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Victorian Women Artists
Fierce and continuing opposition, both public and private, to their choice of profession, made success for women artists in the Victorian period very hard to achieve. Only three women were included among the 'Modern Masters' in the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. It was John Ruskin who coined the patronising term 'paintress', and he stated in print that women were without creativity. He was not alone in his thinking that women were incapable of producing great works of art. Apart from Rosa Bonheur and Eleanor Thompson (later Lady Butler), few succeeded in reaching the top, even in the more favourable climate of the 1870s. Ruskin paid Eleanor Thompson the dubious compliment of thinking that her first outstandingly successful work, The Roll Call, could not have been painted by a woman.
The objections to an artistic career for women were wide-ranging - moral, cultural and financial, but were primarily concerned with womanly propriety. To take up such a profession inevitably led to affronts to modesty and femininity, and to exhibit and sell work was regarded as completely unacceptable; but a sufficient number were determined enough to succeed, either from driving creative ambition or sheer financial necessity. There were very few avenues of employment open to respectable middle-class women, beyond the unenviable fate of being a governess. Painting, mainly in watercolour, traditionally formed part of a genteel education, and it was not too great a step to turn it into a means of earning a living. The skill of the successful women watercolourist, however, goes far beyond the realms of polite accomplishment. Helen Allingham's professional career commenced with the distinction of being the first female employee on a highly regarded illustrated periodical, The Graphic. Her later reputation was founded on her rustic scenes in Surrey, recording vanishing vernacular architecture.
Inevitably, many of the women artists who did break through the barriers of prejudice were members of artistic dynasties or related to artists through marriage. A number of the women in the Forbes Collection fall into this category; Sophie Anderson, for example, daughter of an architect and wife of a painter; Rebecca Solomon, sister of Abraham and Simeon; Edith, Jessica, Kate and Mary Hayllar, the four artist daughters of James Hayllar; Emma Sandys, sister of Frederick; Henrietta Rae, wife of the painter Ernest Normand; and Evelyn De Morgan, niece of Spencer Stanhope and wife of the potter William De Morgan. Henrietta Rae was one of the few women to attempt large-scale classical subjects in the late Olympian manner.
The obvious advantages of family connections were balanced by drawbacks in the shape of lost identity and autonomy. Emma Sandys worked in her brother's orbit to such an extent that her work has often been mistaken for his. She did, however, have patrons for portraits in Norwich, where she remained until her death at the early age of thirty-four. Flowers, which often feature in her female portraits, are her particular forte. The Hayllar sisters were trained like a team by their father to exploit his particular style of domestic story-telling genre. All four exhibited at the Royal Academy, but Edith and Kate both gave up painting, the former on her marriage and the latter when she became a nurse.
The number of women artists increased greatly in the second half of the nineteenth-century, partly because art as a career still had much to offer. It encompassed many technical and illustrative processes that were still undertaken entirely by hand, and it is noticeable that a number of the women who took up painting but did not succeed well enough to live by it became illustrators or engravers or even copyists (for example, Rebecca Solomon). On the other hand, they might start their careers in this way and progress to exhibiting paintings later.
The Forbes Collection includes a wide sample of Victorian women artists, and their varied experiences in forging a career are representative of the challenges of the time and the cultural climate. Their importance to the Collection is not a matter of affiliation or gender (although the emphasis on gender studies in modern art history has recovered many of them from obscurity), but of their shared interest in genres strongly present in paintings by men in the Collection. For instance, Jessica Hayllar's A Coming Event 1886 (lot 267) treats the subject of marriage that was popularised by W.P. Frith, whose vast crowd scene of the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark was shown at the Royal Academy in 1864. Frith's many-layered modern moral subject 'For Better, For Worse' (lot 10) dates from 1881 and was thus painted not long after Edmund Blair Leighton's Till Death do Us Part (lot 336), a painting of 1878 which explores a similar idea.
