April 21, 2018

New Portrayals of Women in 19th Century American Art

Throughout the 19th Century, American art was beginning to come into it’s own while it’s artists looked for new ways to advance their craft and make it fresh and unique. One of the ways in which the artists working in America made this progression is through their depiction of women, which changed throughout the century.

The expanding opportunities in art allowed artists more creative freedom to paint everyday scenes, and, at a time when women were also experiencing more independence from their traditional roles, the two movements intertwined and the results are new portrayals of women in 19th century American art as seen in this exhibit.

The works displayed here (ranging in date from 1801 to 1899) are prime examples of many of these changes. Each different creator had their own interpretation of how women might be portrayed in art, and their own way of communicating those ideas. The Music Lesson uses the theme of music to portray women, as do the Portrait of a Young Woman and The Shepherdess of the Alps. Others explore relationships to family or to men. Each artist found their own place in this movement, sharing ideas with each other while also exploring new avenues in portraying women.

Portrait of a Young Woman - 1801
Portrait of a Young Woman - Mather Brown (1801)
Oil on canvas
Ascension #: 65.235

This first painting shows a woman sitting alone at a piano. Her white dress and pale skin represent purity and innocence, suggesting that most of her time has been spent indoors; maybe she hasn’t been allowed to experience much outside of the home.  The most important part of this piece is that she is not playing the piano. Instead, she is holding the music sheets open in front of her, suggesting an interest or desire in music, but for some reason the piano sits silently in the background.

The Shepherdess of the Alps (1812) 
The Shepherdess of the Alps - Evelina Hull,  (1812) 
Silk embroidered with silk thread, watercolor
Ascension #: 39.126.1

This work is very distinct from the rest of the artworks in this display. It is the only medium that is not oil on canvas, instead using embroidery and watercolor. Again, music is a major subject of the object and adds a lot to it’s meaning. It is important to note that, much like the Portrait of a Young Woman, the woman is not making music. Instead, it is a young male piper sitting off to the side creating sound, not even facing the shepherdess. When viewing the display, viewers would notice how different this painting is, and wonder what else is distinct about this object.

The New Bonnet (1858)

The New Bonnet - Francis William Edmonds (1858) 
Oil on canvas, Ascension #: 1975.27.1

This painting displays a woman examining and celebrating a new item of clothing that she has acquired. There is a clear juxtaposition between the woman and her parents, and even from the girl on the left. Her father especially, is clearly in disapproval, and has a bottle on the mantelpiece. The mother also, is also visibly upset. The viewer would notice the disapproving essence of the parents, and think about why the woman feels completely content with her new bonnet, and not worried about her parent’s glances.

The Music Lesson (1870)
The Music Lesson - John George Brown (1870) 
Oil on canvas, Ascension #: 21.115.3

The Music Lesson is the centerpiece of this exhibit. With its theme of music, it fits very nicely with the first two objects. The first one depicted a woman sitting in front of an instrument but not playing it. The Shepherdess of the Alps had a man and woman, with the man making the music. In The Music Lesson, both man and woman are playing together. This painting shows a quiet and subtle romance through its use of color and some restrained symbolism. The subject is romantic, but it is important to note that neither man nor woman appears to be the object of the romance, but are equal players in the courtship.

Mr. and Mrs. Anson Phelps Stokes (1898)
Mr. and Mrs. Anson Phelps Stokes - Cecilia Beaux (1898)
Oil on canvas, Ascension #: 65.252
This portrait of a couple was painting near the end of the 19th century, after many of the new ideas about portraying women had been explored. This painting of an older couple near the end of the century shows a new place of women in art through the positioning of the husband and wife. The wife is in front, and clearly the primary subject. She is dressed in bright colors, and has a pen in her hand. Her husband is behind her, in muted colors, almost fading into the background. The viewer would notice how prominent the woman is in this subject, especially when viewed after The Music Lesson, where the couple is in line with each other. 

Across the Room (1899)

Across the Room
- Edmund Charles Tarbell (1899) Oil on canvas, 67.187.141

This final painting of the exhibit shows one woman reclining on a couch. At first glance, it might be simple to believe that Tarbell meant to portray this woman as lazy, with her reclined position on a couch in an empty room. What breaks that supposition is the framing of the scene. The woman is near the top of the frame, instead of being in the middle. The viewer would be looking up at the woman, instead of down or straight on. Instead of laziness, the viewer might suspect that the woman is idle because she has been busy with other things.

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