Marriage and its consequences was a theme repeatedly exploited in Victorian story-telling genre. Two of the paintings in the Collection focus on its preamble, courtship: Rebecca Solomon's The Love Letter of 1861 (lot 322) and Sir J.E. Millais' Trust Me (lot 17), dating from the following year. As for its sequel, parenthood, Sophie Anderson's It's my Turn to play Mother (lot 102) has one of the most complex narratives of all the many childhood scenes in the Collection. This interesting and unusual example of using children to imitate grown-ups as a critique of adult domestic behaviour, was a key piece in The Defining Moment, the recent touring exhibition of Victorian narrative paintings drawn from the Collection. Most of the other childhood paintings, by, for example, Millais, Charles Hunt and Harry Brooker, deal in simple nostalgia.
Sophie Anderson was born in Paris, the daughter of Charles Gengembre, an architect and art-lover. She was even able to study in an atelier before her family moved to America after the revolution of 1848. She married an American landscape painter, and they lived in England from 1854 and then on Capri. She was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy from 1855, and at the Grosvenor Gallery from 1878. Her domestic genre paintings featuring children were very popular, and she also ventured into the realms of classical antiquity. Guess Again (lot 290) is a picturesque Italian peasant scene painted on Capri. Her skill, allied with generally admired subject matter, attracted collectors of some substance, including Lewis Carroll. Rebecca Solomon, on the other hand, had difficulty selling her work even for very small sums, and she was forced to work as a copyist and illustrator. Her two pictures in the Collection show different aspects of modern social behaviour. In A Fashionable Couple (lot 266) the young woman must consider how far she can go in the game of flirtation before betraying an unbecoming and damaging degree of forwardness. In The Love Letter (lot 322) a young widow pensively receives the overtures of a man whose image is dimly seen in the overmantel mirror. In the Hayllars' not dissimilar subject-matter, family events, weddings, christenings and social sports produce exquisitely painted scenes which occupy an important place in Victorian genre. Some sports were considered suitable for women, notably tennis, a subject treated in Edith Hayllar's A Summer Shower (lot 104) which is a category all to itself in late nineteenth-century genre painting. Emily Osborn, on the other hand, concentrated on the dark side of the Victorian family, the hardship of widowhood or of being orphaned, subjects also treated in G.A. Storey's Orphans (lot 271).
Emily Osborn was unusual in her independence. The daughter of a London clergyman, she remained single and travelled extensively during her long career. Born in 1834, she went on exhibiting until 1908. However, the number of professional women artists remained small, partly becuase of the very limited opportunities either to study or to exhibit, and partly due to the demands of family life. When art schools finally opened their doors to women students, the numbers applying showed how great the need was for proper training. As far as opportunities to exhibit were concerned, the founding of the Society of Female Artists in 1857 had signalled a change, and a more welcoming attitude is apparent at this time from certain groups, notably the Pre-Raphaelites and the 'Aesthetic' fraternity. The situation was greatly improved with the establishment in quick succession of the Fine Art Society (1876) and the Grosvenor Gallery (1877), both of which were noticeably favourable to women exhibitors. Even though they were technically elibigle for election to the Royal Academy, hardly any women became Academicians. Apart from the two women Foundation Members, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, the first woman to become an ARA was Annie Swynnerton (1922), and the first to achieve full RA status was Dame Laura Knight (1936). Lady Butler narrowly missed election as ARA in 1879, being beaten by Hubert von Herkomer by one vote.
The place of the Royal Academy in Victorian art is, of course, central to the Forbes Collection, and the record in the female section is highly creditable, most having an honourable record of acceptance. But, with such a tenuous hold on posterity, women artists suffered an even greater obscurity than their male colleagues during the wilderness years when Victorian art was despised, and their fortunes only started to rise in the 1960s with the pioneering studies of the Victorians by Graham Reynolds and Jeremy Maas. The members of the Hayllar family were rediscovered by Christopher Wood. Women affiliated to the Pre-Raphaelites have a role to play in feminist art history, which provides a modern context for Alice Boyd, Rebecca Solomon, Emma Sandys and Evelyn De Morgan. Academic interest in Victorian social realism has created a framework for understanding and appreciating genre painters like Emily Osborn and Alice Walker. That women artists are now judged on merit, without losing sight of the distinctive qualities which make them different from their male colleagues, must to a large extent be attributed to important research on Victorian women artists by Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn, essential reading for anyone interested in this subject.
Sophie Anderson, It's My Turn to Play Mother
Emma Sandys, The Garland
Rebecca Solomon, The Love Letter
Jessica Hayllar, A Coming Event